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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

DAVIDSON, Mr Bruce, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Associated Press

GILLIES, Mr Tony, Editor in Chief, Australian Associated Press

Evidence was taken via t e leconference—

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from Australian Associated Press. Do you have an opening statement?

Mr Davidson : We really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today. Given the nature of the lateness of our appearing before the committee, we have a very brief opening statement. It is important to outline for the committee and for those who may not know the role of AAP within the media in Australia. As the national news agency of Australia, AAP has a vital and significant role in our media. It is a role we are very proud of and one we take extremely seriously. It is important to understand that by its nature AAP must be an unbiased, independent news provider. We are like the Switzerland of the news game. Our clients are often fierce competitors and we must deliver content that can stand close scrutiny and be trusted to provide the facts and only the facts.

We are a commercial organisation with no government funding or assistance, unlike many other news agencies around the world. We are owned by Australia's major newspaper groups and our articles of association guarantee complete independence from control by any one owner or interest group. AAP is a major resource for all the Australian media, from broadcasters to publishers to digital players. We provide some 600 stories per day for all the media. We believe we occupy a vital role as an impartial and credible news source for all media platforms in Australia. Our service is available to all sections of the media, regardless of ownership and on an equitable commercial basis.

AAP believes that Australia's media are well served by the current checks and balances that provide responsible governance of media activities. This has evolved through an effective three-tiered system: self-regulation by the media themselves, including many internal codes of conduct, ethics and standards, as well as the ultimate judge, that of the public. We have low-cost public access to an industry complaints forum, the Press Council, which has been recently strengthened to make sure that its activities are more transparent and more open to examination by members of the public and complainants. There is also the range of legislative and legal avenues to address any criminal or civil breaches, such as defamation and contempt of court. There are also clear requirements to adhere to laws regarding telecommunications and privacy.

For AAP's part we are proud of our record of accuracy and balance. We believe this is almost entirely achieved from strict compliance to our code of practice and journalistic standards but also from the commercial need to have the complete trust of our customers. Without our customers we have nothing. We simply do not believe that there is a problem with the conduct of the media in Australia, and certainly not that of AAP, that warrants further oversight, especially by a minister appointed body.

CHAIR: Thank you. Why is there a problem with a minister appointing an independent oversight person, the same as ministers appoint other independent oversight executives?

Mr Davidson : The publishing industry and the press itself are in a unique position. We are there to hold public officials and corporate bodies to account. Simply any level of potential interference, potential oversight, even any perception of government interference is simply a dangerous precedent that may lead to control, may lead to interference. The aims may be noble, but the potential for misuse and changes of that legislation as presented to us is a dangerous thing to contemplate.

CHAIR: What comments do you have then about—I am not sure if it is the oldest parliament in the world but—one of the oldest parliaments in the world, in Westminster, about to do something nearly exactly the same as what we are doing?

Mr Davidson : I have obviously read the reports today and have not seen the detail. I also note that the press in the UK is certainly going to examine that legislation and that proposal which is before the parliament. I also note that there is, I think, what I can see, a greater level of potential of further scrutiny for any changes to that legislation by a large majority of the parliament. I do not see that in this legislation.

CHAIR: Are AAP a member of the Australian Press Council?

Mr Davidson : Yes, we are.

CHAIR: Do you agree that the Press Council has not been operating effectively for nearly 37 years?

Mr Davidson : I believe that the Press Council has acted effectively. We certainly were involved in discussions around the changes. We have increased our financial commitment to the Press Council and we fully endorse the changes that have been brought about by Julian Disney, probably a very active chairman in recent times, who has the public interest at heart in renovating the Press Council.

I am aware of criticisms of the Press Council in the past, particularly where publishers perhaps have not fully embraced the principles behind publication of corrections and complaints. I believe that those days are behind us and I believe that the Press Council's changes are a very good thing and we fully endorse them.

CHAIR: Did you hear the evidence from Mr Finkelstein and Professor Matthew Ricketson?

Mr Davidson : I heard some of that today, not all of it I am afraid.

CHAIR: What do you say to their argument that there is no absolute freedom of the press?

Mr Davidson : I think in our western democracies most individuals or members of our community would believe that there should be absolute freedom of the press. I heard Mr Finkelstein discuss that issue and I do not agree with his contention that there must be a level of regulation, which I think were his terms. I am quite happy with a level of regulation in terms of the industry ensuring that its codes of conduct and its practices are adhered to and I am quite happy to be held to account for any breaches of those, but I think we need to avoid the potential for interference by government to potentially misuse or distort that regulation.

CHAIR: We have had evidence from Mr Finkelstein, who is a QC, who has looked at the legislation. He says that the legislation does not determine what the press can say what the press cannot say. Do you agree with that?

Mr Davidson : Yes, I do not see that the legislation can determine what the press can say and what they cannot say. But the Press Council standards, ethics and code of conduct, regarding ensuring that those behaviours are adhered to, is something that the advocate can influence, and the very loose phrase, 'we may change standards according to changes in community standards', to us is extremely open to interpretation, extremely loose and really does open up a can of worms.

CHAIR: Have you read the Finkelstein report?

Mr Davidson : Yes, I have.

CHAIR: The Finkelstein review outlines a number of what they call 'striking instances': a minister of the Crown has his homosexuality exposed and he is forced to resign; a chief commissioner faces false accusations and he is forced to resign—this is after publication of articles; a woman is wrongly implicated in the deaths of her two young children in a house fire and her grief over the children's death is compounded by the news media coverage; nude photographs of a female politician contesting a seat in a state election are published with no checking of the veracity—the photographs are fake; and a teenage girl is victimised because of her having had sexual relations with a well-known sportsman. You just said there should be no restrictions on the freedom of the press. Is it fair and reasonable for those individuals who are demonstrated in the Finkelstein review to have suffered under the press exposes to have that done to them on the basis of freedom of the press?

Mr Davidson : First of all, I would like to say that AAP is in a different position from much of the media in that we do not have—

CHAIR: Mr Davidson, I am not asking you about AAP. I am asking you about the principal position that you have put forward that there should be no restrictions on the freedom of the press. I have drawn your attention to the examples in the Finkelstein review, and I am asking you: does the freedom of the press outweigh the rights, the privacy and the needs of those individuals that are outlined in the review?

Mr Davidson : Those examples I would categorise as certainly unfortunate examples of particular conducts of parts of the press. We have to be aware that there are many, many other laws that potentially could cover and overlap those activities. There are criminal sanctions and there are defamation laws, as I mentioned before. Without understanding the background of those examples that you have mentioned, that notwithstanding, the principle of the freedom of the press to uncover many, many other instances of legitimate coverage of wrongdoing that needs to be outed, if you like—needs to be exposed. Is part of the mix of what the media needs to do and needs to have—

CHAIR: But, Mr Davidson, you have not answered my question: is it fair and reasonable that these individuals are treated the way they were treated by the press under the principle that the press should have no restrictions on their rights to print what they like?

Mr Davidson : Obviously if I were an editor in those particular examples, I may take a different approach and other editors would take other approaches. My approach may be that some of those cases—and again, without the detail, the background and the context it is hard for me to comment entirely about those actual examples—on the face of it some of those examples are potentially bad examples of the treatment of some individuals that happens by the press. Obviously the ultimate arbiter of continued treatment of people like that would be consumer distaste and the fact that those particular publishers would not have a market because—

CHAIR: Somebody's life, somebody's career is destroyed; a distraught mother is basically accused of killing her children and that is okay?

Mr Davidson : No, I did not say it was okay. The context of those examples is hard for me to comment on. There is no doubt that press does not always get it right. We—talking for the industry—can get it wrong. It is very unfortunate that individuals can be hurt in that process. There are many avenues of redress for correcting and understanding some of those examples. But I think that is something that the press and the media live with on a day-to-day basis, about making those judgement calls. I think, generally, throughout our history, we make those calls in a good manner, and in a way that is ethical and upholds the standards. There will be occasional lapses and breaches. I am not excusing those and I understand that obviously individuals are often hurt in the process. That said, the overarching ability of the press to be unfettered in uncovering extreme examples of corruption, of misuse of political power et cetera, needs to be protected.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Gentlemen, thanks for your time today. If somebody has their reputation destroyed by a media outlet, what is the best recourse they can possibly pursue from there?

Mr Davidson : The highest level of recourse is taking action for defamation. That obviously would be for very serious breaches that have affected someone's reputation, someone's livelihood, and they have judicial avenues to explore in that area. If they do not believe that is going to be the best avenue, they can take the issue to the Press Council, who then has the power, now, to enforce redress by the publication in an appropriate manner.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: As editors and heads of media organisations, are you conscious of the reputational risks to your companies as well as the financial risks to your companies that these avenues present?

Mr Davidson : Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, if AAP, not being a media retailer as such, get it wrong, if we do things that are distasteful, if we trash somebody's reputation, and that is published by our customers, our customers are going to be very unhappy with us. So our reputation would certainly be damaged, as would be our commercial endeavours. That really is the case with the mainstream media. Ultimately the consumer backlash for continued lapses or breaches of standards is going to have a massive impact on their readership and on their business.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The proposals before us propose that a Public Interest Media Advocate be appointed. Do you have confidence that the person appointed under the model proposed would be independent?

Mr Davidson : No, I do not. As I said earlier, it may seem that way, it maybe painted that way. As I think has been said in previous discussions, this is an independent appointment like other statutory bodies. The potential for changing that or misusing that is there, and quite frankly I would not like to be a government in a situation where I have the community being suspicious about my motives in terms of someone having oversight over a regulator.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is there a risk in this space that, once government starts to legislate and regulate, when the outcomes of that legislation do not meet the demands of some there will be further legislation or regulation that provides more direct intervention?

Mr Davidson : I would think that is a risk. I think there would be even further opposition and further campaigning against any further regulation, and so there should be. But, yes, once you start on a particular path there is the potential for that path to grow.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: How easy is it as an organisation—you are in a unique position as a provider of content to various media outlets—to assess what is fair?

Mr Davidson : I will hand over to our Editor in Chief, Tony Gillies, who is more across the tenets of our ethics and standards.

Mr Gillies : We have a number of standards that we apply to every story. Every story must be balanced, accurate and fair. That is, of course, the overarching tenet. And that comes from a practice that for every claim there has to be a counterclaim over the course of a short period of time. We operate in a real time environment which creates some challenges for us in that stories need to be rolled out as issues develop. However, we are constantly in contact with both sides or all sides of a story. So the role in which we play sort of determines that we do provide our customers with the complete picture, both sides of the story, so that they can make that best assessment from that.

Getting back to Mr Davidson's earlier point, our reputation is absolutely everything at AAP. We must be steering a story straight down the middle. If we do not do that, if we skew it one way or another, if we get it wrong, that is pretty much the beginning of the end for us.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of making those decisions, do you think that notions of fairness can be effectively codified or indeed notions of community standards be effectively codified, which it would seem this legislation will require a news media self-regulation scheme to do?

Mr Davidson : I would not suggest codified, but what I can say is that in a review of our content after the event, we do go back and seriously check what we have done. This comes from an enormous amount of experience from our news team and so on. Certainly our experience is that standards within the community are a constantly changing scene. Therefore, we cannot codify it. What is right today might not be right tomorrow.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, gentlemen.

CHAIR: Mr Davidson and Mr Gillies, that has been helpful.