With Newspapers Canada exploring the idea of establishing a national press council, J-Source takes a look at the Irish, Swedish and Danish models to see what Canada can learn from these international examples.

By Eric Mark Do

“An ongoing issue at the Ontario Press Council was how to get noticed. Um, nailed it?” tweeted Canada.com editor Rob Granatstein after last month's hearings into The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail's coverage of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

But there are other, perhaps more important, issues facing press councils—the few that still remain, anyway—as described in a report on the future of press accountability. So now, Newspapers Canada and the Ontario Press Council are exploring the idea of establishing a national press council for Canada. The country currently has five regional press councils: the Alberta Press Council, Atlantic Press Council, British Columbia Press Council, Ontario Press Council and Quebec Press Council (Conseil de presse du Québec).

Don McCurdy, executive director of the Ontario Press Council, said with the exception of Quebec, representatives from all Canadian press councils met earlier this year to discuss the feasibility of such a national body. McCurdy says he hopes an initial report will be done “by the end of the year.”

To get a sense of what a Canadian version might look like, J-Source looked at how Ireland, The Netherlands and Sweden operate successful national press councils. (All three also rank higher than Canada on the “Reporters Without Borders” world press freedom index). What follows draws extensively from research by Lara Fielden, of the University of Oxford (1); Romayne Smith Fullerton, of Western University, in London, Ont., and Maggie Jones Patterson of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa. (2 and 3)


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Formation

The Swedish Press Council was founded in 1916 and “is the oldest tribunal of its kind in the world.” It was first set up as a way for the industry to settle disputes, mostly between publishers and editors about how to present the news, but the council eventually took on public complaints for a fee.1 Then, the press associations within the council struck an agreement with parliament on which actions would be fall under legal versus ethical jurisdiction, which led to reforms and the establishment of the office of the Press Ombudsman in 1969.2

The Netherlands Press Council was founded by the Netherlands Union of Journalists in 1948, when it was a disciplinary council for that association. After an incident between a non-union journalist and the government, the Netherlands Union of Journalists reformed the council in 1960 to be “given competence with regard to all journalistic practice.”

The Irish Press Council and the Office of the Irish Press Ombudsman were founded by journalists in 2007—just as parliament threatened to “impose restrictive measures against what it saw as runaway press practices”.The threats from parliament stopped after the council was formed. The Irish Code of Practice for the Press Council was also established, containing “a definition of the public interest, a declaration of the freedom of the press, and a statement that this freedom has concomitant (accompanying) responsibilities”.3

What Canada can learn from this: A conflict between the journalism community and the government played a large role in the formation of these national councils as they exist today. Canada's push to create a national council is partly due to large dailies leaving the provincial councils.

Funding and Membership

Sweden: “It is entirely voluntary and wholly financed by four press organizations: The Swedish Newspaper Publishers' Association, The Magazine Publishers' Association, The Swedish Union of Journalists and The National Press Club,” according to the council's website. Two representatives from each of these organizations sit on the Committee for Media Cooperation.1 The council started allowing online-only publications to become members in 2011.1 Meanwhile, the Swedish Radio and Television Authority deals with broadcasting matters.

The Netherlands: A foundation that includes the Netherlands Union of Journalists, the Netherlands Society of Chief-Editors, several co-ordinating organizations of printed press (the Dutch Newspaper Publishers Association, the Consumer Magazines Group of the Dutch Publishers Association and the Dutch association of local newspapers), co-ordinating organizations of public broadcasting — the Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS), Stichting Regionale Omroep Overleg en Samenwerking — andorganizations of commercial broadcasting (RTL Nederland, the Netherlands branch of RTL Group and SBS Broadcasting) maintains the press council. An internet organization (Planet Internet) joined the foundation in 2005. As the foundation includes broadcast organizations, the council's scope includes radio and television programs if it involves journalistic practice.

Ireland: Representatives from National Newspapers of Ireland, Regional Newspapers and Printers Association of Ireland, Magazines Ireland and the National Union of Journalists form the administrative committee of the Press Council. This committee levies each member publication of the council according to its circulation numbers “to meet the funding requirements of the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman.” The council has always allowed online publications to be members but “has no authority over broadcasting”.1

Representation

In addition to a Press Ombudsman, Sweden has a 32-member Press Council: a chair, three vice chairs, eight industry members (with eight deputies) and six independent members (with six deputies). All of the chairs are judges, and the independent members are “to be respected members of the society,” according to the secretary of the council. The chair, vice chair and all industry members are appointed by the Committee for Media Cooperation.1 The independent members are appointed by the Chief Parliamentary Ombudsman and Chairman of the Swedish Bar Association.1

The Netherlands Press Council consists of a chair and four vice chairs (who are all members of the judiciary), 13 journalists and 13 non-journalists. Lawyers fill the roles of secretary and acting secretary. All of the members are appointed by the board of the foundation.

As mentioned, Ireland has a Press Ombudsman as well as a Press Council, which has 13 members: a chair and six others are representatives of Irish society, while the remaining six members are from the journalism industry “(five representing owners and publishers and one representing the interests of journalists)”.1 The Press Council appoints an independent appointments committee that recruits the chair and independent members, confirms the industry nominations and appoints the Press Ombudsman.1

What Canada can learn from this: A mix of citizens, journalists and members of the judiciary make up these press councils. A press ombudsman's role can vary, as explained further on.

How does it all work?

Complainants

Sweden: Anyone can file a complaint with the Press Ombudsman if the person feels the newspaper's published material violated “good journalistic practice.” While Fielden 1 states “the complainant must be personally affected by the content complained about and this is narrowly interpreted,” the council's site provides an alternative where “the person to whom the article relates must provide written consent if the complaint is to result in formal criticism of the newspaper.” The complaint “must relate to published material not journalistic methods”.1

The Netherlands: A complainant sends a written complaint to the Press Council to start the process.

Ireland: People can complain about any article in a member publication if it “personally affects” them and if they feel it breaches the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals. The article doesn't have to be about the complainant, but they must get written consent from those who are referred to in the article. The boundary for complaints is broader than in Sweden, in that it includes not just journalists' work, but also their newsgathering practices. Organizations can also file complaints.In some cases, Ireland's Press Ombudsman steps in to stop potential breaches of the code as they're happening, as seen in the following excerpt from In the Shadows of Giants3:

A parish priest was reporting that journalists and photographers were gathered outside the home of a family involved in a deadly domestic dispute. The survivors were pleading to the   priest to be let alone with their grief, away from the media’s prying eyes, and (Ireland's Press Ombudsman John) Horgan promised to help. “I just ask the editors to respect their privacy,” Horgan said after he hung up the telephone. “Generally, they do pull the dogs off once they know everyone else is going to as well.  So they are not so pressured by competition.” Such a behind-the-scenes request has no bearing on any future complaint to the Irish Press Council, Horgan said… “But prevention is so much better than cure.”

Process

Sweden: The Press Ombudsman may contact the newspaper to resolve the complaint by publishing a correction or a reply from the “affected person.” If this option cannot settle the case and the ombudsman “suspects that the rules of good journalistic practice have been violated,” the ombudsman may launch an inquiry. Both sides are given the chance to comment and then the Press Ombudsman either dismisses the complaint (the complainant may appeal this decision to the Press Council) or decides the evidence warrants a decision by the Press Council. The newspaper is required to pay an administrative fine and is expected to publish the decision.

The Netherlands: The journalist or editor-in-chief is asked to respond in writing within three weeks of the complaint. A public hearing is usually set up soon after, but it will proceed even if neither side shows up. Within eight weeks of the hearing, a decision is sent to both sides and the journalist or news organization is expected to publish the decision.

Ireland: Like the ombudsman in Sweden, the Office of the Press Ombudsman in Ireland will first attempt to resolve the complaint between the editor and complainant “by a process of conciliation.” If that doesn’t work then, unlike Sweden, the ombudsman will actually make a decision after looking over the case. Only rarely will cases be referred to the Press Council for review.1 Outlets are required to publish any decision that upholds the complaint.

Incentive

Ireland's Press Council and Press Ombudsman are recognized under the country's 2009 Defamation Act, and members of the council are allowed to use their good standing and “track record of compliance”1 to mount a defence against defamation lawsuits.Previously, a newspaper's apology could be used against it in defamation lawsuits. The new act encourages member publications to be more transparent and issue corrections, retractions and apologies because, as Press Council Ombudsman John Horgan explains in Regulating the Press1:

An early and wholehearted apology acts to mitigate any possible financial sanction by the court    or by a jury in a civil case… It is actually in their interest now to apologize meaningfully when they get something wrong and this helps them in court.         

To date, no other self-regulated press council has provided statutory incentive for news organizations to belong (though Fielden noted the Australian Press Council was exploring the idea). The University of Oxford, in summarizing Fielden's report, described this approach to press regulation as “more carrot, less stick.”

McCurdy said all press council models will be looked at for the initial report and a following in-depth study. “I think the timing is excellent in terms of supporting a new model for press councils (in Canada). In purely economic terms, you need to have a body that's going to be supported by all of the media news organizations.”

Research papers cited:

Lara Fielden of the University of Oxford. Regulating the Press: A Comparative Study of International Press Councils: Reuters Institute, Oxford University. 2012

Romayne Smith Fullerton of Western University and Maggie Jones Patterson of Duquesne University. Crime News and Privacy: Comparing Crime Reporting in Sweden, the Netherlands, and England in Media and Public Shaming:Drawing the Boundaries of Disclosure. J.Petley, Ed. London: I.B.Tauris & Reuters Institute, Oxford University. 2013.

3 Romayne Smith Fullerton of Western University and Maggie Jones Patterson of Duquesne University. In the Shadow of Giants: The Ethics of Crime Reporting Rituals in Ireland and Canada — Presented at AEJMC annual conference August 2013.