Australian journalism needs more than better protection, it needs better standards

·5-min read

Australia may be leading the world in measures to protect public interest journalism from the threats arising from media restructuring and news aggregators such as Google and Facebook, but it has yet to properly address the related need for firm professional standards.

At the moment the Australian Press Council deals with complaints about the print and online content of the newspapers, magazines and journals that fund it.

Among those publishers are the two biggest: Nine and News Corp.

Other big publishers are not or cannot be members, among them Guardian Australia, The Conversation and the ABC.

A separate Independent Media Council deals with complaints against newspapers operated by Seven-West media, which funds it. The Independent Council handles about 30 complaints a year, whereas the Press Council handles more than 1,000.

Complaints against the news content of licensed radio and television stations are handled by the government’s Australian Communications and Media Authority.

There have been attempts to lift standards

It is nearly a decade since

  • the government’s Finkelstein Review recommended a 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 comment regardless of the platform on which it is posted

Neither recommendation was implemented, though the threat of government regulation did lead to significant reforms to the Press Council on which I served between 2012 and 2021.

The reforms the Council Chair Julian Disney drove strengthened its independence from the organisations that funded it, and its ability to not only to consider complaints but also to review its general principles, develop new standards and guidelines and to establish education and promotion activities.

Read more: 10 years after Finkelstein, media accountability has gone backwards

Publisher members agreed to double their fees and to enter into contracts requiring them to give four years’ notice should they leave. A more rigorous approach was introduced for handling complaints with adjudications being made by panels of members representing the pubic and journalists only.

The government is inching towards more

The government has raised the possibility of trying again, its green paper last year on broadcasting promising to “implement a staged program of reform towards ‘platform neutral’ media regulation”.

The legislation that set up this year’s mandatory bargaining code with platforms including Facebook edged down this path by requiring news organisations that wanted to use the code to pass a “professional standards test”.

But the test required little more than that they be subject to one of the existing bodies or have internal standards.

At best the requirement is weak. At worst it might deepen fragmentation.

Another step is the Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation issued by the Digital Industry Group Inc in February in response to a discussion paper issued by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Despite its title, the code focuses only on disinformation not “misinformation and news quality” and “empowering users to identify the quality of news and information” as asked for by the authority.

Read more: Press Council chief fires parting shot at News Corp

Last year’s green paper also suggested the establishment of a Public Interest News Gathering (PING) Trust which would issue grants funded by proceeds from the sale of broadcast spectrum.

There is also a parliamentary inquiry into media diversity which is yet to report.

Meantime, the Press Council has had to freeze its fees in response to the financial positions of the publishers that fund it. It is financially dependent on just two big ones. News Corp alone provides more than half of its revenue.

The journalists union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, gave notice of its intention to withdraw from the Council in April.

It said “despite media convergence being a lived 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 seeming insufficiently independent or insufficiently (or overly) critical of the work it examines. But its work is important.

One way a platform-neutral regulatory framework could work would be to separate the media into three categories, applying different standards to each:

  • The vast majority of individuals and organisations who communicate publicly, exercising their freedom of speech limited only by the laws of defamation and anti-discrimination etc.

  • Non-government organisations providing public interest journalism, expected to meet professional standards including “accuracy, fairness and balance”

  • government-funded media organisations such as the ABC and SBS, expected not only to be “accurate, fair and balanced” but also politically neutral overall in their news coverage

Radio and television broadcasters licensed to use spectrum could be included in the second category, though some might argue they should have the higher standards of the third category.

The obvious starting point for the second category is to replace or restructure the Press Council.

The ambit of the new or expanded body would include the news and current affairs responsibilities of the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

That way Nine would have its television stations regulated in the same way as its newspapers.

There was a good reason for rejecting the Finkelstein inquiry’s idea of a government-funded statutory authority to replace the council: self-regulation is more consistent 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 is proposed for the PING Trust would be one way to providing government funding without government interference.

Read more: The TV networks holding back the future

Regulating digital publishing is more difficult 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 could be done in Australia is for digital platforms and publishers to voluntarily adopt an improved version of the Digital Industry Group’s code.

Users would be able to better assess the quality of information on platforms or sites if they knew whether the source was a member of the Press Council or its replacement and how they could take part in its complaints-handling processes.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Andrew Podger, Australian National University.

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Andrew Podger is affiliated with the Australian Press Council. I was a Public Member of the Press Council until July 2021 (mentioned in the article), and I still occasionally sit on its adjudication panels.

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