Australia may be the world leader in measures to protect public interest journalism from threats posed by media restructuring and news aggregators such as Google and Facebook, but it has not yet properly addressed the related need for firm professional standards.
Currently the Australian Press Council deals with complaints about the print and online content of the newspapers, magazines and magazines that fund it.
The two biggest of those publishers are: Nine and News Corp.
Other large publishers who are not or may not be members include Guardian Australia, The Conversation and ABC.
A separate independent media council deals with complaints against newspapers run by Seven-West Media, which funds it. The Independent Council handles about 30 complaints a year, while the Press Council handles over 1,000 complaints.
Complaints against news content from licensed radio and television stations are handled by the Australian Communications and Media Authority of the government.
Attempts have been made to raise the standards
it’s been almost a decade
The Finkelstein Review of Government recommended that the government-funded statutory body take over the role and functions of the Australian Press Council and the news-related functions of the Communications and Media Authority.
The government’s subsequent Convergence Review recommended an industry-led body with some government funding to oversee journalistic standards for news and commentary, regardless of which platform it was posted on.
Neither recommendation was implemented, although the threat of government regulation led to significant reforms to the Press Council, on which I served between 2012 and 2021.
The reforms undertaken by Council President Julian Disney strengthened its independence from the organizations it funded, and its ability to not only consider complaints but also to review its general principles, develop new standards and guidelines, and Strengthened the ability to set up education and promotional activities.
Read more: 10 years after Finkelstein, media accountability has gone back
Publisher members agreed to double their fees and entered into a contract that required them to give four years’ notice if they left. A more rigorous approach to handling complaints was introduced with the decision by a panel of members representing only the public and journalists.
Government is moving towards more
The government is likely to try again its green paper on broadcasting last year, promising to “implement a phased program of reform towards ‘platform neutral’ media regulation”.
The law that established this year’s mandatory bargaining code with platforms including Facebook went down this route by requiring news organizations to use the code to pass the “test of professional standards.”
But the tests required much more than that they were subject to one of the existing bodies or internal standards.
The best need is weak. At least it can deepen the fragmentation.
The Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, issued by Digital Industry Group Inc in February in response to a discussion paper issued by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, is another step forward.
Despite its title, the code focuses only on misinformation when demanded by the Authority as “misinformation and news quality” and “empowering users to identify news and information quality”.
Read more: Press Council chief fires farewell shot at News Corp
Last year’s green paper also suggested setting up a Public Interest News Gathering (PING) trust that would release grants from the proceeds from the sale of broadcast spectrum.
There is also a parliamentary inquiry into media diversity whose report is yet to come.
Meanwhile, the Press Council has had to collect its fees in response to the financial condition of the publishers who fund it. It is financially dependent on only two big people. News Corp alone provides more than half of its revenue.
The Journalists’ Union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Coalition, reported its intention to withdraw from the council in April.
It said “despite media convergence being a living reality for journalists and the public for a decade, the regulatory framework had failed to keep up to date”.
Here’s How Better Regulation Could Work
The council has its critics, whether related to slowness in handling complaints (a legitimate concern) or to criticism of work being inadequately independent or inadequate (or excessive). But its work is important.
One way a platform-neutral regulatory framework might work is to separate media into three categories, applying different standards to each:
Most individuals and organizations that communicate in public, exercising their freedom of expression are limited only by laws against defamation and anti-discrimination, etc.
NGOs providing public interest journalism that are expected to meet professional standards including “accuracy, fairness and balance”
Government-funded media organizations such as the ABC and SBS are expected not only to be “accurate, fair and balanced”, but also to be politically neutral as a whole in their news coverage.
Radio and television broadcasters licensed to use spectrum may be included in the second category, although some may argue that they should have higher standards than the third category.
The obvious starting point for the second category is the change or restructuring of the Press Council.
The scope of the new or expanded body will include the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s responsibilities for news and current affairs.
In this way Nine’s television stations would be regulated in the same way as its newspapers.
There was good reason to reject the Finkelstein inquiry’s idea of a government-funded statutory authority to replace the council: self-regulation is more compatible with press freedom.
But government funding is almost certainly needed (on top of industry funding) if the council or a body like it is able to do its job properly.
Using spectrum revenue for funding, as proposed for the Ping Trust, would be a way to make government funding available without government interference.
Read more: TV networks holding the future
Digital publishing is more difficult to regulate because much of it is international, although there is a strong case for some form of independent oversight of algorithms to limit the risk of social harm.
One thing that can be done in Australia is for digital platforms and publishers to voluntarily adopt an improved version of the digital industry group’s code.
Users will be able to better assess the quality of information on the Platform or the Sites if they know that the source was a member of the Press Council or its replacement and how they can participate in its complaints handling processes.