Blog by John Miller

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Watchdogs needed

In a new questionnaire about the future of press councils in Canada, we are asked, "In your opinion, how accountable are news organizations to the publics they serve?"

I suspect almost no one will answer "very accountable."

About the only useful thing you can do if you object to something published in a newspaper these days is (a) write a letter to the editor, or (b) sue them. Success depends on (a) whether they decide to publish it, and (b) whether you've got a lot of time and money and don't mind getting crushed by a small army of $800-an-hour lawyers.

I also suspect that few would be able to answer yes to a question that surprisingly isn't even asked on the survey being done for Newspapers Canada: "Are you aware of the existence of a press council in your province?"

In fact, there is a press council -- and has been for at least 20 years -- in every Canadian province except Saskatchewan, and very recently Manitoba. If you don't know that, it's not your fault. They are not very active, they don't publicize themselves, they take forever to render a decision and, although all appoint a majority of public members to their councils, the public is never told if there's a vacancy or how to apply.

They are such a closed shop that, if no one does something quickly, press councils are doomed in this country. They may actually commit mass suicide, as they just did in Manitoba. And, truth be told, almost no one but a few folks like me would lament their passing.

Just look at the recent pattern of publishers turning their backs on them. The country's largest publisher, Quebecor, withdrew all its papers from the Quebec Press Council in 2010, and its Sun Media papers pulled out of the Ontario Press Council last year. The Manitoba Press Council ceased operating this January, after its members cut off funding. And in Alberta, the province's largest paper, the Edmonton Journal, withdrew from the Alberta Press Council. Almost no one complained, in part because the Journal didn't bother to even report on its decision.

This exodus of members is probably what prompted Newspapers Canada to commission the Ryerson School of Journalism's research centre to find out if the public cares about press councils, and if so what might make them relevant. I urge you to fill it out here, but I suspect something much stronger needs to be done.

Don`t get me wrong. I am a strong advocate of the need for press councils, which are supposed to be independent panels set up to resolve readers' unsatisfied complaints about inaccuracy and unfairness in newspapers. I used to sit on the Ontario body, as a representative of the Toronto Star, and once later filed a complaint to it about unfair newspaper reportage (I lost, my complaint took five long months to resolve, and the publisher who successfully argued against me was duly appointed to the council at the same meeting that dismissed my complaint).

Press councils exist because almost every inquiry into concentration of ownership has advocated that they should exist, and in the 1970s and 1980s publishers rushed to join the voluntary, provincial councils that were set up to ward off any action by the federal government. That era is now over, and in some jurisdictions like Ontario, the majority of daily newspapers have dropped out, raising real concerns about their usefullness and future. The new research by Newspapers Canada was in fact funded personally by John Honderich, chair of the board of directors of Torstar Corporation and son of Beland Honderich, who as publisher of the Star was instrumental in creating the Ontario council in 1972.

Newspapers have given various reasons for dropping out. The Sun Media and Quebecor papers disagreed with several Ontario and Quebec council decisions that criticized their journalism, and claimed press councils were following a left-wing agenda. The Edmonton Journal's publisher, John Connolly, said his paper simply saw no value in belonging to the Alberta council that it had been part of for 40 years. Manitoba publishers pointed to a lack of complaints as a reason for winding up that province's press council, leaving the impression that all that province's papers are doing a splendid job.

Deeper and more disturbing reasons for the lack of public interest were identified in a little-noticed speech given in 2008 by Ed Kamps, former chair of the Alberta Press Council. "While newspapers might suggest the decline in complaints is due to higher quality reporting and writing, it's more likely because readership levels continue to decline, the vast majority of readers to not know about press councils, or if they do they do not feel it's worth their time and effort," he said then.

Kamps went on to add: "When times are tough, the news media, like any industry, looks at all costs quite critically. This is especially the case with new publishers who do not have the context or history of press councils."

In fact, none of the reasons publishers have given for quitting press councils stands up to scrutiny.

It's not expensive to belong. The Manitoba Press Council had a barebones annual budget of about $17,000, with the Winnipeg Free Press providing $14,000 of it.
Many publishers spend that much in business lunches.

The fact that some council decisions go against you is also no reason to quit in a huff.  "You know, discipline isn't always agreeable," former Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery said when Quebecor pulled out of the Quebec council. Gomery, who is chair of that council, called the decision "a blow to freedom of expression."

The shrinking number of complaints to some councils is not necessarily due to public apathy. It's more a product of the length of time it takes to adjudicate, a lamentable lack of publicity, and some weird exclusions. The B.C. Press Council, for example, has this bizarre qualifier on its website: "
"The press council will not deal with matters out of the control of the member such as letters to the editor, commentary, blogs or member content that is republished by others." How is a decision to publish a letter to the editor or an opinion column out of the control of the member? Try telling that to a judge in a libel case.

The B.C. council did not hold a hearing in 2008, 2009 or 2010, and only one last year (when it upheld a reader's complaint about unfairness in the Similkameen Spotlight). That does not mean that no one complained. The council fielded between 23 and 28 complaints in each of those years, but either dismissed them out of hand or the complainant got fed up waiting and abandoned them.

Here's my prescription for how to revive our provincial press councils:

Make membership mandatory: The Quebec government is moving in this direction, as part of a controversial proposal to set up a status of "professional journalist." Newspapers have shown themselves to be incapable of making voluntary membership work, and there is a public interest in making them more accountable. Consideration should be given by provincial governments to drawing television and radio stations under the umbrella of provincial media councils.

Speed up the complaint process: No one wants to wait six months or more for a complaint to be resolved. Much of the delay is due to infrequent meetings and a requirement that each complaint must be accepted by all members before any hearing is scheduled. That decision can and should be made unilaterally by the executive director.

Allow press councils to investigate on their own: Now, councils must wait for someone from the public to complain. Some issues -- such as newspaper mergers that result in closing down competing newspapers in small communities -- are so important to the public's interest that press councils should be able to investigate immediately without waiting for a complaint.

Fine transgressors: Now, the only sanction is that member newspapers must publish adjudications involving themselves. That is not enough. If papers were forced to pay a fine for adverse rulings, the financial pinch that press councils find themselves in would be mitigated and there would be real incentive to discontinue troublesome or unethical practices.

Name them: Now, complaints are considered against the newspaper, not the journalist. If the complaint is against a columnist or reporter, that person is not named. There needs to be more transparency, particularly for repeat offenders.

Publicize vacancies: When the press council is looking for public members, all member newspapers should be required to advertise for candidates and there should be an open search process. What happens now is that public appointments simply tend to go to friends of the newspaper.

Legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite was originally dead set against the National News Council, which existed in the United States for 10 years before it folded in 1983.  Eulogizing his former boss, Dick Salant, at a memorial service in 1993, Cronkite said: "In the '70s, I thought it was the worst idea I'd ever heard in my life, that we should put judgment as to the kind of job we did in the hands of another group somewhere outside our immediate profession, outside our immediate workplace. But I think now, as I look back on it, that Dick Salant was probably right."
Cronkite's colleague, the late Mike Wallace, also fought against it, but also later changed his mind. "I believe a revived News Council is worth a second shot," Wallace said at Harvard University while receiving an award. "What I'm suggesting is what Dick Salant had in mind: reasonable, qualified people sitting down and considering whether or not they perceive a given piece of reporting warrants holding it up to public scrutiny as flawed, as dishonest. And if it is, then let the public know about it."
Sounds like a good idea to me too. Given the plunging public confidence in the mass media, strong provincial media councils are needed in Canada now more than ever. It's time for us all to speak up for them.

Is anyone home?
The website of the London Free Press announces that the paper is a member of the Ontario Press Council. It gives an address for people to write to if they want to lodge a complaint about something that appeared in the paper. Well, the information is wrong. The Free Press is not a member of the press council. It withdrew along with Sun Media's 26 other Ontario dailies last year. In any event, the press council has moved and is no longer found at the address given on the Free Press website. No one at the paper seems to care.