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Press Council review: it’s a bit weird

By Steven | November 29, 2007

The good

As I said earlier, I agree whole-heartedly with almost all of the recommendations made by the reviewers of the Press Council, Sir Ian Barker and Prof Lewis Evans. Yes, scrap the requirement for complainants to sign away their rights to go to court: as the reviewers say, it’s of very doubtful legality. Hell yes, beef up the PC’s power to mediate complaints if possible, and add in a general fast-track complaints consideration process. You bet, shore up the organisation’s independence by making it an independent legal entity and distancing it from its industry funders. (Will they buy the idea that the PC should set its own budget though?!) Sure, appoint a full-time CEO who’s a trained mediator. Absolutely, review the Statement of Principles to provide greater detail and guidance. And by all means, better advertise the existence of the Press Council.

The bad

A couple of quibbles: first, is it really such a great idea for the PC to be “promoting freedom of expression”? Complainants may be forgiven for thinking that this rather queers the pitch. Admittedly, the reviewers recommend that the promotion of freedom of expression should occur “through a responsible and independent print media and through adherence to high journalistic and editorial standards”. Alas, ghosting behind these lofty principles is the reality that free speech and holding the press to particular standards are often in tension, or at least would be seen to be by the parties to many free speech disputes. Adding another layer of complexity is that it’s hard for the PC to speak out on issues that might come before it, even if it can quickly form views about free speech issues in time to contribute to public debate. What might it have said about the recent DomPost/Press “Terrorism Files” stories, for example?

Second, I’m disappointed that they have merely tweaked the penalty system by adding a power to reprimand as the highest penalty. I would have liked them to allow the PC to use the publication of a statement summarising their decision as a penalty, rather than have it be automatic. In other words, I wish they had the discretion to uphold a complaint (for cases of technical or minor breaches) without ordering publication of their decision. The BSA has this power, and uses it often. Without it, I think the PC tends to have too high a threshold for upholding complaints. Worried about imposing its only punishment too readily, the PC too often finds flaws with a newspaper’s ethics, but doesn’t uphold the complaint. That ends up being unfair on the complainant, I think. It also leads to some pretty silly decisions.

Those fairly minor points aside, I think the recommendations are great, and I hope they are adopted. Given the significant funding increase they will require, though, I wonder whether that will happen.

But the rest of the nearl 200-page report is, I think, often very odd. In places, it’s quite bizarre.

The ugly: bias

The report kicks off with a consideration of first principles. Is self-regulation better than government regulation? Good question to pursue, you’d think. But what follows is hopelessly biased in favour of self-regulation. Government intervention costs too much, it says. It’s wasteful. And it can fall prey to special interest groups, who may be “poorer quality regulators”. The industry, on the other hand, knows the business and can therefore draw up “more effective standards that are then more likely to be complied with”.

All fair points. But shouldn’t an honest discussion look at the other side of the argument? That industry self-regulation can lead to underfunding? That it too can be biased toward a particular special interest group: the one that set it up and funded it? As it emerges later in report, these are the two most common criticisms of the PC.

And why not look to the obvious comparison in NZ with the BSA, which is an example of government regulation? A compelling case can be made that the BSA is performing much better than the PC on almost all the yardsticks the reviewers apply. The BSA is more transparent, is better known, offers clearer guidance to the media in its codes and decisions, reviews its performance more readily, is adequately funded, and, I think, is fairer to the complainants. (This is my impression from reading all of the decisions of both bodies for the past decade. I can almost always predict which way the BSA will go on the basis of its earlier decisions, and the outcomes almost always seem right – or at least justifiable – to me. I find it much harder to predict PC decisions, much harder to extract the principles they are applying, and am sometimes surprised at their failure to uphold what even they seem to accept are justified complaints. And there’s really no evidence (I’ve looked) that the decisions of the BSA are politically biased). Finally, it’s become pretty clear to me that the vast bulk of the PC’s decisions are not well known in the media industry: they don’t get translated into newsroom practice. I suspect that the BSA fares a little (but only a little) better on that score.

The reviewers blithely state that the BSA’s uphold rate is comparable: 12% in the year to June 2006. This is rather disingenuous. The BSA routinely upholds about 25% of complaints, as is very clear from its annual reports. The PC routinely upholds fewer than 20% of complaints.

I’m not saying the PC should be regulated by the government. I am saying I would have expected a more balanced discussion.

The ugly: missing data

I also expected a bunch of other things that don’t feature in the report:

Instead, we get a lengthy chapter on the history of the PC that contains almost no interesting information. It’s largely full of smug quotes from successive Chairmen about how fine and independent the PC is.

The ugly: shonky data analysis

Next, there is the series of “surveys” carried out by the reviewers – surveying the public, organisations, the media, and complainants. Those interested were asked to fill out lengthy questionnaires, which were available online. In places the reviewers admit that there is “an element of self-selection” in these surveys. That’s like saying there’s an element of sand on the beaches. These surveys are stupendously non-representative, and do not come close to representing the views of the groups purportedly surveyed. The reviewers cannot justify referring, as they often do, to “the public’s views” on this or that on the basis of the survey. Let’s look at the numbers: 147 members of the “public” responded. (The PC thought this was “a relatively strong response”. Ahem.) 30.6% were employed in education. More than a third had worked for the media before. About a quarter had complained to the media in the past five years; about 12% had complained to the PC. Does this sound like the public to you? We’re looking at a bunch of teachers, former journalists and media complainants.

How do the reviewers use this information? Here’s an example: “According to the survey of the public we conducted, very few individuals in the last five years had complained to a media organisation (28.4%) or the Press Council (12.1%).” Where do you start? In fact, if accurate, this would constitute a staggeringly high proportion of the public. On the survey figures, it would suggest that nearly half a million people had complained to the Press Council alone in the past 5 years, for instance. The real number is more like 250. The reviewers note that “the proportions in the report are higher than we would anticipate for the public as a whole”. No shit. The problem here is that the sample is not by any stretch of the imagination random, and it shouldn’t be used in any sentence that contains the words “the public”.

While on the subject of statistical illiteracy, get a load of this:

The survey indicates that the public are generally satisfied with the press. On the whole, individuals agreed that the press collects information responsibly (31.2%) and does a good job of providing [an] accurate account of events in news stories (34.8%).

Um. “On the whole?” In fact, almost as many respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed, and as many again ticked “neutral”. The former members of the media were much more likely to think the media was doing a good job, and were pushing up the numbers. Elsewhere, the reviewers summarised these responses as saying “The majority of respondents agreed that the press does a good job of providing accurate accounts of events in news stories”. You’d have thought that a judge and an economics professor would realise that a “majority” means more than half.

Respondents were also asked to evaluate this statement: “Considering deadline pressures, the press provides as much accurate information as can be expected”. The reviewers note that the most common response was to disagree, then added:

However, those respondents who had worked for a media organisation (and therefore would be aware of the accuracy of the information and the deadline pressures faced) agreed with this statement…

This could equally be phrased this way:

However, more than a quarter those respondents who had worked for a media organisation (and therefore could be expected to be sympathetic to the media’s performance) nevertheless also felt that the press wasn’t producing as much accurate information as can be expected taking deadlines into account. Fewer than half of these people agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

This doesn’t feel like analysis, it feels like spin. To be fair, much of the data is reported straight, and the tables at the back allow the reader to work out what the numbers are.

Still, similar problems did pop up with the analysis of the rest of the data. Only 34 organisations responded to the survey of organisations. Hardly any were businesses. Three respondents were journalistic organisations! What the hell were they doing there? There were usually 5 or 6 “no response” answers to most of the questions. Again, this was hardly much of a sample of anything. Yet the reviewers kept using decimal places in their descriptions of responses. Yes, 8.8% of respondents described themselves as businesses. You get a very different impression when you hear that this in fact means that three businesses responded.

Similarly, less than a quarter of complainants (60 out of 355) returned the survey of complainants, and often as many as 10 or more of them didn’t respond to a particular question. Weirdly, two complainants believed that the PC prevents the free flow of information. Perhaps they thought it was referring to the PC’s ability to get information from the publications being complained about. Also weirdly, five complainants thought there should be no limitations on what the press can publish. This belief apparently didn’t stop them using the PC. Perhaps they thought it was asking about prior restraint.

And again, only 18 media organisations replied to the survey of the media, and often 5 to 8 of them didn’t respond to many questions. Still, interestingly, 4 felt that the PC should have the power to fine media organisations, 5 thought it should be able to make media organisations apologise, 3 had no process to deal with complaints, 2 thought that the PC’s investigations weren’t thorough enough to determine the truth, and only 5 were prepared to say that the PC’s decisions had a long term positive effect on the their performance. Two-thirds felt that advocacy for, and education about, the importance of a free press by the PC is valuable. And yet, the PC at present does almost none of that. Still, I’m not sure how much can be taken from any of this.

The good, reprise

In the end, none of these criticisms really affect the recommendations. The 20 pages or so out of 200 that discuss the recommendations are generally very good (though a bit light, I think). It’s the other 180 pages that don’t provide the sort of historical and statistical resource that might have been expected. That’s according to 100% of the public polled in this survey.

Topics: Broadcasting Standards Authority, Media ethics, Press Council | No Comments »

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