Blog by John Miller

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Let's be accountable

In case you haven't heard (and I'm sure you haven't), Canada has a new national body to hear complaints about what you think is wrong in newspapers, magazines and online news sites.

It's called the National NewsMedia Council, and it describes itself as an amalgamation of the old Ontario, Atlantic and British Columbia press councils. But that's not really correct: It's replacing the British Columbia and Atlantic councils, which were largely defunct, and an Ontario council that was limping along without 36 of the province's 46 daily newspapers as members.

And calling the NNC "national" at this point is optimistic. It claims to have 700 news organizations in all provinces interested in becoming members, but both the Alberta and Quebec press councils refused to participate.

Now, there hasn't been one formal complaint to the national council since it began operating in September but that doesn't mean that Canada's news media have suddenly become fault-free. It just means almost no one knows the new council exists.

That will change in January when it mounts what CEO John Fraser calls its "hard launch." All member news organizations will list their affiliation and some will run house ads explaining the purpose of the national council and how to contact it. Until then, there's a work-in-progress website  and a toll-free phone number (1-844-877-1163).

The challenges the new council faces are considerable.

Its mandate says it has two main aims -- "to promote ethical practices within the news media industry and to serve as a forum for complaints against its members." But Fraser says at this point he has no idea how to achieve the first of those. His council does not seem to have any budget for research into news industry  standards or best practices, and it has no mandate for training.

Second, membership in provincial press councils has dwindled in recent years. Take, for example, the Atlantic council,  which was subject of a critical article in the 2005 Atlantic Journalism Review that began: "If you Google the Atlantic Press Council, you'll find no website. If you check any Atlantic Canadian phonebook for an Atlantic Press Council contact you'll have no luck. And even if you do somehow manage to get a phone number for the Atlantic Press Council, prepare to leave a message because no one will answer the phone."

Canada's news media are suffering through tough economic times, but the reasons for dropping out of press councils go far beyond economic ones. In 2011, Sun Media pulled all its newspapers out of the Ontario Press Council, complaining about the “politically correct mentality” of the province’s print-media watchdog. When Sun Media got gobbled up by Postmedia last year, Postmedia pledged to support a new national press council, but it's unclear if its adjudications will be any more palatable.

Third, newspapers have never done a good job of explaining themselves to readers. It's doubtful whether a national council will have enough time and resources for it to be effective as an ethical watchdog. Aside from CEO Fraser, there is only one other paid full-time staff member.

There are questions about how transparent and accountable this new council will be. Although it has a majority of public members, all eight were simply appointed because they served on one of the provincial councils. It's unclear whether the council will publicly advertise for their successors when their terms expire a year from now.

The other seven members are journalists chosen by member news organizations. No independent or non-affiliated journalists are allowed to be part of the new council. There appears to be no room for anyone who might be characterized as a media critic. The Australian Press Council, on the other hand, reserves four of 24 seats for such people.

Then there is the new council's close association with Newspapers Canada. They share the same office  near Yonge and Bloor in downtown Toronto and memberships and fees will be channeled to the NewsMedia Council by Newspapers Canada. It is an industry association with a mandate to lobby against government legislation and regulation that it considers "potentially harmful to newspapers" and it promotes the "benefits of daily and community newspapers to advertisers" and others. How is that compatible with a press council that is supposed to be a forum for complaints against those newspapers?

One of the benefits of provincial press councils (at one point they existed in every province but Saskatchewan) was that complainants could present their case face-to-face with the adjudicators. It's expected that will not be the case with the national council, which will have a budget of less than $400,000, more than half of which will pay for salaries and honoraria to council members. Indeed, Newspapers Canada sent out a prospectus for the new council to its members that said: " In order to contain costs, council meetings and hearings would be conducted by conference call, except for the annual general meeting."

All that said, I wish the new council well. We need media accountability in Canada, given the concentration of ownership (Postmedia now publishes 18 million copies of paid and free newspapers each week, and owns both major dailies in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa).

A lot depends on the integrity and salesmanship of Fraser, an award-winning journalist with a long and distinguished career at the Globe and Mail and Saturday Night. As he told the first meeting of the new council last week: "If we are not just to survive but thrive, the NNC must retain and continue to support all newspapers, dailies and weeklies and monthlies. In a period of newspaper 'contraction,' we must also find ways to expand into other areas."

He's already had some success in attracting magazines, which have never had their own press council. Maclean's, Chatelaine, the Walrus, Toronto Life and Canadian Business have all said they'd join. His next targets are online news sites. Canadaland is the first to sign on (for $1 a year) and Fraser is targeting The Tyee, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Vice.

He admits he's operating on "a hope and a prayer," since Newspapers Canada has just sent out its first billing to its 861 members. Looking to government for financial support is a non-starter, though. Fraser doesn't believe in it, and that seems to be the main stumbling block -- aside from language -- to Quebec's participation. The Conseil de Presse du Quebec, which is perhaps the most active and effective of the country's press councils, is partially funded by the provincial government. It's never had a problem with that, but any hint of government involvement has always sent the paranoid publishers in English Canada running the other way.

Fraser says his hope is the new council will prove to be "a responsible conduit" between the news media and the public. "I've never bought into the notion that journalists had some kind of license. They need to be accountable for what they write."

The fact that Canada's beleaguered publishers have been lured back to embrace this notion is largely due to the vision and determination of Don McCurdy, who was executive director of the Ontario Press Council when Sun Media pulled its papers out. He built the case for a national council carefully, persuading Ryerson's School of Journalism to do a study of the future of the provincial councils (aside from Ontario and Quebec, there was none) and persuaded Torstar chairman John Honderich to fund it.

And then?

"Timing was everything," said McCurdy, who will advise the new council. Sun Media's proposed sale for $316 million to Postmedia last year needed the approval of Canada's Competition Bureau. McCurdy wisely convinced Postmedia that its chances would improve if Ottawa saw that all its newspapers would be more accountable. When the merger was approved last March, it carried Postmedia's promise to submit all its papers to press council scrutiny.

That, my friends, can only be a good thing.

Let's just hope the National NewsMedia Council works.