AUSTRALIAN PRESS COUNCIL
In July 1976, publishers and the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA)—now the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)—set up a body that would address concerns that the Australian press was unregulated. The Australian Press Council (APC) had two main objectives: to ensure that the press remains free to report matters of public interest, and to make sure that the free press reports responsibly.
The APC has sought to maintain responsibility by considering complaints about material in newspapers and magazines. From 2000, it also addressed complaints about the news websites of affiliated publishers, and in 2011 it invited interested websites to agree to abide by APC principles and complaints procedures.
Also in 2011, the APC initiated the Standards Project to develop specific standards that constitute good media practice and are applied by the APC when considering complaints. These standards will be promulgated through newsrooms and, together with the council’s Statements of Principles, will form the binding Standards of Practice. This will enable the APC to initiate complaints on systemic issues of concern, as well as dealing with readers’ complaints.
The APC deals with more than 500 complaints each year. Of these, about one-third have been successfully mediated, with settlements such as an apology, correction, retraction or follow-up. Fewer than 20 per cent are dealt with by adjudication, with over 70 per cent of these being upheld in recent years. The APC is able to deal with complaints speedily: those settled by means other than adjudication have averaged 21 days; adjudications have taken on average four months from receipt of the complaint to finalisation. The most common reasons for complaints are inaccuracy, unfairness, imbalance and offensive material.
In its attempts to maintain press freedom, the APC has made close to 150 submissions. It has contributed to significant reform of defamation laws, freedom of information laws, shield laws for journalists, whistleblower laws, access to court records and information on suppression orders. Its representations have ameliorated restrictions in areas including privacy law and the reporting of confidential information.
The APC consists of representatives of the publishers, journalists and members of the public, with an independent chair. The chair and all public members are appointed from among people with no previous association with the press. The chairs have largely been senior lawyers (with the only non-lawyer being Professor Ken McKinnon). Professor Julian Disney has been chair since 2009. The Council maintains an administrative office in Sydney, headed by an executive director—currently John Pender.
The publishers provide the bulk of APC funding. They were the only source of funds until 2011, when the APC agreed to accept independent funding for special projects. The APC also agreed that no publisher should pro- vide more than half the council’s total funding, the bulk of which comes from the metropolitan newspaper publishers, News Limited and Fairfax Media. The other publisher members of the APC include newspaper, magazine and website publishers, as well as associations of community and country press owners. In 2009, during the Global Financial Crisis, the publishers cut the APC’s funding by 20 per cent, but have since agreed to annual increases that saw the council restored to its previous level of funding in 2011 and double it in 2012. They also agreed to maintain this level of funding for a minimum of four years.
The history of the APC has not always been smooth. John Fairfax Ltd was not originally a member, joining in 1982. News Limited withdrew in June 1980, and rejoined in 1987. (Its publications continued to cooperate with the council during that period.) The AJA withdrew from the APC in 1987. The MEAA reaffiliated with the APC in 2005.
In 2011–12, the APC was at the centre of two major government inquiries into media regulation: the Finkelstein Inquiry, which recommended its replacement by a statutory body, and the Convergence Review, which saw a future for a revamped and expanded council. The increases in APC funding and stronger commitment by press and online publishers followed these inquiries, and the APC is in a stronger position than it has been for many years. The one exception to the agreement for increased funding and a four-year commitment was from Seven West Media, publishers of the West Australian. That company withdrew from the APC in 2012 and established its own independent council to hear complaints along the same lines as the APC.
The APC presents Case Studies Seminars to university journalism students as a way of encouraging discussion of ethical issues, and presents a prize to participating universities for excellence in a course encompassing journalism ethics.
The APC has been characterised at times as a ‘toothless tiger’ or a ‘publishers’ poodle’. These characterisations may have had some validity in the past but, in the last 15 years, the APC has become a much more effective voice for those with concerns about press standards in Australia. The increasing willingness of publishers to offer complainants satisfactory settlement through mediations or prominently published adjudications attests to this effectiveness, and to a system that is both efficient and free.
REF: D. Kirkman, ‘Whither the Australian Press Council? Its Formation, Function and Future’ (MA thesis, 1996).