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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

DISNEY, Prof. Julian, Chair, Australian Press Council

WILDING, Dr Derek, Executive Director, Australian Press Council


CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Australian Press Council. Thanks for talking to us today. Professor Disney and Dr Wilding, do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Prof. Disney : Yes. Thanks very much, Senator Cameron, for the opportunity to be here. I will make a statement. It may focus a little more on the prosaic realities than some of the contributions have.

I want to deal firstly with problems relating to media standards. There are substantial problems with media standards in Australia. A number of them we have in common with other countries. What I am going to say now is based on the experience of the complaints that we receive. We get about 600 now. The numbers increased by about 50 per cent over the last year or so, probably because our profile is so much higher than it was before, with our existence and our role being advertised in virtually all issues of every member publication.

They are also based on the community roundtables that we have started. We have held now probably 10 of them. They have been somewhat delayed by or suspended by the work involved in responding to the Finkelstein inquiry and other things, but we have held roundtables in four states. That will continue with both media and community organisations to identify what they see as problems with media standards and what could be done about it. There are some problems that come up in that.

We also gather from journalists as well. Journalists tend to speak more freely, of course, one to one than they do in broader discussions about what they see as problems within the media. The problems include distortion and suppression of key facts and opinions; confusion of fact and opinion; errors of fact, especially online due to excessive haste in posting material and inadequate corrections of those errors; invasion of privacy, particularly through the use of photographs taken from a distance. Some problems, of course, in any profession or industry, are inevitable. I do not think it should be a surprise that there are some. The level is higher than it should be and I think it is a significant problem that needs to be addressed.

On the other hand, we need to bear in mind that it is true that the media, and journalists in particular, many of them, if they are to be effective and if they are to serve the broader public interest in access to information and free expression of opinion, do need to be from time to time somewhat aggressive, somewhat unruly. One should not seek perfection in this area. Indeed, if one did seek perfection, it would be at a very high price.

Having said that, there is a substantial problem that needs to be addressed. I might say that it has an adverse impact, amongst other things, on freedom of expression. If people are to have freedom of expression, they need access to reliable information. If they are fed false information, then the views that they form and they might want to express will not be the views that they would form and express if they were well informed. Access to unreliable, distorted information is an attack on freedom of expression.

Similarly, if they are unable to get their voice heard reasonably, because particular outlets have perhaps a general tendency to be more willing to publish views from one part of a perspective on a particular issue rather than another, that infringes on the freedom of expression of those people who do not come from the part that is going to be more generously covered. If they are given an occasional example to express their views but that is overwhelmed by a very extensive coverage of the other view, then again their freedom of expression suffers. Freedom of expression needs to be for all people, not just for those who are wealthy or for those who have special access to the most widely read media. Of course, it is a huge infringement on freedom of expression if people are intimidated by vitriol or by other forms of excessive abuse. That, again, even if it comes from active proponents of freedom of speech, it is in fact an attack on freedom of expression.

So media standards, good media standards, are an essential element, for a number of reasons. One of them is, in fact, genuine, wide-ranging freedom of expression. The Press Council has a very important role in this, a very demanding role. We can never do it to my satisfaction, and there are many issues which one should not look to the Press Council to solve anyway. There are other aspects of society in a democracy which must address them. We must always have realistic expectations of a press council.

But we need to do a lot better. That was one reason why I agreed when I was approached to chair the council. If I thought the council had been going fine, I would not have gone there. I thought it did need to be improved. With support from a range of different interests, we have started to improve it. We improved it to some extent before the phone hacking and the Finkelstein inquiry, and we have improved it further since then, though many of the improvements are really just ready to go. For example, the funding boost that we got is leading to two new staff. They started yesterday. They are getting neglected, I am afraid, in their induction at the moment. There has been a long lead time in getting these things sorted out.

I want to just mention quickly some of the progress because I feel that there perhaps is not from various quarters in the room, really much, if any, up-to-date understanding of what the council is doing. Firstly, we have expanded substantially to online-only publishers. That is very important. Almost all of our complaints involve online because, even if they were read in print version, we deal with online as well and with corrections online. Our adjudication processes are now much more independent than in the past. We now have a situation where there are virtually no people employed by publishers on our adjudications, and the majority, as has always been the case, are public members.

We are having meetings with adjudications more frequently. We do not, contrary to some of what was said earlier, require people to travel. Indeed we encourage them not to travel really. We can do these things by teleconference in most cases. We are certainly not legalistic. The suggestion earlier of cross-examination is extraordinary. If it happened in the past, it certainly does not happen now. The discussions are around the table and they are all on first name terms.

We are developing a new suite of specific standards. For example, the first is to do with suicide. The next is to do with access to patients. We will have ones on photographs taken from public property onto private land. We will have some on a very important issue, which is ensuring that people who are going to be the subject of a story are given a fair opportunity to comment before the matter is published at all, including online. The advent of online publishing has led to a tendency for people to say, 'I'll get up one side first and I'll tidy it up later.' But in fact the need for accuracy and fairness first up is enhanced, is increased, by online publishing, not reduced.

We have already got agreement that the publishers will all provide us with internal statistics. I noticed earlier the IMC apparently will not be providing internal statistics. All our publishers will be providing their own statistics, their own internal complaints handling, in the same form as we do, just as we are.

Quite a lot of progress has been made but we are still moving too slowly in our handling of complaints. We are suffering from sustained misrepresentation of our adjudications and other comments from some quarters, sometimes from proponents of freedom of speech, who are alleging quite forcefully that some of our adjudications have inhibited freedom of speech. By falsely presenting what we have said and implying that we have put inhibitions on freedom of speech, they themselves are inhibiting freedom of speech. We are still suffering from not a high enough level of cooperation from publishers in some areas and we need to keep working on that. We are making progress.

I want to finish with two important strengthenings that we need to achieve and then comment very briefly on the bill. The first strengthening is—as Mr Finkelstein asked of me at the inquiry, but at the time I said perhaps we should do it another way—we now definitely need to be able to institute our own investigations without waiting for a complaint. There are far too many instances. We have one in chapter and verse where a very strong-minded, almost pugnacious public figure has declined to bring his complaint to us because he believes that it will only make the situation worse, that he will be discriminated against more fiercely by the newspaper in question. This is a view expressed to us frequently.

CHAIR: It was not Ian?

Prof. Disney : No. We really need to be able to take these things on board without waiting. I have seen some very bad abuses in the last few weeks where we have had no complaint and yet I know, in fact, the people were concerned about it but thought it would just make it worse if they complained.

We need to have the ability to initiate our own investigations, to ensure that the strengthening that we have undertaken is, firstly, taken through to its fruition, because it is mid-path; secondly, entrenched, not subject to subsequent withdrawal or erosion; and thirdly, if need be, we strengthen ourselves further without having to wait for a Finkelstein inquiry.

I believe we should have an independent review of our activities every three years by an independent panel. They should firstly report just specifically on our compliance with particular benchmarks. We put benchmarks to the convergence review, which are designed at ensuring adequate independence, for example, and adequate complaint-handling procedures, like the right to bring complaints directly to the council rather than via the publisher. It is a crucial right, an absolutely crucial right, that you are entitled to come to us directly rather than through the publisher. Those things need to be reported on every three years, that we are complying with them. These are specific, objective benchmarks.

We need a report then on more subjective evaluations as to how well we are doing in certain areas, not something that can direct us what to do but that brings to the court of public opinion an independent analysis of how well we are going. So I think it is very important to build on what we have done and ensure that we keep getting better. I will perhaps stop there and I will weave in any comments I have about the bill going beyond that.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that very detailed overview. Normally we do not like long introductions but you have taken us to a lot of important issues. I thank you for that.

Can I just deal with a procedural matter before we go any further. The Australian has sought copies of Mr Finkelstein's opening address and Professor Ricketson's. I do not have any problem with that. We always try to help the Australian wherever we can. So we need them tabled.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I move that they be tabled.

CHAIR: There being no objection, I declare it carried. These can be made available to any journalist who wants a copy. I might go to Senator Ludlam first and then come to you, Senator Birmingham.

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks, Professor, for your evidence. Maybe you can take us through the background of how it has come to be that Seven West Media have established an independent media council. We heard directly from Mr McGinty this morning on this. Can you talk us back through how that occurred and maybe just give us your view on whether you believe the Australian Press Council should be the only entity of its type or whether you are comfortable with more than one?

Prof. Disney : Firstly as to how it occurred, really, Seven West Media are the authorities on that. I was negotiating at the time to get strengthening of the council, particularly as a result of the Finkelstein findings. I was negotiating with a group of four publishers. They were then conferring amongst themselves as to their attitude. The lead people with whom I was negotiating were from News and Fairfax. It was believed that agreement had been reached. We had a teleconference to confirm that agreement. Seven West Media, about five minutes before, indicated they would not be taking part. It was a surprise to the publishers and to me.

The only reason that has been given, so far as I am aware, was the belief that we were not sufficiently committed to refusing any form of government funding. The situation was, before any of this happened, before the Finkelstein inquiry, we had already agreed that very limited project funding from government sources could be obtained if the council felt it was appropriate.

It would usually have been obtained in a mixture of sources for a particular project. We did obtain money, for example, from the Myer Foundation to assist with our work on standards. But there was never any commitment from anyone that we would get government funding, let alone government core funding, let alone funding that would exceed 50 per cent. In fact it was the reverse.

So far as one knows, that is the reason that has been given. It is possible, of course, that the reason was that the council was strengthening itself and it was believed that they did not want to be part of a stronger council. I do not know.

As to the question of whether there should be more than one regulator, I just say I do not know of any part of the world where it has been canvassed that there should be more than one, with the exception of the United Kingdom, although Lord Justice Leveson said it would be a major failure of the industry if they did not all come together in one. But there was a suggestion that there might be one for regional newspapers and one for national newspapers which, of course, is more manageable in the UK.

I do not think there can really be any question, both from any understanding of regulatory practice in other areas or in this area, that in general this leads to confusion, inconsistency and over time an erosion of standards, a competitive race to the bottom as publishers seek to be with the less rigorous regulator. It is a major issue. It is particularly a major issue if you have regulators that are in fact one-publisher regulators. How any requirement of independence—and independence of course must be judged over the longer term, not over initial appointments. They must be judged over the longer term, bearing in mind what pressures will come to bear if one is subject to just one publisher. The pressures are substantial when you are subject to lots of publishers but at least they are not usually pushing all in the same direction and they also do not have the ability to cut off your funding and pull out at no notice. We, of course, got an agreement at as part of the negotiation, and this may have been a big factor in the decision to move away from us by Seven West Media, that you could not get out in less than four years.

So unless they got out on the date they got out, they would not have been able to get out without four years notice in future. We now have that. That is unique around the world. And we have three years advance funding, specific dollars from each publisher.

Senator LUDLAM: Technically one of the other big publishers could still leave the Press Council but there are now those very long lead times involved in that occurring.

Without making any judgement on the character or the qualifications of those who sit on the IMC, do you have a view on how well it is working in Western Australia?

Prof. Disney : I would be very reluctant to delve into that, but I just say, particularly because Senator Cameron did ask for a check list of comparisons, I might send some. But, in general, they are to do with principle. This is not a matter to do with WA, in my view, or a matter to do with the particular people that are there. It is a matter to do with the general concept of whether it is appropriate to have, firstly, multiple regulators but, secondly, to have a regulator that is solely responsible to one of the corporations. Obviously there are problems in that respect. I have mentioned some of our differences. I may be perhaps more willing to acknowledge weaknesses in my own organisation that some others might be—I do not regret that. I might add that the success rate—I do not think we should judge our adjudications too much by our success rate—of our adjudications last year was 70 per cent.

Senator LUDLAM: What do you call a success?

Prof. Disney : It is a partial upheld or full upheld. That went up from 40 per cent the year before. That was before any Finkelstein impact or anything else. I emphasise though that, having said that, I do not believe we should judge our success or our performance by success rates. That would be wrong. But if people are asserting that there is a particularly strong degree of independence shown by a certain success rate then one has to bear in mind other factors.

Senator LUDLAM: I do not know how we are going to go with definitions here, but I am interested to know this: in terms of the general work of the Press Council and the complaints that you receive from people who feel aggrieved by reporting, is it possible to break out the proportion of them that would be public figures—politicians or people who are in the public eye and who are routinely in the press—as opposed to what are characterised as private individuals—people who, through no fault or will of their own, have suddenly been drawn into a story and find that they regret it. Is there a way of breaking out the amount of work you do?

Prof. Disney : We could do that. We do not particularly have it in those terms, although we have some data. I am afraid that, as I said to Mr Finkelstein, some of our data in the past just was not reliable. It is a lot better now, but it means we do not have huge historical stuff. We do have some complaints from public figures, but they are often very reluctant to complain to us—some of them because they have their own avenues which are more effective than coming to us.

Obviously there are I think problems in that respect. I have mentioned some of our differences. I may be perhaps more willing to acknowledge weaknesses in my own organisation than some others might be, but I do not regret that. I do not think we should judge our adjudications too much by our success rate, but I might add that the success rate of our adjudications last year was 70 per cent.

Senator LUDLAM: Defamation law?

Prof. Disney : No. We had a complaint recently which involved a childcare centre and one of the parents was an extremely powerful person in the publishing world. I knew they were not going to need my phone call to the newspaper to sort that out. It was going to be sorted out by that person's phone call. So some people do not need to come to us. Others feel that it would only make matters worse. A lot of them though are ordinary, mainstream Australians. I might say that particularly because there is a real representation on this score—so-called third-party complaints, which are complaints about material that does not relate to the person being complained about but is about some general coverage of an issue. Those are mainly made by individuals, not by groups in any way. We had a very striking one just very recently involving a very senior journalist. I think he would be the first to admit, although he started with a very different view, that the complainant came to the matter with absolutely the best motivations and expressed her goodwill towards the journalist in general but just said that this article was not right. Then at the end of the day, incidentally—and this is quite common with us now—they said how much they had valued at least the opportunity to have their chance to speak with the newspaper and express their concerns. So, far from being intimidated or cross-examined, they had found it a useful experience. Incidentally, they were all communicating with us by phone, not in person.

Senator LUDLAM: But principally the work of the Press Council—and push back if I am mischaracterising your work—whether it is a statutorily recognised Press Council or not, is about giving ordinary citizens the right of redress over what is a very powerful sector in our society.

Prof. Disney : Most of our work, yes. I mean, of course, some of the people are powerful, but the overwhelming majority of our work is not. I should emphasise, though, that I believe our work in setting standards is actually at least as significant as our response to complaints.

Senator LUDLAM: I wanted to bring you to those. You mentioned one about reporting of suicides. What is the status of the standards determinations that you are making? If they go on and are breached by some of your member organisations, what is the sanction or consequence?

Prof. Disney : Firstly, our standards are now legally binding. I should say that the obligation on our members is to demonstrate a commitment to our standards. That does not mean perhaps that every breach of a standard means that they have acted unlawfully, but it would mean that a continued breach of that nature would call into question whether they in fact have a commitment to our standards. Our only power is in fact to say that our standards have been breached and to insist on the publication of the adjudication. I might add, because it is a very important change that we have achieved, that one of the things that the public and in fact many in the media complained about most in terms of our adjudications was that they were not being published or they were not being published prominently. It was never true to say that they were not being published, but they were not being published prominently enough. We now say exactly where they have to be published, both in print and online, and that is getting full compliance. We write the headings and we say what part of which page range they have to go on.

Senator LUDLAM: All right. Thank you very much for that. I will come back if there is time.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Professor Disney and Dr Wilding, thank you very much for your time today. Can I come to the specific proposals that are before the parliament. Do you believe that the proposal for the public interest media advocate and the associated news media self-regulation legislation are well-thought-out proposals?

Prof. Disney : We have a lot of concerns about them. There are four elements. I will try to be quick. The first is what we call the benchmarks, which is the list of things that the PIMA is to take into account. In our view those benchmarks in their current form—and we have not seen the specifics of any different form—are far too broad and discretionary. They could end up with too intrusive a role for PIMA. They could indeed be at least as likely to end up with too weak a role—for example, too inclined to allow a council that is not adequately independent. That is probably at least as big a problem in my mind as anything else—that this would be too weak and that these would not be properly independent councils with decent complaint structures. That is the first thing. Those standards are too broad and discretionary.

We agree with benchmarks, but we think they should be specific and objective—for example, are most of the members of the council not appointed by publishers; do you have a direct right of action to come to the council. They are just things that there is no debate about. You look at the constitution and you count up the numbers. That is what we felt and what we put to the Convergence Review—that there should be benchmarks of that kind.

Secondly, on the PIMA, we feel that if there is to be any role of this kind it should be played by, say, a three-person panel, at least two of whom should be independently chosen—a verifying panel or a designation panel—and it should only express its views every three years or two years or whatever, or just check after three years whether they are still complying with the essential benchmarks. But there could be also be a case for commissioning a reasonably concise report on how we are going generally in achieving certain specified goals. But that would just be advice. The other element would be verifying compliance.

The third aspect is: should there be more than one body that can be designated? I have spoken about that. We have a very firm view that there should be only one. The final point is: if you are a publisher, what should be the sanction if the council that you are a member of is not a designated body? So that raises the Privacy Act issue. There are a few different ways that one could address that. There would be value, I think, in just designating a body—us as national press standards council—not with capital letters, but the national press standards council subject to our continuing compliance with benchmarks. That then could be available for governments, legislatures and others. If they want to provide privileges on certain grounds then that can be a criterion they use. They can say that, in order to have this privilege, you have to be employed by a publisher who is subject to the national press standards council. So you could just make it available in this legislation. You do not say that it applies to any particular privilege; you are just making it available as a criterion for the future. I personally believe for reasons that I am happy to expand on that that is very important for a whole number of reasons going way beyond media regulation.

You then can go further, of course, and say that, for example, particular exemptions and privileges will only be available and that is the Privacy Act issue. The question of whether you go down the Privacy Act route depends very heavily on the rest of the bill, the rest of the package and detailed discussions and negotiations. I think you began by asking me did I think this had been well put together. One of the problems we have about this is that, if there is to be any specific privilege dealt with in this legislation and said to be dependent on being subject to a designated body, that has to be very carefully thought through and discussed. That is why an alternative approach is just to get the body out there available for later discussion if people think that it is appropriate in different contexts. It may be, for example, that this applies to courts—when judges say who is a recognised journalist and who can stay behind in a closed court or tweet from a closed court. There is a whole stack—at least 50 or 60 that we know of—of statutory or non-statutory privileges for journalists or media organisations. Having some criterion there would help—and this is the last of a long answer—and to me one of the main answers to media diversity is to strengthen quality online journalism, to recognise the validity of that journalism and to encourage people to be able to identify it so that we have a broader range of sources. Some of the talk about diversity generated by online I think overstates the case. I think we need to bulk up the audiences for some of these people. They need then to be clear that they have the same standards and the same privileges as mainstream journalists. That was the view taken by what I think is easily the best report in this whole area, which was by the New Zealand Law Commission: starting exactly from that point and saying that we need to encourage online journalism and recognise them, but if they want to have the same privileges as traditional journalists then they must comply with the same standards.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you for that comprehensive answer. In terms of going through your four reforms, firstly the benchmarks—and you touched somewhat there on the need for them to be less broad and less discretionary and more able to be clearly assessed and judged as to whether an organisation is actually meeting them—do you have a series of recommendations that could be made as to what you think are appropriate benchmarks in that regard?

Prof. Disney : Yes, and we can table that. They are very similar to what we put to the Convergence Review 15-odd months ago. The Convergence Review did broadly adopt that approach, but instead of our very specific stuff they put it in broader terms. But we have a list of about 15 that we are happy to put in front of you.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I will let you table that. The second area in relation to the construct of PIMA—and you have advocated for a three-person panel, at least two of whom are independently chosen—what is your definition there of 'independently chosen'? Who is making the independent selection?

Prof. Disney : I can just give you an example. Perhaps you give the power of nomination to the president of the Law Council or the chair of Universities Australia or someone like that. You try to pick the positions that you think are by and large people who will be independent or at least of an unpredictable perspective. That would be our suggestion. We do not have a totally closed mind about how you would do it if we were setting this kind of panel up, and we might if it is not done in any other way; I have already flagged it with the council and I think we should set it up if someone else does not.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I am getting a wind-up already—

CHAIR: Already!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So can I come back to the overriding principle perhaps. Professor Disney gave a very comprehensive answer that was very useful to an earlier question. But, on the overall principal, would you rather see a situation where you as the Press Council put in place a three-yearly review by a panel of eminent persons such as you just described or would you prefer to see a legislated statutory approach that binds the operation of the Press Council in some way, shape or form?

Prof. Disney : Firstly, there will be differences of opinion on the council about that, so I will not be expressing a council view as to whether it should be statutory or not. I do not think I can express a firm view myself because the detail really matters. I do think that, given the nature of the pressures that are involved in this situation, there is merit in having some sort of statutory involvement, but it needs to be of the kind that I have mentioned, which is just specifying benchmarks which are not changeable and are only checked every three years and that kind of thing.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Given that Senator Conroy has told the parliament that we have a take-it-or-leave-it option with these proposals, would you take it or leave it?

Prof. Disney : I do not want to delve into the language and the realities of the political process, but—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, but honestly these are the proposals on the table. Should we vote for them or not?

Prof. Disney : We have made it very clear that we think this package has to be dramatically changed for it to be acceptable.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In its current form you would rather not see it implemented?

Prof. Disney : Yes. We have indicated in considerable detail to the minister and others changes the thrust of which we would regard as essential. The detail, of course, one can talk about, but the thrust we regard as essential for this to be changed. I have outlined them to you: specific benchmarks, a three-person panel, one regulator. The main query then would be what you do about the Privacy Act. We believe that, even if you leave out the Privacy Act, it is worth doing it to establish a criterion for use by statutory and non-statutory people at later times. There is a worry, I think—the link between commercial organisations and media organisations is increasing for different reasons. Media organisations are getting more involved in commercial activities and commercial organisations like the AFL are getting more involved in running their own media operation. That is going to create big problems for who is a journalist and who is entitled to privileges and ensuring adequate standards. So we need to look at that issue down the track.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Indeed. Is there a risk that what we are doing is embarking on a process of regulating a diminishing media landscape while there will continue to be increasing voices of increasing influence, be it perhaps from a small base, who will not be regulated at all through these types of reforms or, indeed, existing self-regulatory measures?

Prof. Disney : Yes. Incidentally, I actually prefer the term 'moderating' rather than 'regulating'. We are not really a regulator in the normal sense of the term. Nevertheless, that is one reason that really one of our very highest priorities has been to become more active in the online area. I think there will always need to be an unregulated sector online, but that does not mean that we cannot try to encourage a sector that says, 'We are going to stick to higher standards and we want your benchmark or your kitemark to show people that we are adhering to higher standards'. That is our approach with online. But it is also why we believe that there should be a move towards a unified system with broadcasting as well. It is one reason that it is really odd to be talking about moving to two regulators in one platform, namely print, when the general thrust has been that we should be moving to reduce the number of regulators across all platforms.

CHAIR: I just want to raise one practical example of the work of the Press Council and get your comments about the weaknesses that may still be there. You would be aware of the article by James Delingpole, 'Wind farm scam a huge cover-up'. This was in the Australian on 3 May. Basically organisations were compared to paedophiles. Are you aware of that article?

Prof. Disney : Yes.

CHAIR: The Press Council then made a determination on certain aspects of that article. That is adjudication 1555. You did that in December 2012. Then, following your adjudication, in which you upheld some of the complaints, the IPA issued a press release saying that your ruling shows a threat to free speech. I would ask you to comment on that, but let me get the whole context in. On 21 December James Delingpole again published in the Australian basically restating the positions that the Press Council had said were unacceptable and the Australian printed it anyway. Then the Australian in an editorial defended Delingpole's article on 21 December lamenting the loss of free speech. Then on 22 December some of the paedophile issues were again raised in an article by Christopher Pearson. How can anyone have confidence in the rulings of the Press Council if the Australian treats them with such a cavalier approach in this regard?

Prof. Disney : That is a matter of concern to us and it is a matter that I have raised with the council. There are other examples that you could have given as well.

CHAIR: I thought that one was enough.

Prof. Disney : I have raised that with the council. All I would say about that is that the first step for strengthening the council is to be rigorous in our adjudications—that is the first thing—and to have said that was wrong. The second step is to try to get adequate coverage for that, which we now do. We get our adjudications very prominently published. That has been a big step.

The third—and that is what I alluded to when I began this afternoon—is to avoid misrepresentation, even within our members' journals, about what we have said, and that is a worry that I have raised and will continue to pursue. The fourth is to avoid repetition of the problem. That, again, is something that we are just going to have to try to continue to push for. So I am not satisfied with where we have got to, and the example that you gave is one reason that I am not satisfied.

CHAIR: Is this still a live matter with the council?

Prof. Disney : There is a complaint about one aspect of it which we are still considering. But I should say that, even if there had not been, this is an example of where we could investigate of our own volition. That highlights, really, some of the concerns that I mentioned and it is why I believe there needs to be a continuing examination of how well the council is doing and expressions of opinion from an independent panel raising those kinds of issues.

One of the reasons that we are conducting the community roundtables, which we will do on a regular basis, is that concerns of that kind can be raised at roundtables and can then be brought to bear directly to the publishers. I guess I was also referring to this when I said that there is a limit to what any press council can do in relation to some of these problems. There are other factors and other avenues that will need to be pursued.

CHAIR: Professor Disney, we have been told by the media executives who have come here that the Press Council is important and the Press Council has been beefed up, but this is really a News Ltd—in the colloquial term—'Up yours!' to the Press Council. So how can we have confidence that the Press Council will be treated with any respect from the moderate press and the Australian? Wouldn't it then be a justification for having the public interest media authority there?

Prof. Disney : I have spoken more about the detail of the role of the advocate and how they are appointed and the benchmarks that are applied. I am not happy and many on the council are not happy or not satisfied with where we have got to so far. So you will not find me—and you did not find me earlier today—saying that we were satisfactory. The concerns you have raised, I think, are concerns. I suppose that is one reason that I think that, to erode our ability to address these matters by having multiple regulators or other pressures which intrude on us in the wrong way, because these pressures—in the way that the bill is designed at the moment—could be just as likely to erode our ability to be an effective regulator as to strengthen it.

The main response is firstly we have some measures and some increasing rigour underway which I think are starting to address that problem. I think if we have proper oversight to keep the pressure on us, that will start to address that problem. But I also have to say that there are the realities of power in the community and the press council is only one part of any response to concerns on that front.

CHAIR: I am not sure if you paid any attention to the Institute of Public Affairs media release on the day of your ruling. They describe themselves as 'Australia's leading free-market think tank'. We just had them here; if they are the leading free-market think tank, we have some problems here. They said that the Delingpole Press Council ruling shows a 'threat to free speech'. Do you have any views on that?

Prof. Disney : I suppose—not that I particularly want to base it on the Delingpole one, because I do not see that case as actually the strongest example of what worries me. What he said in that case—I see things worse than that most weeks, frankly.

CHAIR: Really?

Prof. Disney : So I don't want to base it on that one. But that was really at the heart of what I was alluding to when I said that freedom of speech and freedom of expression is eroded when people's speech is misrepresented. That means in effect they have no voice, so if people are misrepresenting—adjudications in our case—if they are misrepresenting what other people have said, then that is denying them effective freedom of speech.

But, also, if they are engaging in—and I am not particularly putting this at the door of the IPA, and not particularly directed at the Press Council; there are others—vitriol, intimidation, character assassination, that is an abuse which has a number of weaknesses but one of them is that it actually inhibits genuine freedom of expression.

By 'freedom of expression' we mean freedom of expression for the whole community as much as we can achieve, not freedom of expression for a certainly privileged group who have access to mainstream media and whose views accord with the views of mainstream media. It means freedom of expression for all of us as best we can, and that in turn means that, as with any freedom, we have to accept some limitations on it in order to provide a reasonable degree of freedom for others. This notion of absolute freedom is highly out of date and highly inaccurate as a real definition of freedom. Absolute freedoms destroy freedom. That is well known across a wide range of areas. To distort, to provide people with unreliable information, to excessively abuse and intimidate, is amongst other things an attack on freedom of expression.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Professor Disney and Doctor Wilding. You have been very helpful. We will now suspend.

Proceedings suspended from 16:56 to 18:10