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A taste of PR law #publicrelations #auslaw


I have just completed a legal chapter for a public relations text edited by colleague Jane Johnston. In researching the chapter I came across several Australian cases where PR practitioners had found themselves in legal tangles. Here is a taste of them, but you’ll have to wait for Jane’s new book to get more detail!

According to the Australasian Legal Information Institute (www.austlii.edu.au), the term ‘public relations’ has only been spoken 10 times in High Court judgments, with none of the cases having public relations as a key factor in the decision-making. The mentions did, however, give some indication of the way our leading justices viewed the profession and some hints of the legalities of PR. For example, the 2004 case of Zhu v Treasurer of NSW [2004] 218 CLR 530 involved a dispute between the Sydney Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (SOCOG) in 2000 and a sub-contractor who had been licensed to market an “Olympics Club” package to residents of China. ‘Public relations’ formed part of the intellectual property he was licensed to use, which included “letterheads, stationery, display materials and other advertising, promotional and public relations materials approved by SOCOG to promote the Olympic Club” (para 59).  The case establishes both contract law and intellectual property law as important to the role of PR professionals.

In Sankey v Whitlam (1978) 142 CLR 1, the High Court identified the importance of keeping secrets and confidentiality in government media relations.  Acting Chief Justice Gibbs quoted an earlier British case where Chief Justice Lord Widgery had acknowledged the practice of ‘leaking’ as a PR tool: “To leak a Cabinet decision a day or so before it is officially announced is an accepted exercise in public relations, but to identify the Ministers who voted one way or another is objectionable.”(para 41).

The term ‘public relations’ has been used much more frequently in other courts and tribunals, with Austlii returning 1387 mentions of the term across all its case law databases. It was used in a host of contexts, including defamation, confidentiality, industrial relations, PR advice as lawyer-client privilege and whether public relations expenses could be claimed as part of a damages claim.

Here is a sampler:


Words spoken at a media conference in Adelaide were at the centre of a defamation action in 2012. A Hindley Street nightclub owner sued a neighbouring travel agency operator over a statement she had uttered almost two years earlier in the midst of a media conference he had called to announce an initiative to increase public safety and reduce violence in the central Adelaide precinct. He alleged the travel agency owner had announced loudly to the media gathered at the conference that he – the nightclub owner – was responsible for all the violence in Hindley Street. After hearing from several witnesses (including the nightclub’s public relations consultant) the District Court judge found for the defendant. He said it was more likely the interjector had not made such a blatant defamatory allegation against the nightclub owner and, even if she had, he would only have awarded $7500 in damages. There was no evidence of any actual recording of the words she had spoken despite numerous media representatives being present at the time: Tropeano v. Karidis [2012] SADC 29.

In a Western Australian case in 2006, the consultancy Professional Public Relations (PPR) was ordered to provide all records they had about a DVD recording criticising a proposed brickworks which the director of a building materials company claimed made defamatory statements about him and his company. He suspected a rival building materials company – a client of PPR – was behind the production, and wanted this confirmed so that he could commence legal action: Bgc (Australia) Pty Ltd v Professional  Public Relations  Pty Ltd & Anor [2006] WASC 175.


The most famous sub judice breach in a PR context came in 1987 when former NSW Premier Neville Wran called a media conference where he stated that he believed his friend – High Court Justice Lionel Murphy – was innocent of serious charges he was facing. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published the comments under the heading ‘Murphy innocent—Wran. Court orders retrial’. Both Wran and the Daily Telegraph were convicted of contempt, with Wran fined $25,000 and the newspaper $200,000: Director of Public Prosecutions (Cth) v. Wran (1987) 7 NSWLR 616.


Nine Network’s A Current Affair program had to pay $25,000 in damages to a property owner in 2002 after they had been invited by the Environment Protection Authority to accompany them when raiding his property for suspected environmental offences. The crew had cameras rolling as they entered the property and confronted the owner. The court held there was an implied licence for journalists to enter the land to request permission to film, but not to film without permission. The court also warned public authorities not to invite journalists on such raids, known as ‘ride-alongs’: TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd v. Anning [2002] NSWCA 82.

Contract law

A West Australian District Court case involved a consultant to a South African mining company considering buyouts or mergers with other mining companies. The dispute surrounded a “partly written, partly oral and partly implied” agreement to provide “public relations, lobbying, consulting, networking, facilitating and co-ordinating” services: Newshore Nominees Pty Ltd as trustee for the Commercial and Equities Trust v. Durvan Roodepoort Deep, Limited [2004] WADC 57. The problem was that very little was detailed in the agreement, forcing the judge to look at previous work done by the consultant and to come to an estimate of the number of hours he had worked and their value on this occasion. He accepted that an agreement had been reached, and concluded that $250 per hour was a reasonable sum for the services provided, but could not accept that the consultant had worked 14 hour days for 64 days. Instead, he awarded him $830 per day for eight weeks, totalling $33,200 plus expenses.

Consumer law

The public relations consultancy Essential Media Communications used Victorian consumer law to win a Supreme Court injunction to stop another PR firm – EMC2 – from using that abbreviation of their name. They claimed it could ‘mislead and deceive’ their clients, some of whom knew them by that acronym. The court also accepted Essential Media Communications’ argument that EMC2 might have been ‘passing off’ their business as that of the plaintiff:  Essential Media Communications Pty Ltd v EMC2 & Partners [2002] VSC 554. The Federal Court issued an injunction in similar circumstances in an earlier case to stop a public relations company using the name “Weston”, when an existing consultancy was already operating under that name: Re Weston Communications Pty Ltd v Fortune Communications Holdings Limited and the Weston Company Limited [1985] FCA 426.

© Mark Pearson 2013

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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‘Self-regulation’ oxymoron heralds the era of ‘death by a thousand consent forms’ #mediareforms


The oxymoron in the name of the proposed media reform legislation says it all: It is the “News Media (Self-regulation) Bill 2013”. (See here).

Here we have a piece of legislation proposing a statutory mechanism for the supervision of industry-based self-regulation of print and online news media.

That, dear readers, is “regulation”.

Just as it is troubling when proposed legislation purports to be what it is not, it is of even greater concern when a government moves to rush such laws through Parliament in just one week.

This blog is about media and social media law and regulation and their impact on free expression – not about politics.

But it is politics that has cruelled this whole media regulation review over the past 18 months.

The Independent Media Inquiry, chaired by former Federal Court justice Ray Finkelstein, was mired in politics when it was announced in late 2011 against the backdrop of both Labor and Greens stoushes with Murdoch titles.

And it seems to be politics that is now driving the desire to enact ‘something’ in the life of this government.

But that ‘something’ is problematic on a range of measures.

The basic ‘self-regulatory’ proposal is that a Public Interest Media Advocate be appointed with the power to declare bodies like the Australian Press Council to be a suitable ‘news media self-regulation body’.

If such bodies do not meet the government-appointed Advocate’s criteria, their member media outlets would be stripped of their current Privacy Act exemptions – leaving them exposed to potential privacy compensation orders and a bureaucratic reporting regime that would cripple their news operations.

At present, media organisations just have to be signed up to the Press Council or an equivalent body and be ‘publicly committed to observe’ its privacy standards.

If a media company falls foul of the self-regulator, refuses to join one, or joins one that does not meet the requirements, then the new Public Interest Media Advocate would have the power to strip them of their Privacy Act exemption under Section 7B(4) – leaving them obliged to follow all the privacy protocols associated with ‘obtaining, keeping and disclosing of personal information’ related to any of their stories and photographs.

This would leave the newspaper or online news company having to get every person in a group photograph to sign consent forms and to refrain from publishing sensitive personal information about people like their financial dealings, medical conditions, employment history and a host of other material commonly appearing in news stories.

They would also have to go to the expense of safely storing all the personal information they gathered for news reports and deal with requests from individuals who might want to withdraw their permission for them to retain that information about them.

There is no ‘public interest’ exemption to this requirement under the Privacy Act – other than formally seeking a ‘public interest determination’ from the Privacy Commissioner in a specific case.

Of course, there may be other protections for investigative reporters – perhaps the permission to publish details already released under the privacy provisions of Freedom of Information laws, and of course privileges extending to material tabled in court or Parliament.

There might also be an argument that the High Court’s implied freedom to communicate on matters of government and politics might apply to some private information in limited circumstances, although recent decisions from that court seem to render that freedom problematic and dependent on the views of individual judges.

There is a long principle ‘against prior restraint’ in our legal system – shackles by governments and courts to stop the news media before they have the opportunity to publish something.

The most famous example were the attempts in earlier centuries to license the printing presses – government measures opposed by famous statesmen and jurists like John Milton, John Stuart Mill and our own colony’s first Chief Justice, Sir Francis Forbes.

This proposal is for a system of de facto licensing because the statutory alternative to joining the self-regulatory regime would almost guarantee financial ruin for a newspaper company in this environment, when they are already facing huge challenges retaining readership and winning advertising in the Web 2.0 era.

The Privacy Act provisions would only apply to media companies earning more than $3 million per year – which is the threshold for corporations – and the proposed bill also offers a ‘small business’ exemption to its requirements.

This would potentially leave us with a two-speed news media – small operators, bloggers, citizen journalists and social media users sharing private information willy-nilly while larger news organisations falling outside the ‘self-regulatory’ regime are left to expend valuable time and resources filling out all that privacy paperwork.

Unlike other Western democracies, Australia has no written constitutional protection of free expression in the form of a Bill of Rights or a regional human rights document. The explanatory notes to the proposed laws go through the usual routine of giving a ‘Statement of Compatibility with Human Rights’, in accordance with Part 3 of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011.

But the imposition of the proposals on free expression is dispensed with in just three paragraphs excusing it because of its capacity for respecting the privacy and reputations of other citizens.

There is no doubt Australia’s media self-regulation can be improved, and there is even scope for some fine-tuning of media laws.

It is also evident that the Australian Press Council has markedly improved its systems and funding under the leadership of its chair, Professor Julian Disney.

There are already several hundred media laws in this country – enough to fill at least three major journalism textbooks in the field and several more in the specialist areas of torts, criminal law and intellectual property.

Even a tort of privacy invasion with a strong public interest exemption for journalism would be preferable to this proposal for a system of ‘death by a thousand consent forms’ for struggling news organisations who should have the right to be lone wolves and refuse to play the government’s game.

Call it what you like, but this Bill is not ‘self-regulation’.

© Mark Pearson 2013

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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The media regulation debate in a democracy lacking a free expression guarantee


The latest edition of Pacific Journalism Review is out – a special issue edited by Chris Nash, David Robie and Johan Lidberg on ‘Rebuilding Public Trust’.

My contribution carries the same title as this blog. Here are the abstract and conclusion, but if you’re really interested you’ll need to get PJR for the body of the article and the references – and, of course, another 13 articles by some of the region’s top journalists and researchers.


Two major inquiries into the Australian news media in 2011 and 2012 prompted a necessary debate over the extent to which rapidly converging and globalised news businesses and platforms require statutory regulation at a national level.  Three regulatory models emerged – a News Media Council backed by recourse to the contempt powers of courts; a super self-regulatory body with legislative incentives to join; and the status quo with a strengthened Australian Press Council policing both print and online media. This article reviews the proposals and explores further the suggestion that consumer laws could be better utilised in any reform. It concludes with an assessment of the impact of the inquiries and their recommendations upon free expression in a Western democracy lacking constitutional protection of the media.



The Convergence Review report cleverly proposed the removal of some existing protections instead of the imposition of draconian new regulations, but then failed to flesh out their possibilities. It needed to position its mechanism of privacy and consumer law exemptions for signatories to its new pan-media self-regulatory body as much more than hypothetical and to detail its plans for the implementation of these proposals.

Australia already has one statutory regulator with powers to punish ethical transgressions – the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). In an era of increasingly commercialised and converged media, it seems reasonable that at least some forms of irresponsible journalism might be addressed via the legislative mechanism prohibiting misleading and deceptive conduct by any corporation against media consumers.

Such a legislative solution already exists, as identified by the Convergence Review – and it only requires an amendment to the existing news organisation immunity from prosecution under the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions at Section 18 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. The proposal to take away media exemptions from prosecution under this section would leave them accountable for misleading and deceptive claims and behaviour in their editorial functions.

While misleading and deceptive conduct does not take in all unethical behaviour by news organisations or the journalists who act as their agents, it could well be read to cover such sins as lies, inaccuracy, subterfuge, and lack of verification of the false claims of others. The amendment would mean both the ACCC (and private citizens) could launch prosecutions over such behaviour, with the force of the regulatory powers it already holds. The key to this would be an amendment of the ‘prescribed information provider’ exception (Section 19) so that news organisations would no longer have the blanket, almost unchallengeable protection for misleading and deceptive conduct which was introduced after their lobbying in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They would only earn this exemption if they were signatories to the new self-regulatory body and abiding by its requirements.

I have previously backgrounded this news media exemption to consumer law provisions under the predecessor to the existing legislation, the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Pearson, 2000). The media operated for more than a decade under that law without special exemptions from its misleading and deceptive conduct provisions. In 1984, Section 52 (the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ clause under the TPA) caused concern in the case of Global Sportsman v. Mirror Newspapers (1984) 2 FCR 82 when it was held that the publication of statements – including statements of opinion made in the ordinary course of news – could constitute conduct which was “misleading or deceptive”.

Successful lobbying by the media led to the government of the day introducing the exemption from the provision for “prescribed information providers” unless the deception occurred in relation to the publication of advertisements or in articles promoting the information providers’ own commercial interests. “Prescribed information providers” included “…a person who carries on a business of providing information” and included obviously newspapers, holders of broadcasting licenses, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service Corporation (SBS).

The exemption – known as the ‘media safe harbour’ – acknowledged the fact that news organisations could not vouch for every claim made by those quoted in their news columns or stories (Applegarth, 2008). However, the instant news material was sponsored, or run in return for some compensation in cash or kind, or was used to promote the news organisation’s own operations (such as in a promo), it fell within the Act and left any misleading content open to prosecution of the media proprietor.

This rendered journalists and their organisations particularly vulnerable in the realm of advertorials, if it could be shown that space had been devoted to the promotion of a company’s products or services just because they happened to be advertising or they had reached some arrangement or understanding with some corporation to that effect.

If such claims were proven to be misleading or deceptive the media outlet was held responsible and could face an injunction preventing publication or a damages claim from those adversely affected.

The provision raised serious questions about media companies’ cross-promotion of their related corporate interests, particularly in an age where concentrated conglomerates had substantial shareholdings and sponsorships across industries. The exemption has been struck down by superior courts in two recent cases. The High Court found against a media organisation under the former Trade Practices Act in ACCC v. Channel Seven Brisbane Pty Ltd [2009] HCA 19.  That decision related to false claims on the tabloid television current affairs program ‘Today Tonight’ about goods and services. The reform would extend this to other ethical breaches. The NSW Court of Appeal had earlier ruled that Nine’s ‘A Current Affair’ did not qualify for the exemption over misleading claims made by their staff who posed as prospective customers in an expose of a home construction company. Their false claims were made in the course of their investigation – not while carrying on the business of providing information – and they had failed to reveal that they were in the information provision business during their inquiry. As Justice Applegarth has noted: “Statements made in the course of an investigation are said to lack such correspondence because they do not occur ‘in the course of carrying on’ a business of providing information.” (2008, p. 3).

Of course, the consumer laws apply to corporations rather than individuals, so journalists themselves would not be liable personally, well exemplified in the Current Affair case cited above. However, it is likely their employer organisations would pressure them to comply when faced with the prospect of ACCC prosecutions and contempt charges for disobeying any resulting orders.

The Convergence Review’s suggestion that a similar ‘carrot’ be applied to the exemptions to privacy law is more problematic. The ‘Journalism’ exemption to the Privacy Act 1988 at s. 7B(4) references privacy standards issued by the Australian Press Council as newspaper organisations’ ticket to a waiver (APC, 2011). Media organisations simply have to avow they are ‘publicly committed to observe standards’ on privacy as documented by their representative organisation. However, the proposed reform would require more of them than simply being ‘publicly committed to observe standards’ and to have published them.

If they refused to sign up for the Convergence Review’s ‘self-regulator’ they would have to follow in their journalism all of the privacy protocols applying to other corporations and marketers. Permissions would need to be sought and documented every time a citizen was named or identified visually in a news story or column and every time ‘private’ details about them and their lives were being published. It would be a logistical nightmare for a news organization. There are already a myriad of laws of defamation, trespass, data protection, surveillance, confidentiality, discrimination, consumer law, stalking, court publishing restrictions, suppression orders and copyright controlling the news media’s handling of private information. The recommendation comes at a time the government is also considering a proposal for a ‘statutory cause of action for a serious invasion of privacy’ – giving citizens the right to sue over a privacy breach and receive either an award of damages or an injunction to stop publication. If the statutory tort were introduced, then the removal of the Privacy Act exemption for media companies would appear to be overkill given the array of other laws in the field.

Reactions to the suggestion of a statutory regulator have certainly been strident and at times histrionic. Assistant to the Finkelstein inquiry, Professor Matthew Ricketson, responded in The Age to accusations that “… we would all be living in Stalinist Russia or even Hitler’s Nazi Germany with its Reich Press Chamber if the government acted on this recommendation”. He continued:

Really? What is actually recommended differs from the existing system in only one key aspect, namely government would fund the News Media Council. (Ricketson, 2012).

While he quite rightly took offence at such reactive rants, Ricketson was wrong to suggest that government funding of his proposed News Media Council was the only point of difference from the status quo.

Arms-length government funding of a self-regulator certainly sounds some alarm bells, but there may well be mechanisms to secure its independence, just as the ABC is publicly funded yet independent. The greater concern is with the body’s ultimate power to refer disobedient media outlets to courts with the distinct possibility they might face fines or a jail term if they continued to disobey the council’s order. Such powers place strong emphasis on the word ‘enforced’ in Finkelstein’s system of ‘enforced self-regulation’ and pushes it a long way towards the full government regulation its critics fear. The proposal would effectively convert ethical codes into laws – ultimately enforceable in the courts.

This has certainly been a long overdue debate in Australia, but it has occurred in a politicised context that has been counter-productive and has undermined the likelihood of the implementation of any of the proposals.  Several academics and small publishers stepped up to give the Finkelstein model their approval (The Conversation, 2012). Labor and Greens applauded it and pushed for its enactment, having demanded such an inquiry in the midst of the News of the World scandal in the UK and continued adverse coverage about them in News Limited publications locally (Kitney et.al, 2012).

Criticism of the recommendations by the larger media groups on free expression grounds were dismissed as a defence of their vested interests. It surprised nobody that News Limited chief executive Kim Williams opposed statutory regulation (Meade and Canning, 2012), but such pigeon-holing of Finkelstein’s serious critics is misplaced. History is littered with examples of politicians withdrawing citizens’ rights to free expression because they did not like what they had been saying about them at a particular moment in history.

And, while the concerns of the Left at Murdoch media treatment might have helped trigger the inquiries, despite public protestations against the proposals by Opposition figures (Kerr, 2012), it is questionable whether a Conservative government would act to dismantle a new statutory regulator and its ‘independence’ could well be tested. The Howard conservative government lacked an impressive free expression record. It famously appointed arch conservatives to the ‘independent’ ABC board, ramped up anti-terror laws and cynically exploited exemptions to freedom of information requests. That government’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, confessed to newspaper publishers in 2006: “Freedom of information always seems a great idea when you are in Opposition but less so when you are in Government” (McNicoll, 2006).

The Australian Press Council – with a suitable name change – could become an effective pan-media self-regulator and fulfil similar functions to the one proposed by the Convergence Review. That review’s suggestion of encouraging membership with the carrot of consumer law exemptions is also a mechanism worth considering.

A uniform code of practice across all news media is a vital reform. It is essential that media outlets and journalists conform to ethical codes. It is in their interests that they do so, because it is these very ethical standards that distinguish them from the many new voices seeking audiences in the new media environment. But Australia has a confusing array of self-regulatory and co-regulatory documents guiding ethical standards of journalists and their outlets. No single journalist could possibly be expected to understand and operate effectively within deadline, paying heed to all that might apply to him or her, including the MEAA Code of Ethics, an in-house code, an industry code and the related laws and formal regulations that might apply.

This moots strongly for a single code of ethics applying to journalists and their employers across all media, similar to the existing MEAA Code of Ethics, addressing fundamental principles of truth, accuracy, verification, attribution, transparency, honesty, respect, equity, fairness, independence, originality and integrity, with exceptions only for matters of substantial legitimate public concern. Of course, this could be supplemented by industry or workplace ‘information and guidance’ documents to help explain to journalists and editors the fact scenarios and precedents applying to a particular medium or specialty, along the lines of the Australian Press Council’s guidance releases. As Ricketson (2012) has suggested, media outlets need to be more pro-active in developing better in-house processes for assessing ethical decisions and in explaining those decisions to their audiences. All reforms will, of course, need to be supplemented with better training of journalists about their rights and responsibilities and broader education of ordinary citizens to raise their level of media literacy.

Australia is rare among Western democracies in that it does not have free expression or media freedom enshrined in its Constitution and no federal bill of rights with such a protection. Other countries like the UK and New Zealand proposing similar regulating mechanisms have free expression as an explicit right informing their jurisprudence. The closest Australia has come to any such protection came in a series of decisions through the 1990s, starting with the Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v. Commonwealth and Nationwide News v. Wills cases in 1992, where the High Court introduced and developed a so-called “implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government”. The court held this principle was fundamental to the system of representative government, but it demonstrated recently in Wotton v. Queensland (2011) that it was in no rush to progress this implied freedom. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria have enacted limited charters of rights in the form of human rights acts, both of which enshrine free expression at the state and territory level, but neither applies to other jurisdictions and each is problematic even in its application in to its own jurisdiction (Pearson and Polden, 2011, pp. 38-39).

The lack of any formal written guarantee of a free media makes proposals for statutory regulators even more of a threat to democracy in Australia than in most comparable nations and this fact did not appear to weigh heavily enough with the architects of the Finkelstein report or those who rushed to support it. ‘Enforced self-regulation’ is not a suitable solution – at least not until free expression earns stronger protection from a more enthusiastic High Court or in a national bill of rights. Stronger self-regulation with the carrot of consumer law exemptions for compliant media outlets would strike the appropriate balance of freedoms and responsibilities in the interim.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Lost cause? The Convergence Review model for news media self-regulation


Australia’s news media regulatory framework has been the subject of two recommendations for major overhauls in recent months.

It was the $2.7 million Convergence Review, announced in late 2010, that was meant to develop the definitive regulatory model in its final report released in April, 2012.

But along the way political pressures (or opportunism, depending on who you want to believe) prompted the announcement last September of an offshoot – the $1.2 million Independent Media Inquiry – specifically briefed to deal with the self-regulation of print media ethics.

Its architects – former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein and journalism professor Matthew Ricketson – argued they could not decouple print news self-regulation from broadcast ‘co-regulation’ in the digital era, so came up with a statutory model including both.

Their News Media Council, proposed in their report of February 28, 2012, would take over from the existing Australian Press Council and Australian Communications and Media Authority with a streamlined news media ethics complaints system with teeth. Refusal to obey an order to correct or apologise could see a media outlet dealt with for contempt of court and ultimately face a hefty fine or a jail term.

I have written previously on my concerns about the implications of these recommendations on Australia’s international standing as a democratic nation with a free media, particularly in light of our lack of any written constitutional protection of free expression.

The ‘Finkelstein report’ – as it became known – was only ever meant to be an advisory to its parent Convergence Review, which ultimately acknowledged but rejected its simplistic model in favour of its own innovative and less draconian one.

But the Convergence Review left it to others to put flesh on its more complex reform proposals, leaving the Finkelstein statutory regulation model to fill the void for Labor and Green politicians riding the wave of concern about media ethics in the wake of the UK’s News of the World inquiry and arguing that ‘something must be done’ in Australia.

According to news reports, the parliamentary winter recess will be used by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and the Greens to rally support for the enactment of a version of the Finkelstein model.

Experts argue they will lack the numbers to drive it home, and it is unlikely a 2013 conservative government would take up the cause, given the antipathy of leading Opposition figures Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis.

Meanwhile, the Convergence Review’s innovative ‘carrot and stick’ model of self-regulation has all but disappeared from public commentary, overshadowed by the stark divide over Finkelstein’s statutory regulation proposal between the Opposition (and major media players) and the Government, Greens and anti-Murdoch intellectuals.

It is a shame the debate has been reduced to this black and white (red versus blue) battle.

I am working on a longer academic article examining the Convergence Review’s novel but sparsely articulated attempt at dealing with the evolving regulatory demands of Web 2.0 (and 3.0 and 4.0…), but I will share some preliminary thoughts here.

First, to review the Convergence Review’s proposed model. While its final report shared Finkelstein’s concerns about shortcomings with existing regulatory systems, it proposed that ‘direct statutory mechanisms … be considered only after the industry has been given the full opportunity to develop and enforce an effective, cross-platform self-regulatory scheme’. In other words, it was offering the media industry ‘drinks at the last chance saloon’ for a three year period under its model (p. 53).

Its mechanism centres upon the establishment of a new ‘news standards body’ operating across all media platforms – reinforcing the overall review’s preference for ‘platform neutrality’ (p.51).

The news standards body ‘would administer a self-regulatory media code aimed at promoting standards, adjudicating complaints, and providing timely remedies’ (p. 153).

The Convergence Review decided not to be prescriptive about the constitution or operational requirements for such a body, beyond some broad requirements.

The largest news media providers – those it deemed ‘content service providers’ – would be required by legislation to become members of a standards body. Most funding for the new body should come from industry, while taxpayer funds might be drawn upon to meet shortfalls or special projects. (p. xiv). It should feature:

–       a board of directors, with a majority independent from the members;

–       establishment of standards for news and commentary, with specific requirements for fairness and accuracy;

–       implementation and maintenance of an ‘efficient and effective’ complaints handling system;

–       a range of remedies and sanctions, including the requirement that findings be published on the respective platform. (p. 51)

The review’s definition of ‘content service enterprises’ (control over their content, a large number of Australian users, and a high level of revenue drawn from Australia) would catch about 15 media operators in its net.

Others might be encouraged to join the body with a threat to remove their current news media exemptions to privacy laws and consumer law ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions.

To my mind, this is the most innovative element of the Convergence Review’s proposal, and is something I proposed in my personal submission to the Independent Media Inquiry and blogged about at the time.

The review only deals with this aspect as a hypothetical, and refers readers in a footnote to pages 127-136 of the Independent Media Inquiry report for extended explanation of the exemptions. The review offers just a single sentence by way of explanation:

“In particular, it seems reasonable that only those organisations that have committed to an industry self-regulatory scheme for upholding journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy should be entitled to the exemptions from the provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 concerning misleading and deceptive statements and from the obligations of the Privacy Act 1988 that would otherwise apply to those organisations.” (p. 51).

My article will explore these further, going into the history of the exemptions and important case law covering on their application.

Take these away, and the review’s recommendations are relatively meek, and unlikely to appease those wanting stricter controls over news content.

The Australian Press Council has been moving quickly to ramp up its purview and powers over its members, and can meet most of the requirements except these. It has already locked its members into four year commitments and has established an independent panel to advise on its review of its content standards.

It is poised to apply this across all media if broadcasters and online providers decide it offers the simplest mechanism to meet the Convergence Review’s recommendations. Either way, it can quite rightly argue that newspaper and online news readers are being serviced by a superior complaints handling system than that which existed before the inquiries.

In my view, the Convergence Review report needed to position its privacy and consumer law exemptions as much more than hypotheticals and to detail its plans for the implementation of these proposals.

But I suspect its members were caught short on time and resources when the Independent Media Inquiry went too far for its liking with its statutory regulation solution.

It’s a shame that a multi-million dollar inquiry like this one has left it to academics like me to dot its i’s and cross its t’s on detail.

It’s a greater shame that politicians wish to capitalise on a moment of public antipathy to the media to introduce a draconian, simplistic solution in a democratic nation with no documented right to free expression.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Queensland’s biggest publisher – the police – try to calm the FB lynch mob


The resources of the Queensland Police Service Facebook fan page were stretched over the past 24 hours to cope with the public response to their announcement of an arrest of a suspect in one of Brisbane’s most compelling ‘whodunnit’ murder mysteries.

Mainstream and social media speculation about the case has been rampant since 43-year-old Allison Baden-Clay went missing on April 23. Her husband Gerard appeared in court today charged with her murder.

As I have blogged previously, the Queensland Police Service has a highly successful Facebook page which established the bulk of its 289,500 fan base during the devastating Brisbane floods in January last year. It proved an excellent community communication tool during the disaster and since then as a crime detection aid as the public volunteer leads on unsolved crimes and public safety.

But the challenge comes when Police Media announce on their Facebook page the apprehension of a suspect in a high profile case.

The problem with Facebook fan pages is that you must have the ‘comment’ function turned completely ‘on’ or ‘off’ – so the best the police can do is monitor the feed and remove offensive or prejudicial material after it has been posted.

That might be fine during an uneventful day when the police social media team can keep on top of the message flow – but when an arrest has been made in an emotion-charged crime like a murder or a child sex attack many fans want to ‘vent’.

That’s what happened with the arrest of a suspect in the murder of Sunshine Coast teenager Daniel Morcombe last August.

It happened again last night and today as, within 21 hours, more than 500 fans commented on the Police Media announcement that Baden-Clay had been charged with his wife’s murder and more than 1,500 ‘liked’ the announcement. Those 506 comments were the ones that survived the post-publication moderation process where officers in the social media unit trawl through the latest posts to delete the inappropriate ones.

The law of sub judice in Australia dictates that nothing can be published that might prejudice the trial of an accused after they have been arrested or charged. That includes any assumption of guilt (or even innocence), evidentiary material, theories about the crime, witness statements, prior convictions or character material about the accused. It even bans visual identification of the accused if that might be an issue in court. In a murder trial it usually is.

The penalty can be a criminal conviction on your record, a stiff fine and sometimes even a jail term for contempt of court.

Once the accused has appeared in court, journalists covering the matter are protected from both contempt and defamation action if they write a ‘fair and accurate’ report of the hearing, sticking to material stated in open court in the presence of the jury – if there is one.

It’s hard enough for reporters to get their heads around these rules – let alone the Facebook fans posting their theories on a murder to the police Facebook page.

Even some of the posts that have survived the police editing process to date push the boundaries of acceptable commentary on a pending case.

One stands out: “Ann Gray: Took long enough. It was obvious that he did it. Hope he rots in jail.”

That was six hours after the announcement, and obviously the moderators were running short on patience with their ‘fans’. The moderators took to calling those speculating on the crime “Facebook detectives”. One replied to Ms Gray: “Queensland Police Service: Ann Gray *sigh* Really? The third detective we have commenting on here that does not comprehend what it takes? I suggest you don’t pass judgement on something that you know nothing about!”, and then “Queensland Police Service: I am not sure ‘because it is obvious’ is suffice (sic) evidence in court, Facebook detectives. It is a matter before the courts. Enough!”

They also tried with a standard warning to commenters that was pasted into the discussion on several occasions: “Facebookers who are just joining this post, please do not speculate on this matter. Any posts which do are deleted and those who continue will be banned from our FB page. Please respect our rules. Thanks.”

One fan – Bec Mooney – suggested the police disable their comments function if they were so concerned about offensive and prejudicial material appearing, to which the police replied: “Queensland Police Service Bec Mooney – WE CAN’T DISABLE COMMENTS. Take that issue to Facebook. Even if we could, it would contradict the idea of social media.”

Do I sense a little attitude here? Clearly, the officers were getting tired and frustrated in the midst of the onslaught of the ‘lynch mob’, but surely the correspondent Ms Mooney had a valid point.

As I blogged earlier this week, Australian courts have ruled that the hosts of such fan pages are legally responsible for the comments of others on their sites and must act within a reasonable time to remove illegal or actionable material.

But they haven’t yet had to rule on a serious sub judice matter – so the key question is: How long is it reasonable for a prejudicial statement like the ‘obvious he did it’ and ‘rot in hell’ comment to remain on a public law enforcement agency’s Facebook page? It had been there 15 hours when we took our screen shot and may well still be there when you are reading this.

These rules apply to the mainstream media, and the police fan page has been so successful that it is now Queensland’s biggest publisher on some counts. Its fan base outstrips the Courier-Mail’s circulation, which peaks at 255,000 on a Saturday. And that newspaper – Queensland’s biggest – has fewer than 20,000 fans on its Facebook page. The ABC has just 91,000 nationally.

They aren’t allowed to publish this kind of prejudicial material.

Surely the police have even less excuse for hosting such comments even for a moment. The Queensland Police Service is the arresting and prosecuting authority whose job is to preserve the integrity of the justice process.

I fear it will not be long before a savvy defence lawyer seizes the opportunity to use such prejudicial commentary as grounds for appeal – perhaps resulting in a trial being aborted at great public expense or even a verdict quashed. That would be the exact opposite of what most of these commenters and the police would want.

Social media is clearly a superb resource for police and other agencies to use to connect with their communities and to build public trust. But let’s get sensible with this.

Instead of boasting to the whole world about a high profile arrest like this one, surely the police can hold back and let the mainstream media publish their announcement just as they have done for decades. The message would still get out and at least they would not then have the headache of the avalanche of comments in response to this kind of PR announcement.

The police argue that disabling comments might “contradict the idea of social media”, but surely their hosting of prejudicial material – even for a short time – contradicts the valued right to a fair trial of those they have arrested.  

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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The liability time bomb of comments on your FB fan page #medialaw


What if someone posted a comment to your Facebook fan page at 5.15pm on a Friday alleging a leading businessman in your community was a paedophile?

How long would it be before someone noticed it? Immediately? Perhaps 9am Monday?

I put this question to a group of suburban newspaper journalists recently, expecting most would not be checking their newspapers’ Facebook pages over the weekend.

I guessed right, but I was amazed when one replied that such a comment would have remained there for the three months since he last looked at his company’s fan page.

Facebook fan pages are a legal time bomb for corporations, particularly in Australia where the courts have yet to rule definitively on the owner’s liability for the comments of others.

In an earlier blog I looked more closely at the decision of Federal Court Justice Ray Finkelstein in the Allergy Pathways case last year.

Justice Finkelstein’s ruled that in a consumer law case a company would have to take reasonable steps to remove misleading and deceptive comments of others from their Facebook fan pages (and Twitter feeds) the instant they had been brought to their attention.

A more recent Federal Court case examined moderated comments on a newspaper’s website in the context of a racial discrimination claim.

In Clarke v. Nationwide News, Justice Michael Barker ordered the publishers of the Perth Now website to pay $12,000 to the mother of three indigenous boys who died after crashing a stolen car and to take down the racist comments about them from readers that had triggered the claim.

Central to the case was the fact that the newspaper employed an experienced journalist to moderate the comments on its site, meaning that it had taken on responsibility as ‘publisher’ of the comments. (The newspaper managing editor’s explanation of the moderation system at paras 170-178 makes for interesting reading too).

Justice Barker distinguished situations where the editors actively moderated readers’ comments from those where they did not (para 110), but restricted that distinction to the operation of s. 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which requires the “offensive behavior” to have been “because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

Unmoderated comments fall outside this because it cannot be proven the publisher shares the commenter’s racist motivation unless the publisher refuses to take down the comments once this has been brought to their attention.

Justice Barker stated:

“If the respondent publishes a comment which itself offends s18C, where the respondent has “moderated” the comment through a vetting process, for example, in order not to offend the general law (or to meet other media standards), then the offence will be given as much by the respondent in publishing the offensive comment as by the original author in writing it.

“In such circumstances, it will be no defence for the respondent media outlet to say, ‘But we only published what the reader sent us’.”

Some might read this to mean that it is safer to run all comments in an unmoderated form – just like a Facebook ‘fan’ page is structured – then take them down if you get a complaint.

Such an approach might sit okay with these decisions in consumer or racial discrimination law, but what happens when the time bomb lands – a shocking defamation imputation, a heinous allegation damaging a forthcoming trial, or the breach of a court order or publication restriction like the naming of a rape victim?

Defamation and contempt are matters of ‘strict liability’, where you might be liable even if you are ignorant of the defamatory or contemptuous content you are publishing. The only intent required is that you intended to publish your publication or were ‘reckless’ in the publishing of the material. And neither has offered protection for publishers providing a forum for the comments of others.

Which brings us back to the question at the very start. If the Federal Court has ruled you should remove unmoderated material breaching consumer or race law within a reasonable time of becoming aware of it, what will courts deem a ‘reasonable time’ for a serious allegation of child molestation about a prominent citizen to remain on a publisher’s Facebook fan page?

If the allegation were about me, I certainly wouldn’t want it remaining there over a weekend. Or even five minutes. Any period of time would be unreasonable for such a dreadful slur.

The High Court established 10 years ago in the Gutnick case that a publisher is responsible for defamation wherever their material is downloaded. As The Age revealed in 2010, a blogger using the pseudonym ‘witch’ launched a series of attacks on a stockmarket forum about technology security company Datamotion Asia Pacific Ltd and its Perth-based chairman and managing director, Ronald Moir. A court ordered the forum host HotCopper to hand over the blogger’s details which could only be traced to an interstate escort service. But private investigation by the plaintiff’s law firm eventually found the true author of the postings on the other side of the nation who was then hit with a $30,000 defamation settlement.

And what if it is a litany of allegations about the accused in an upcoming criminal trial? I have blogged previously about the awkward position the Queensland Police face with their very successful Facebook fan page when citizens comment prejudicially about the arrest of an accused in a criminal case. No matter how well those fan page comments are moderated by police media personnel, they could never keep pace with the prejudicial avalanche of material posted on the arrest of a suspect in a high profile paedophilia case.

That leads to the awkward situation of the key prosecutor of a crime hosting – albeit temporarily – sub judice material on their own site. It can’t be long before defence lawyers use this as a reason to quash a conviction.

The situation is different in many other countries – particularly in the US where s. 230 of the Communication Decency Act gives full protection to ‘interactive computer services’, even protecting blog hosts from liability for comments by users.

Much has changed in the three decades since I had my first letter to the editor published by the Sydney Morning Herald as an 18-year-old student.

I can clearly recall that newspaper’s letters editor phoning me in my suburban Sydney home to check that I really was the author of the letter and that I agreed with his minor edits.  No doubt he then initialled the relevant columns in the official letters log – the standard practice that continues in some newspaper newsrooms today.

But all that caution has been abandoned in the race for relevance in the digital and Web 2.0 eras.

First, it was news organisations’ websites allowing live comments from readers – still largely moderated. For a while, most insisted on identification details from their correspondents.

Next came their publication in hard copy of SMS messages received in response to their stories. My local newspaper – the Gold Coast Bulletin – sometimes publishes several pages of such short texts from readers using witty pseudonyms.

And now we have the Facebook fan pages, where the technology does not allow the pre-moderation of the comments of others. You need to have that facility switched completely ‘on’ or ‘off’ – and it defeats the purpose of engaging with readers for a media organisation to turn off the debate. I can post a Facebook comment from an Internet café under the name ‘Poison Pen’ and it may well be vetted by nobody.

The whole issue is symptomatic of the social media challenges facing both the traditional media and the courts.

Meanwhile, expect to wait a while to see your comments to this blog published. I’ve elected for full moderation of all comments, and have already rejected a couple that seem to leave me exposed as publisher. You can’t be too cautious now, can you?

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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Inquiry’s #Finkelstein was judge who fined company for contempt over comments by its Facebook fans


Independent Media Inquiry chair Ray Finkelstein had already broken new legal ground and fined an online publisher for contempt for hosting misleading comments on its Facebook page before he was appointed to the inquiry last year.

His decision as a Federal Court judge in Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Allergy Pathway Pty Ltd (No 2) [2011] FCA 74 in January 2011 established the leading Australian precedent on publishers’ responsibility for the comments of others on their websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.

He found the alternative health company’s actions in not removing ‘misleading and deceptive’ claims about its allergy treatments by ‘fans’ on its Facebook page (and ‘Twitter pages’) was in breach of earlier court orders to desist from making claims that it could ‘diagnose and treat allergies’.

As Crikey reported at the time, he fined both the company and its director, Mr Paul Keir, $7500 each for the disobedience contempt.

He has now chaired an inquiry which has a core recommendation with exactly that potential outcome – along with possible jail terms – for news bloggers and media outlets that refuse to publish corrections or apologies as directed by a new statutory News Media Council.

Of course there are key differences here, too. Allergy Pathway was not a news publisher – and it was disobeying an earlier court order under consumer law.

However, then Justice Finkelstein broke new ground on an issue where other jurisdictions like the US and the UK have offered protection to ISPs and blog hosts over the words of commenters on their sites.

Until a higher court decides otherwise, his decision means every Facebook user and website host (and Twitter user! – see below) is legally responsible for ‘publishing’ the comments of others on their sites.

The extent to which they might be immediately liable for an offending comment or whether they would be protected by taking it down within a ‘reasonable’ time has not yet been determined.

Certainly, Justice Finkelstein’s decision established that they would need to take reasonable steps to remove any such comments the instant they had been brought to their attention.

The Allergy Pathways decision goes to some lengths (paras 14-17) to define a Facebook ‘profile’ and ‘fan page’ and a Twitter feed.

But at paragraph 18 Justice Finkelstein seems to show a misunderstanding of Twitter by stating the ACCC’s argument as “once Allergy Pathway is aware of the statement having been placed on its Facebook or Twitter page and does not remove it, then it is liable for contempt”.

Call me an ignoramus, but I am left wondering: What is my “Twitter page”, and how can someone else post something there? Does he mean my own list of tweets, for which I am clearly responsible myself? Does he mean a #hashtag I have established on a topic? Surely I could not be responsible for others’ comments there? Or does he mean someone putting my handle in their tweet, for which I could surely not be held responsible?

He proceeds to track the legal precedents for host liability through defamation posted on golf club noticeboards, through to bulletin board hosts and Internet Service Provider liability.

“The effect of these cases is that merely facilitating the commission of a wrong will not result in liability but it is another thing to procure or conspire in the commission of the wrong, in which case liability may be imposed, particularly if the procurer is aware of the material being published and has accepted general responsibility for its publication,” Justice Finkelstein wrote.

He concluded: “It has been shown, indeed it was not disputed, that Allergy Pathway knew that persons had published testimonials on its Twitter and Facebook pages and that it took no steps to have them removed. …

“While it cannot be said that Allergy Pathway was responsible for the initial publication of the testimonials (the original publisher was the third party who posted the testimonials on Allergy Pathway’s Twitter and Facebook pages) it is appropriate to conclude that Allergy Pathway accepted responsibility for the publications when it knew of the publications and decided not to remove them.

“Hence it became the publisher of the testimonials. In any event it is clear that it caused them to continue to be published from the time it became aware of their existence, which is enough to put Allergy Pathway in breach of the second limb of its undertaking.”

I might be missing something here, but the good judge appears to have bundled the company’s responsibility for comments by others on its “Twitter page” in with responsibility for comments on its Facebook page.

I can live with the latter – and as a result of this decision media organisations and public sector groups like the Queensland Police are now monitoring their Facebook comments very carefully – but how on earth can we control the former? And what is a ‘Twitter page’ upon which others might comment?

Please enlighten me in the comments section below.

Another theory is that Mr Finkelstein and his advisers were not quite as expert on the workings of the Internet and social media as punters might expect from a $1 million-plus government inquiry. The have already been criticized for using the term ‘hits’ rather than ‘page views’.

As for the fact that Mr Finkelstein already had ‘form’ in the fining of publishers for contempt is not that great a surprise. It is what senior judges are sometimes called upon to do.

However, it puts into context his core recommendation for a statutory solution with appeal to a judge like him with the power to fine or jail a news publisher or relatively small blogger for disobedience contempt.

Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. His views here do not purport to represent those of either of those organisations.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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News Media Council proposal: be careful what you wish for #ausmedia #MediaInquiry #Finkelstein


The Finkelstein (and Ricketson) Independent Media Inquiry report released yesterday is a substantial and well researched document with a dangerously flawed core recommendation.

An impressive distillation of legal, philosophical and media scholarship (compulsory reading for journalism students) and worthy recommendations for simpler codes and more sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable are overshadowed by the proposal that an ‘independent’ News Media Council be established, bankrolled by at least $2 million of government funding annually.

This Council would have the ‘power’ to order corrections and apologies – but not to fine or jail journalists. That would be left to a higher court if a media outlet did not comply.

Several academics and small publishers have given it their approval. Even the Greens have applauded it, having demanded such an inquiry in the midst of the News of the World scandal in the UK and continued adverse coverage in News Limited publications locally.

The politicised circumstances of the inquiry’s birth fuelled a cry of ‘something must be done’ about the news media – for once and for all.

Criticism of the recommendations by the larger media groups on free expression grounds have been dismissed as a defence of their vested interests. It should surprise nobody that News Limited chief executive Kim Williams holds such a view, but such pigeon-holing of Finkelstein’s serious critics is a great shame. History is littered with examples of politicians withdrawing citizens’ rights to free expression because they did not like what they had been saying about them at a particular moment in history.

Scratch the surface of this proposal and you will find a harsh new regime which stands to damage Australia’s reputation as a democracy and might well come back to bite the politicians, academics and publishers who are supporting it today.

The key problems are with independence, enforcement and duplication.

The report details a process whereby the Council would be funded by the government, yet kept at arms length from it via an ‘independent’ board headed by an appointed ‘independent’ chair.

Only the chronically naïve would believe true independence could be established and maintained through such an appointment process in a relatively small government-funded instrumentality. It would, after all, be the government selecting the initial appointments committee.

Even the appointment process to the High Court suffers criticism from time to time, and the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s chair and board has been questioned in recent history by the same academics and politicians applauding this new ‘independent’ body.

Those very people argue that News Corporation editors do not need explicit directions from Rupert Murdoch  – that their very appointment implies they will toe the line. That may well be the case, so why would it be different here?

Although this statutory body will not have the power to fine or jail journalists, its appeal lies in its ‘regulatory teeth’, powers that the Australian Press Council has lacked and the Australian Communication and Media Authority has been loathe to use.

At face value, the News Media Council would only have the power to “require a news media outlet to publish an apology, correction or retraction, or afford a person a right to reply”.

However, what if a news blogger or publisher should disagree with such a direction so strongly that they refused to comply with such an order?

Well, then they would be cited for contempt and tried in a court which would have the power to fine or jail them. Several Australian journalists have suffered that fate in recent years. Such a court would be charged with the relatively straightforward task of determining whether the publisher has disobeyed an order of the statutory council.

Only then might publishers get the opportunity for an appeal – again by a judge in court:

11.78   In order to preserve the ability of the News Media Council to act swiftly, there should be no internal appeal from, or internal merits review of, a determination. Nor should there be external merits review via the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

11.79   It would, however, be neither desirable nor possible to preclude all judicial supervision of determinations. In any event, because enforcement may need to be by way of court order, judicial supervision would be built into the process. In the course of enforcement proceedings a collateral challenge to a determination may be available and this would provide a sufficient mechanism for judicial supervision.

And who can guess what such appeals might cost your impoverished blogger or start-up publisher in legal fees – pitted against publicly funded prosecutors and their team of silks? So much for a quick and cheap dispute resolution process.

It’s a slippery slope – all rosy for its supporters who can only see themselves calling to account the multinational News Corporation and its anti-Left line.

But they might consider how this might operate under a change of government, perhaps under a Howard-like government with individuals sitting on the Council like those appointed to the ‘independent’ ABC board during that period?

And what if such a Council orders a leading environmental news site or magazine to publish an apology to a mining magnate for the ethical breach of publishing a ‘biased’ and inaccurate report about the company’s waste disposal practices, based on sensitive material from confidential sources? Where would the power and resources rest in a court appeals process in that situation?

To publish such an apology or retraction would be an affront to the blogger, and in their principled belief it would be a lie to do so.

Yet, they would face a hefty fine or jail – or risk losing their home in an expensive court appeal process – if they chose to stand their ground.

This proposal effectively converts the MEAA Code of Ethics and the scores of in-house and industry codes of practice into laws – enforceable, ultimately, in the courts.

I suggested in my personal submission (PDF) to the inquiry and in my appearance at its Melbourne hearings that Australia already has enough of those laws. Hundreds of them. I suggested alternative mechanisms using existing laws. I argued that we did not need more media laws and more expensive legal actions and that a government-funded statutory regulator would send the wrong message to the international community. It is the approach adopted by the world’s most repressive regimes.

Which brings us to the matter of duplication. I have seen few serious ethical breaches that could not be handled by existing laws like defamation, contempt, consumer law, confidentiality, injurious falsehood, trespass and discrimination. There are existing mechanisms to pursue them properly through established legal processes.

All of the serious examples cited at 11.11 of the report could have been addressed using other laws such as defamation, ACMA remedies or breach of confidence (or the proposed privacy tort). But the new regulator would do away with all the normal trappings of natural justice, dealing speedily with matters on the papers only without legal representation a media defendant would expect in a court of law.

Small publishers and bloggers might well be bullied into corrections or apologies because they would not have the time, energy or resources to counter a contempt charge in the courts.

This proposal (bizarrely titled “enforced self-regulation” at 11.33) risks duplicating the offences via ethical code breaches, with a big stick of a contempt charge hanging over a media offender who might well have been able to defend an action taken through the traditional channels.

The cost of this inquiry and its $2 million proposed annual funding would be much better spent on media literacy campaigns for the community, law and ethics training programs for journalists and bloggers, and the establishment of a one-stop referral service within the ACMA so complainants can get help in making their complaints through existing channels.

The budget would probably even cover a means-tested advocacy service to help poorer complainants pursue the most serious breaches of existing laws through the courts.

Australia is rare among Western democracies in that we do not have free expression or media freedom enshrined in our Constitution or in a Bill of Rights. Other countries like Britain and New Zealand proposing similar regulating mechanisms have free expression as an explicit right informing their jurisprudence.

The High Court demonstrated this week (PDF) that it is in no rush to progress its so-called “freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government”.

While rejecting the notion of licensing news media, the proposal quite rightly points out the problems in deciding the ‘news media’ that will be policed – in itself a defacto system of licensing journalists. It admits it could have no jurisdiction over foreign news outlets, which means the paparazzi and hundreds of offensive bloggers need only operate under an offshore enterprise.

Supporters of this News Media Council proposal should look again at the scenarios that could play out under a tough new regime of media regulation duplicating the court system. They might well heed that lyric from Australian songwriter Paul Kelly: “Be careful what you pray for. You might just get it.”

Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. His views here do not purport to represent those of either of those organisations.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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Media regulation: my interview with @RichardAedy on @RNmediareport



I was interviewed for the ABC Radio National Media Report program last week on the upcoming Independent Media Inquiry report.

You can hear the full program here,  where you can also view the complete transcript.

I’ve just copied below the segment of the transcript featuring my own comments:


ABC Radio National Media Report 

Finkelstein Inquiry into Newspapers

Broadcast:Friday 24 February 2012 5:30PM 

…Richard Aedy: …There are other perspectives beyond those of the Press Council and the publishers. Mark Pearson’s Professor of Journalism at Bond University on the Gold Coast. He’s particularly interested in that intersection between journalism and the law and he’s come up with one of the most novel submissions to the inquiry.


Mark Pearson: There are already so many laws controlling the behaviour of news organisations and journalists, we don’t really need any more. We need to make those that exist more effective. But if there had to be something more, the consumer law that exists at the moment, and already applies to the media in many ways, could be extended to cover heinous ethical breaches.


Richard Aedy: Didn’t the media used to be subject to those laws?


Mark Pearson: Yes they were the old Trade Practices Act. It’s now changed its name to the Competition and Consumer Act. It was introduced in 1974 and it has a provision, basically banning misleading and deceptive conduct, which is normally applying to advertising. But for the first few years, some court decisions held that it might also apply to misleading claims made in news stories; the editorial columns of newspapers and their equivalent in broadcast. So because they didn’t want this impingement on free expression and because of lobbying by the major media groups, they had an exemption to that introduced for prescribed news providers which basically, unless it was in advertising or promoting their own products and so on, they would be exempted from these misleading and deceptive conduct provisions.


Richard Aedy: Right. So to clarify. You don’t think we need additional laws. You don’t even think we need tougher existing laws. What you think we need is a much better understanding of what the laws are and perhaps getting rid of this exemption the media has had to what is effectively, I think, corporations law?


Mark Pearson: Well I certainly wouldn’t propose getting rid of that exemption because otherwise we’d be back to that 1970s position where the media were being prosecuted for their news columns. But I don’t think some tinkering with that would do any great harm which would cover the most drastic ethical breaches, clearly contrary to the public interest, where there’s been real misleading and deceptive conduct involved, of the order of your cash for comment kind of situation.


Richard Aedy: Right. I was going to say give me an example. Well all right that’s a good one. And who would be the regulator? Would it be what, the ACCC?


Mark Pearson: Well it would be the ACCC. The more the media is moving towards breaking down that firewall between editorial and advertising the more they need to be treated like just another business except where they’re doing genuine public interest journalism.


Richard Aedy: So what about the Press Council and Julian Disney asking for greater powers and saying, well look we could do with some government money for this?


Mark Pearson: I think it’s always dangerous to start introducing government funding for media self-regulatory bodies. The instant the government starts funding such things, the instant you have genuine government regulation.


Richard Aedy: But what’s wrong with that? I know editors and journalists always say this would be terrible, real government regulations. But lots of industries are regulated by the government. Why shouldn’t the media be?


Mark Pearson: Well one of our biggest problems in Australia is that we don’t have a Bill of Rights. We don’t have a Constitution with any formal protection of free expression. So it means that these other laws as they’re applied, the courts don’t have something else to look to. The High Court’s made a few decisions introducing freedom to communicate on political matters but all of that’s a little vague. And so there’s really no underpinning of free expression in this country other than a tradition that we’ve had which has been intruded upon time and time again through these hundreds of laws.


Richard Aedy: Mark Pearson from Bond University. He too opposes any move by the Press Council to accept money from the government. But the big worry for the industry isn’t really that the Press Council will get some of its funding from Canberra. It’s that Mr. Finkelstein will recommend that Canberra becomes altogether more involved.



Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. His views here do not purport to represent those of either of those organisations.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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My piece in The Drum: Media regulation made simple by ‘responsible truth-telling’


Some of you might have missed my opinion piece at ABC’s The Drum Opinion published on December 22.

I reproduce it here for your interest and you might like to add your comments to the other 100+ featured on The Drum .


Media regulation made simple


The solution to the news media regulation problem lies in two or three simple words, depending on whether you choose to hyphenate: ‘responsible truth-telling’.

Those words should replace the myriad of codes of ethics, codes of practice, and statements of principles that Australian journalists are expected to follow in their daily reportage.

It might sound idealistic and over-simplified but that’s what it comes down to. It is a phrase that can be read to incorporate truth-seeking, across all platforms of new, social and legacy media, by those practising the pursuit many of us still call ‘journalism’ and by those blogging, tweeting or standing on soap boxes in public parks claiming to be speaking in the public interest.

As the Supreme Court of Canada recently decided, ‘responsible communication on a matter of public interest’ is worth protecting and irresponsible communication should be discouraged.

Regulation in the form of laws has worked reasonably well to deal with irresponsible investigations and publications and harmful falsities and continues to do so.

Just because ‘co-regulation’ via the Australian Communication and Media Authority and ‘self-regulation’ via industry groups, the Australian Press Council and the journalists’ union have floundered, does not make straight-out government control of the media any more acceptable in a Western democracy.

There is already an oversupply of regulation of the media and free expression generally in this country – across all levels of government and via quasi-governmental and self-regulatory and co-regulatory bodies. Added to this there is considerable censorship of free expression in government and the corporate sector in the form of ‘spin’.

Australia’s free expression is particularly fragile because it lacks any formal expression in our Constitution, especially when this is combined with at least five inquiries into the news media this year (2011) and proposals for a press regulator with government teeth, against a backdrop of Senator Conroy’s attempts at imposing an internet filtering scheme.

The Convergence Review quite rightly takes a 21st century broad-brush view of media regulation, but the Media Inquiry chair Ray Finkelstein QC appears focussed on a mechanism to prop up the very 20th century complaints system of the Press Council, proposing some government sanctions on the publication of findings and some taxpayer funding to supplement the reluctant sponsorship of the major newspaper groups.

My own submission to the Media Inquiry proposed there should be no more laws controlling the media in this country – just better access for media consumers to the laws that already exist and a one-stop shop for the handling of complaints. It also suggested a reworking of consumer laws so that ‘prescribed news providers’ do not get an automatic exemption from the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ actions over their news material.

No journalists can be expected to operate effectively within deadline paying heed to all the five or six codes that might apply to them.

A single code of ethics applying to journalists and their employers across all news media, under the banner of ‘responsible truth-telling’ would address fundamental principles of truth, accuracy, verification, attribution, transparency, honesty, respect, equity, fairness, independence, originality and integrity, with exceptions only for matters of substantial legitimate public concern.

It would be supplemented by industry or workplace ‘information and guidance’ documents to help explain to journalists and editors the fact scenarios and precedents applying to a particular medium or specialty.

Any government funding could establish and maintain a one-stop media complaints shop for referring consumers’ concerns to the appropriate self-regulatory or co-regulatory body and an accompanying media literacy campaign for the broader community. The several million dollars spent on these inquiries would have been better spent on this.

Broader citizen access to broadband and the sands of time will solve most of the media regulation problems we have today, but applying existing consumer law to the news media would help. That’s the way it was for a few years after the Trade Practices Act was introduced in 1975 until intensive lobbying by media groups won them a news provider exemption from its operations.

Why revisit consumer law? Because these days most news provision is ‘just another business’ and the only news media candidates for any regulation with teeth are usually operating across state borders in ‘trade or commerce’ and are therefore subject to the provisions of what has been rebadged the Competition and Consumer Act.

The Web 2.0 environment has motivated the traditional media to focus more strongly on commercial interests than it has ever had to do previously, breaking down the traditional ‘firewall’ between advertising and editorial material. Traditional revenue streams have reduced to a trickle. That’s why they have staff freezes and can’t increase their funding of the Press Council.

Such an adjustment to consumer law would mean a scandal on a scale of ‘Cash for Comment’ or the News of the World episode could be handled for what it is: irresponsible deception of media consumers by powerful, cynical, corporate players.

It’s not a radical suggestion. The ACCC entered the Cash for Comment fray early on, but backed off when the then Australian Broadcasting Authority started investigating. Perhaps it should have persisted. Just two years ago the High Court found against Seven under the former Trade Practices Act in a case false claims about goods and services. The reform would extend this to other ethical breaches.

‘Responsible truth-telling’ would remain protected, as it should be in a Western democracy. The onus would be on the ACCC to prove the irresponsibility or falsity of the misleading material or actions and that it was contrary to the public interest.

Media Inquiry chair Ray Finkelstein dismissed my suggestions as ‘impractical’ when I appeared in the Melbourne hearings last Thursday. He seemed intent on his Bandaid-like solution for the Australian Press Council.

He might be willing to take another look at it now that the Convergence Review has flagged its own big-picture approach and its intention to return to the drawing board of media regulation.

Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University and Australian correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. His views here do not purport to represent those of either of those organisations.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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