It has become apparent that the Australian Press Council is at a critical moment in its history. Yesterday I interviewed its incoming chair, social activist and reforming lawyer Julian Disney.

Disney was guarded, as befits a  man who does not yet have his feet under the desk. Yet it is clear that he has been sought out by the public members of the Council  because they believe he will give it a higher profile. The public members, for years apparently supine or ineffective, have taken a grip on the role of media regulation. In Disney, they have a man who, with his long history of high level advocacy, is likely to be a determined and independent chair. Disney spoke to me about the “honeysuckle and bindweed” of media independence and media integrity. You cannot have one without the other, he said, and he wants to make a contribution.The results can only be interesting.

Nothing will happen quickly. I fully expect everything to go quiet while Disney gets his head around the job and opens channels of communication. He is a media outsider. While he has lots of experience in dealing with the media as a social activist and policy adviser,  it is clear that he knows little about the internal politics of the industry, let alone the challenges and changes brought by new media. But  he is already setting about learning about the pressures and the personalities. He will not be a do-nothing chair.

Tensions have been building within the Council over the last few years. They erupted earlier this year when the print publishers tried to impose big cuts in its budget. These cuts would have garrotted the Council’s ability to do independent research, and severely curtailed its presence as an advocate on issues of press freedom.

The perception was that the industry was turning away from the Council, which includes a mix of industry, journalist, union and public representatives,  and has a core function of handling complaints. Instead,  the industry preferred its  bright and shiny new creature, the Right to Know coalition, which is an unashamed high profile industry lobby group running campaigns against privacy legislation, and for improved freedom of information laws.

Now, I have not been an enormous fan of the Press Council, but it is one very few mechanisms available to hold the industry to account. Some of its most valuable work is done out of the public eye by its phlegmatic executive  secretary, Jack Herman, who quietly mediates many complaints  meaning that members of the public get some redress, or at least right of reply. The Council also has an important, thought often very quiet, role in advocacy on media issues.

For those complaints are not settled by mediation, the Council has done a mostly worthy job of considering them, before issuing often ponderously worded adjudications.  Nevertheless, the Council seemed to me to be  inneffective because it rarely pro-actively promoted its own standards, and because of its woefully low profile.

Too often, it seemed to me, the public members were inactive, either seduced or bullied by the hard men of the newspaper industry.

One example of the Press Council’s seeming inability to speak out on media standards was the complaint lodged by Crikey editor Jonathan Green and myself earlier this year over the Pauline Hanson affair. We lodged that complaint because it seemed that the privacy issue was at risk of disappearing. Nobody was speaking out. Everyone was behaving as though the only issue was whether the photos were or were not of Hanson. You can read the history of our complaint here and here.

There was a  clear breach of Press Council standards, yet under the existing rules it seemed the Council would only speak in reaction to a complaint.   As it was, the Council never adjudicated on our matter, because it considers only complaints lodged by the people damaged by media misbehaviour. Yet as we all know, often the media’s main victims are not the kind of people likely to sit down and write a letter to the Press Council.

The result of the Press Council’s tiny public profile and self-limiting rules has been that over the years newspapers including the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph have felt free to treat its adjudications with contempt, publishing them in the back pages, or alongside prominent attacks on the Council and its members. All this seemed to be tolerated in silence by Council members.

With the funding cuts it seemed to me the Press Council might be on the way out as a relevant force. Yet the Council proved me wrong. To my surprise and pleasure, the public members of the Council, including the Chair Professor Ken McKinnon, stood up to the industry bullying and spoke out against the cuts. The result was a compromise – still a long way short of ideal, but better than what the industry had wanted to impose. These disputes entered the public realm once again earlier this week when McKinnon, who stands down as a Chair at the end of this year, used his final report to flay the industry for its lack of commitment to self regulation.

And so it seems that in its darkest hour, the Australian Press Council just may be reinvigorated.

As I said earlier, nothing will happen quickly, but in the medium to long term we might just see the Council trying for a broader role.  In an age of media convergence, representing only print (even when that includes the web presences of print publications) is clearly a declining business.

As I have reported in the Crikey email today, Disney is talking about trying to get the Council funded in a long term, hands off fashion. I am not clear, and he would not clarify, whether he thinks the industry should do this, or whether there might be a role for other bodies, perhaps including governments or universities.

Will the industry embrace a reinvigorated Council, or will there be more barneys? It is hard to forsee what may happen. The Council might yet fracture. But one possible long term outcome is an industry wide media self regulation body.

That would be a first in this country.

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