We learned last week that the Independent Media has decided that it will no longer be subject to the authority of the Press Council and that the company will instead rely on its own internal complaints mechanism. This is a serious blow to media accountability and undermines a system of independent co-regulation in the form of the Press Council that is fair and effective. Independent Media’s move plays into the hands of those who want to see less media freedom, those who fear a critical press and would prefer to read papers that are tamer and more tightly controlled. This is ammunition to advocates of the Media Appeals Tribunal, which ironically Independent Media has said it is firmly against.
The Press Council is an advantageously flexible system and is preferable to the alternatives that have been put forward. It is a work in progress that has undergone successive reviews, and over the years it has built up a high degree of credibility and professionalism, which research testifies to. More and more members of the public use the system, which suggests it is recognised as legitimate and effective. Indeed, it is structured in such a way as to give the public a strong voice and prevent it leaning towards the media. The Press Council operates without fear or favour, and one need only look at its rulings as proof of this. In fact, a report by the Media Policy and Democracy Project shows that there is no bias in favour of the press, with 57% of rulings in favour of complainants over the period 2009-2013. Penalties are appropriate and proportionate to the offence, and rulings are complied with.
It is all well and good for a media organisation to have its own internal complaints mechanism and ombud, to give complainants more options of pursuing a complaint. The problem is that Independent Media has opted for an internal system instead of, rather than in addition to, the mechanism that covers the industry. In going it alone, Independent Media has appointed Jovial Rantao as in-house Ombud. While Rantao’s ethical integrity may very well not be in doubt, for a publication to appoint as its own Ombud someone who has been in its employ for many years, who would then be expected to deal impartially with complaints against that same publication, is intrinsically problematic. In order to be truly independent and manage conflicts of interest, an effective regulatory mechanism must be a few steps removed from individual publications subject to its rulings. A single media company’s internal regulatory process are bound to lack the credibility of the Press Council, which has developed a system enabling it to fairly adjudicate large volumes of complaints in a timely manner, and which, importantly, has buy-in from almost all other major newspapers.
The Independent Media would do well to reconsider joining the government mouthpiece the New Age as an outlier in the media landscape. Independent Media has taken media accountability a step backwards.