By Tamara Baluja
Newspapers Canada is considering a plan put forth by the Ontario Press Council to establish a national press council. The decision comes after a Ryerson University study on the state of press councils in Canada, which concluded the press councils were ineffective in their present form and did not meet the geographical and digital realities of the publishing industry.
Although the plan is in its infancy stage – and the regional press councils haven’t even received official word of it – Newspapers Canada CEO John Hinds says the board is keen to explore the idea. Currently, two provinces and three territories don’t have press councils and the Atlantic region press council is being “restructured,” the report stated.
“The financial stability of press councils have taken a hit in recent years, with Sun Media papers withdrawing from the Ontario Press Council, Quebecor publications leaving the Conseil and publishers of individual newspapers such as the Edmonton Journal and the Winnipeg Free Press departing their respective councils as well,” the report said. “This hit is aggravated by the fact that, except in Quebec, Canadian press councils are entirely industry-funded.”
Rather than abolish the regional press councils entirely, Hinds said the national press council, if established, will likely keep its regional organization, but the infrastructure and financing will be national.
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- J-Source's Q&A with media blogger Carol Wainio
“The Ontario Press Council is going to spearhead this idea,” Hinds told J-Source. “Our role is as a supporter and it’s all very early on in the planning.”
Don McCurdy, executive director of the Ontario Press Council, says a national press council would be more responsive than the regional press councils, which were established before newspaper digital operations took off.
“Let’s say there was a complaint in Alberta about an online article written by the Globe’s Edmonton reporter. That reader would have to go to the Ontario Press Council to be heard, because that’s the council where the Globe is a member,” he said. “It makes little sense.”
Ivor Shapiro, the chair of Ryerson’s journalism program and one of the authors of the report on press councils, said the decision to pursue a national press council was “courageous.”
“It’s not something in their [the publisher’s] direct interest, so I think they should be applauded for that,” Shapiro said. “It’s a step in the right direction but a lot of work needs to be done.”
The next step, Hinds says, will be reaching out to the press councils, and getting feedback on how this national press council could work. But at least one provincial press council says it is against the idea in principle. “B.C. is on the record saying it prefers to remain a provincial press council,” says Rollie Rose, executive director of the B.C. Press Council.
For the Conseil de presse du Québec, “there probably aren’t any advantages whatsoever” to joining a national press council, says communications director Julien Acosta.
“The Conseil de presse du Québec is very different from the other ones across Canada. Our scope, our funding and our procedures are unique in Canada, so joining a national press council would most likely mean that we would have to change drastically the way we’ve dealt with journalistic ethics for the past 40 years.”
Quebec’s press council receives funding from the provincial government, but as the Ryerson University report states, “the vast majority of non-Quebeckers [...] are opposed to Canadian or provincial government funding for fear of resulting government interference in the accountability process and, therefore, a loss of press freedom.” Acosta says “maybe it’s premature to think that a national press council that would be based on voluntary self-regulation is the solution to the absence of major players in the industry.”
Acosta said “it also seems that some news outlet simply don’t want to be regulated [and] a national press council probably wouldn’t change anything in this regard.”
Here are the recommendations made by the Ryerson report for a national council:
- “Rather than a fixed system of council members, a pool of potential panelists could be drawn on to hear complaints according to factors including regional representation, expertise and availability.”
- “Decisions made by provincial and regional councils over the past 10 years could be reviewed and, where not inconsistent with each other or with newly established policies, be reproduced and relied upon for their precedential value.”
- “Adjust the terms of membership in Newspapers Canada, adding a national media council to the broad range of key services it provides to members including education, marketing, awards programs and industry research reports and statistics. This could have the effect of encouraging publications to see funding for the national council as simply a benefit of membership; if a publication did not want to fund a press council, it would be compelled to withdraw from Newspapers Canada, and thus lose access to the suite of services that come with Newspapers Canada membership.”
Read the report: