Israeli President Shimon Peres had a powerful message for members of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe gathered in Tel Aviv, Israel, for their 15th annual meeting in September, 2013.
Continue to fight. I know it’s not easy, but you have a mission, not just a profession.
As head of the only remaining news council in the United States, I know just what he means. So, I believe, did all the other press council representatives from all over the world who attended the conference, hosted by the Israel Press Council in its 50th anniversary year.
“It would appear that the issue of journalistic ethics is not as fashionable, and certainly not as glamorous, as it was 50 years ago,” said Arik Bachar, Secretary-General of the Israel Press Council, in welcoming AIPCE members.
With the news media in chaotic transformation worldwide, press councils are trying to determine their most effective role in upholding high standards of journalistic ethics, accuracy and professionalism. It’s a tough challenge.
AIPCE is a loose network of independent content regulators for both print and broadcast media. There is no formal membership and no central secretariat. AIPCE members are mostly in Europe, with about a dozen from other nations.
Represented in Israel were press councils or similar organizations from Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States,1 and Ukraine.
In an opening keynote address, Lord David Hunt, current chairman of the United Kingdom’s Press Complaints Commission in London, said: “In the U.K., we have a crisis confronting the media. I have spent most of my life fighting Parliamentary efforts to regulate or control freedom of expression.” Hunt pointed out that the British press scandals of recent years—phone hacking, bribing sources, privacy invasions, sensationalism, etc.—had led to the September recommendation to form a new Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
“It will take over handling complaints from the PCC, but this new body will also have a standards arm with teeth and the ability to fine,” Hunt added. “This new independent board will monitor and enforce the Editors’ Code. In this way, we will be able to avoid Parliamentary control and go for a satisfactory independent regulatory body established by the industry that is able to secure the voluntary support and membership of the entire industry, and thus able to command the support of the public,” Hunt said. “So please wish us luck.”
Can Press Councils Actually Help?
In an opening panel on “Press Councils in a World of Changing Journalism,” moderator Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute noted: “All media are becoming impossible to differentiate. The current regulatory framework has run its course. Without a coherent and cross-platform approach, citizens cannot base their judgments in any consistent way. Where in this bigger picture are press councils?”
Panelist Ola Sigvardsson, the Press Ombudsman of Sweden, noted: “There is at least one borderline we cannot cross. It is the ‘red line,’ so to speak. And that is the word ‘self’ in self-regulation. We can only oversee those media outlets who want to be overseen.” He acknowledged that many new media outlets may not want to be part of press council systems, but some will: “It’s a good thing that a new media organization wants to be part of self-regulation. That is using ethics as a mark of quality, and differentiating them from those media outlets that choose to stay outside.”
John Horgan, who is both the Press Ombudsman of Ireland and a member of the Irish Press Council, cited the “two poles”—voluntary regulation vs. statutory regulation of the media. “The plus of a voluntary system is that you don’t have issues with enforcement. The negative is that you can’t enforce an ethics code if the press doesn’t agree.” He said the keys are “accountability” for media outlets and “redress” for those damaged by inaccurate stories.
Who Is a Journalist, Anyway?
Many attendees raised the perplexing question of “Who is a journalist today?” The rise of individual bloggers and independent websites has greatly complicated the concept of media ethics oversight. “People look to established media institutions for credibility and authority,” Horgan said. “But how can the credibility of all be enhanced?”
Hanoch Marmari, editor of an Israeli online publication called 7th Eye, commented: “All press councils must adapt to the cranky and creative media that we have today. For the first time in history, every person can directly influence the world around him.” Marmari continued: “The oldest institutions of journalism are losing their influence. It is no longer possible to rely on a uniform code of ethics….We need a new definition of who is a journalist.”
He noted that a journalist is not just someone who holds a press card, because many journalists operate outside of any regulatory framework. “We should be defining journalism as a civic art, not as a profession. Thus, we can define the person who engages in this action. Their principles should be transparency, fairness, honesty and an aspiration to uncover the truth.” Marmari concluded: “The public will be able to enjoy arbitration and complaint-handling services through press councils. If there are physicians without borders, then let us form a coalition of press councils without borders.”
What about Independent Bloggers?
Tal Schneider, an Israeli independent journalist and political blogger who formerly worked for the newspaper Maariv, said she sees little difference in her new role in terms of accuracy and ethics: “It’s always me responsible for every word and every character. The same ethics and the same rules apply to me as if I was a reporter in a paper….Every tweet or Facebook post that I do is a story. It must be well-written, factual, checked in advance and commented on before I put it up. If it’s wrong or it’s violating someone’s rights, it has to be corrected or apologized for.”
She noted that no editors oversee her work or correct her errors: “If I have any problems, it’s only on my shoulders. That gives me some extra precautions. I think a little bit further because it’s only on me.”
Should There Be a Voluntary Seal of Approval?
Altshuler noted that press councils could help set standards for all journalistic content, no matter who was producing it. She suggested a voluntary seal to mark adherence to guidelines.
Bachar asked if anyone required media organizations to publicize the fact that they cooperate with the councils. “Have you allowed your members to publish a watermark or emblem? I can’t imagine why people don’t want to flaunt it.”
Horgan responded: “Editors are afraid that if they publicize the press council, they will get more complaints! We are urging them to include [an emblem] not on a daily basis, but as part of a template. Most do, but some don’t. We have no way of enforcing that.”
Marmari added: “I can see a universe of multiple kinds of press councils that each individual or organization can accept their terms and work within [them].”
Daphne Koene of The Netherlands Press Council, noted that the Dutch Union of Journalists had voted against expanding the council’s jurisdiction to online articles that consumers consider journalistic, “because they see it as a detriment to the purpose of the press council—being an instrument of self-regulation for professional journalists—to expand the press council to this new content.”
Lord Hunt said that the new IPSO organization in the U. K. could be a “badge of respectability” for media organizations. He noted that The Huffington Post and other independent bloggers are “seriously discussing signing up for the new body.”
How Much Power Should Press Councils Have?
Press councils vary widely in their oversight and enforcement powers. Some have statutory authority, while others are purely voluntary.
Martin Lavesen of the Danish Press Council, said a big discussion is now underway in Denmark about increasing the power of the council. “Let it assess fines, suspend a newspaper, increase the time allowed for complaints,” he said.
Kjersti Loken Stavrum of the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission, said: “Our profession should put out a promise of which way we should do our process….It must be some kind of promise that we can tell both the public and those who are our sources.”
What about Readers’ Comments Online?
In a panel on readers’ comments, Flip Voets of the Flemish Press Council in Belgium, said they issued guidelines for moderating online posts. If media outlets don’t moderate comments, they should “at least have tools to remove inappropriate comments as soon as possible.” The guidelines also recommended forbidding anonymous comments, disallowing comments on controversial stories, and filters to block certain words. But the whole system is voluntary.
Risto Uimonen, of Finland’s Council for Mass Media, said his organization set rules for online comments on media sites and required editors to monitor the content and remove inappropriate comments. This guideline change has been in effect for two years and has “succeeded in cleaning discussions,” he said.
Doninique von Burg of Switzerland’s Press Council, said they made recommendations two years ago to discourage anonymous comments. “The rules are the same as for letters to the editor,” he said.
The issue is still mostly unresolved, Horgan said: “If the newspaper pre-moderates the comments, then the paper is responsible. If papers do not pre-moderate, they are not liable. These are big legal, ethical and jurisdictional issues.”
Is a Universal Ethics Code a Good Idea?
In the closing session on “Journalistic Autonomy,” the keynote address was from Lorena Boix-Alonso, head of the Unit for Converging Media and Content with the European Commission. The EC recently floated the idea of a universal media ethics code to cover all of Europe, and mandatory press councils with enforcement powers in every nation. But it met with fierce opposition.
“At that you exploded,” Boix-Alonso remarked. “This was a big surprise to us. The intention was good, but we got a completely negative reaction from the people we wanted to protect.”
The EC asked for public input, and so far has received more than 450 comments online. “We will see whether we will do something, do nothing, or wait until the next European Parliament,” Boix-Alonso said. “It’s a very good solution to have press councils, but we don’t have any intention of setting standards for them.” She continued: “The key is to find the right balance between protecting the interest of the media and protecting the public interest.” There are many questions about press councils, she noted, including who should be members, who should fund them, and who can complain. “You may think that all is well and that you have wonderful press councils, but there are countries where it is not happening,” she said.
Adeline Hulin of UNESCO, who is doing her Ph.D. thesis on press councils, said: “Is there an ideal form of media regulation? No, there is no ideal form. Government regulation carries the risk of too much control. Self-regulation carries the risk of overly protecting journalists. Is a co-regulation system good?” Maybe, but she noted that in less democratic countries, any regulation can be misused by government authorities.
My conversations with TamarRukhadze, Executive Director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, confirmed that. She told me that “journalists don’t have to ‘wait for the call’ [from authorities]” because they know where the lines are drawn.
Arik Bachar lamented that “Those who most should enjoy the benefits [of press councils] are not sufficiently committed anymore. Only a few mainstream outlets remain members, while this huge jungle out there is doing whatever they want.”
At the final session of the conference, Bachar concluded: “We should keep searching for the best solution that will keep the press honest, accurate, and—most important—free.”
What Lessons Can the Washington News Council Offer?
During my participation in the panel on “Ethical Dilemmas in the Age of Transparency,” I urged press council members at the AIPCE conference to consider doing what the Washington News Council has done. These activities included:
Held and Webcast public hearings on complaints with invitations to all those present and the viewing public to vote and comment along with council members, to help “democratize” the process and promote “crowdsource” ethics.
Helped educate students and citizens to encourage more media literacy and outside oversight of journalistic ethics and accuracy.
Urged media outlets to take the “TAO of Journalism—Transparent, Accountable and Open” pledge and display the TAO seal as a way to increase credibility and public trust.
Will any of these efforts work? Who knows? As Israeli President Shimon Peres said on the opening night, it’s not easy. But what else is working? Not much.
1 The Washington News Council is today the only such organization in the U.S. since the Minnesota News Council closed its doors three years ago. A National News Council existed for more than a decade from 1973 to 1984, but dissolved due to lack of support from The New York Times and The Washington Post, although Richard Salant and Mike Wallace of CBS News, plus many other respected journalists nationwide, were strong supporters.