Good on Ken McKinnon. As I have reported in the Crikey email today, the departing chair of the Australian Press Council has used his final Annual Report to tell it like it is, giving the industry a serve for falling short of its own ethical standards and for demonstrating a lack of commitment to industry self-regulation. The Council, which Stuart Littlemore used to describe as the publishers’ poodle, has given a nasty nip to the hand that feeds it. And not before time.

The report, which will be officially released later this week, can be read now, here.

As reported in Crikey, McKinnon calls for a review of the accountability of editors in the wake of the supposed “Pauline Hanson” affair and the Gordon Grech Utegate scandal. He also draws attention to the undermining of the  independence of the Press Council by the industry.

Make no mistake, this is a highly significant media story. It is likely to be the beginning, rather than the end, of troubles between the industry and its self regulation body. The outcome is hard to predict.

For a start McKinnon, who has served nine solid years as Press Council chairman, is to be replaced by the social activist and reforming lawyer Julian Disney, who was nominated by the Council’s increasingly cheesed-off  public members. While he declined to comment this morning  on McKinnon’s parting shots, Disney is unlikely to be a push-over for the industry members.

McKinnon says that a change to the Press Council’s constitution is now essential to protect its independence.  If Disney takes the same line, we can expect some major battles with unpredictable consequences.

Secondly, this is not only a battle between council’s public members and industry members. It is also a battle about the arrogance of News Limited.

I understand that parts of Fairfax Media are concerned that they will have a reduced representation as a result of the restructure of the Press Council forced by budget cuts. Fairfax, too, is concerned about the high handed News Limited approach.

It is News Limited that initiated and leads the Right to Know coalition, which as McKinnon says, is now being used as an excuse to cut back on the Council’s public advocacy functions.  Yet even within the Right to Know coalition, there are differences on the attitude to be taken on key issues regarding privacy legislation, with ABC Managing Director Mark Scott arguing that simply opposing all legislation is not tenable.

Nevertheless, News Limited has been determined that its view – which is against any increased regulation – should prevail. This is part of the background to more recent stoushes between Scott and News Limited

The main offenders  identified in McKinnon’s sledge are News Limited papers. He doesn’t name the publications, but it was News Limited’s Sunday tabloids that published the Pauline Hanson photos. It was News Limited that “broke” the ultimately proved to be false Utegate story, and the Della Bosca infidelity story,  mentioned by McKinnon as a breach of privacy.

In other words, at the same time as News Limited CEO John Hartigan has been arguing for less regulation on privacy, his editors have kicked an embarrassing number of  own goals. News Limited is also the biggest funder of the Australian Press Council, and therefore the initiator of the budget cuts which, McKinnon says, risk destroying the Council’s independence.

McKinnon calls for a review of the accountability of editors. This, too, has particular resonance for News Limited. The great strength and the weakness of that organisation is that it is run by its  editors. Unlike at Fairfax, where the powers of editors are increasingly eroded (the print editors cannot even control their own websites) News Limited editors are gods, rulers of their domains, and they dominate the culture of the organisation.

The result is a management which (unlike Fairfax) deeply understands the business of journalism and news.  Yet News Limited is also an organisation vulnerable to errors of judgement by boy-o editors runing on adrenalin and self-importance. As the defamation payouts and the forced corrections prove, there have been far too many errors of judgement over the last twelve months.

The Press Council is far from perfect. I have been a frequent critic. But how bad does it look for the industry to back away from even its gently-gently approach, while also arguing for reduced government intervention?

The Pauline Hanson affair is something in which I, and Crikey editor Jonathan Green, have a particular interest, since we made a complaint to the Press Council asking it to adjudicate on the privacy issues involved. For reasons reported previously, the Council declined to adjudicate on that complaint. Meanwhile News Limited’s media commentator, Mark Day, suggested it was somehow wrong for Crikey to even consider approaching the industry self regulation body.

McKinnon doesn’t really have much to say on the privacy issue, other than noting that there is a difference between the public interest, and mere entertainment and titillation.

But he gives the industry both guns for, in both this affair and Utegate,  publishing false information. He refers to previous Press Council research that has shown the Australian newspapers increasingly publish stories that rely on only one source. They do this, apparently, more than is the case in other countries. Due to the budget cuts, McKinnon suggests, the Council will be less able to do research in the future, meaning that embarrassing facts about the industry are less likely to come to light.

It seems to me that the tensions now  in play could, if mismanaged, easily lead to a fracturing of the Australian Press Council, which for all its faults is one of very few means by which the media can be held to some kind of account.

On the other hand, these tensions plus media convergence and the desire to avoid government intervention, might lead to a new push – for a broader based and better funded organisation, perhaps with bigger teeth, to hold the media to account.

One way or another,  change is coming.

What wouldn’t you give for a federal government with a consistent and thought-through media policy (not only a broadband policy) at a time like this?

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