Australian newspapers could be fined for breaches of media standards

Friday, November 4, 2011

Australian newspapers and magazines could be fined up to $30,000 for breaches of media standards, according to a Press Council submission to Julia Gillard's media inquiry. The fine is said to be reserved for "exceptionally grave" or persistent breaches, and suggests that newspapers could be censured or reprimanded "where appropriate".

PM Julia Gillard announced the media inquiry earlier this year under pressure from Greens leader Bob Brown, as part of an attempt to boost public confidence in the media following the News of the World hacking scandal. However, fears exist that the inquiry could impede freedom of the press, with the Newspaper Publishers' Association stating that a free press should be accountable to its market and not the government.

The Press Council has also suggested the appointment of a new panel headed by a retired judge in an attempt to remove the criticism of it being a "toothless tiger". Retired Federal Court judge Ray Finklestein is leading the inquiry.

Council Chair Professor Julian Disney said it was important that new legislation be extended to include the growing number of online news and "blog" websites. He also voiced concern over the legalistic nature of the inquiry, saying "The Council is concerned that if it had the power to impose heavy sanctions its processes might have to become so formal, adversarial, slow and expensive that most people will not able or willing to complain to it."

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner recommends that a single set of privacy principles or guidelines be considered for all media organisations, as well as web-based publishers and bloggers who would otherwise not be regarded within the traditional definitions of journalism.

Labor leader Senator Doug Cameron has called for the media inquiry to hold News Limited to account, after they reported on leadership instability within the government. Senator Cameron dismissed the report as "absolute lies".

"The Murdoch press are an absolute disgrace, they are a threat to democracy in this country and we should absolutely be having a look at them," he said in parliament. "I'm saying it's a fabrication. They run unsubstantiated stories in relation to the leadership of the party."

Finkelstein however denied the inquiry is linked to Senator Cameron's calls for an examination into News Limited, stating it will instead focus on the "style and content" of reporting.