Our press councils in sad decline

By Don Sellar

So you think you have a legitimate beef against a newspaper.

A reporter at The Daily Bugle who did you wrong in a feature story 10 days ago didn’t return your calls. Several days later, the editor in charge of corrections dismissed your complaint outright, and advised you to stop wasting his time.

Finally, the letters editor refused to run a short letter letting you have your say. She said the issue was already stale, two other letters on the issue had been published. Besides, she never runs letters as “back-door corrections.”

Your lawyer says what was written about you may well have been unfair, inaccurate and unflattering — maybe even libelous — but hardly worth a long, costly battle in the courts, with no guarantee of success.

Speaking of costly, your Toronto lawyer’s one-page libel notice just to get the paper’s attention and maybe squeeze out a 40-word correction would come with a price tag of several hundred dollars. After that, the meter really starts ticking in libel cases.

Besides, your lawyer says the dispute revolves around dubious journalism ethics, not a clear matter of law. The reporter didn’t properly identify herself. The story misrepresented your nuanced opinion on the need for sharia law in Canada.

Worst of all, your boss didn’t appreciate seeing your name in the paper, linked to a sensitive religious-rights issue. It’s bad for business, he said.

Is there another way to get your grievance aired and maybe redressed, proof that newspapers can still be held accountable for dubious journalism and arrogance? Well, sort of.

In every province except Saskatchewan, Canadians still have access to press councils where, in theory, a reader’s complaint can be fairly and inexpensively adjudicated – with member newspapers paying the shot.

Alas, from coast to coast, press councils appear to be in sad decline.

Little wonder, too. Few Canadians are aware they exist. That’s because the newspapers that pay their bills (except in Quebec, where the province kicks in money) do not promote them or give their rulings much publicity.

Time was, when the Ontario Press Council handed down a ruling involving the Toronto Star, an edict from the publisher’s office required a news story be published – or at least flagged – on the front page, regardless of which way the decision went. Nowadays, Canada’s largest daily – and most others – publishes infrequent council rulings on inside pages.

Complaint levels have greatly receded in recent years. A scan of the B.C. Press Council website shows it held only five formal adjudications between 2002 and 2006, and none last year. In 2007, Manitoba’s council formally considered two complaints.

Google the Atlantic Press Council, which serves the four eastern provinces, and you’ll find an intriguing article by Lindsey Keilty in the 2005 edition of  The King’s Journalism Review.

The article acidly notes the council “has no public profile” and quotes a Halifax journalist as saying, “It might as well be dead.”

Keilty’s findings were bleak. The council had no website, conducted no hearings, held no annual meeting, filed no annual report and was operating from a head office in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where its executive secretary published the weekly Casket.

With the possible exception of Quebec’s heavily French website that is kept up to date and has some interactive features, it appears as if the nation’s press councils have slept soundly through the New Media revolution.

Their sites are universally bland and boring. Those who surf for ideas, trends, controversy, humour, wit or other useful information about newspapers or journalism will find the slimmest of pickings on council sites.

Newspapers themselves routinely update their online publications every few minutes, but the freshest item on the Ontario Press Council’s website apparently was posted more than a year ago. One article, “Where the Press Council Stands,” summarizes “32 years of rulings.” The council, however, is nearly 36 years old.

Underpublicized, passive and largely ignored, press councils in Canada are falling off the public radar, and deservedly so. Their chairs are seldom interviewed or quoted on big journalism topics of the day. As a result, their input on issues from press freedom to privacy is minimal.

In 2006, a Senate committee on Canadian news media contended the councils “can make a valuable contribution” to the practice of journalism but conceded they are not well known, “tend to react to complaints rather than acting on their own initiative” and are “underfunded.”

The committee agreed with Professor Stephen Ward of the University of British Columbia’s journalism school, that “we need to think about improving press councils and media councils in general.” 

Clearly, that hasn’t happened. In fact, very little appears to have changed in the 10 years since journalism professor John Miller of Ryerson University wrote a book called Yesterday’s News – Why Canada’s Daily Newspapers are Failing Us.

Of press councils, he said:  “They limit themselves to dealing, sometimes not very impartially, with complaints, filed by the relatively few members of the public who have the determination and stamina to wait up to six months for a hearing.

“Most councils do not undertake their own investigations, most deal with complaints on a case-by-case basis instead of drafting a comprehensive code of conduct for the press and publicizing it; none plays a role in training, research or development; nor, judging by the number of complaints and what happens to them does any council serve as much of a conduit for understanding or dialogue between the press and its public,” he wrote.

Re-reading Miller’s book, I was reminded by the fact that 12 years ago former Ontario Press Council chair (and former Supreme Court of Canada judge) Willard Estey publicly criticized newspapers for not publicizing the council or telling readers how to lodge complaints.

At the time, Estey playfully suggested his council needed to “stage an embezzlement or attract a charge” to get some media coverage. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

It’s fair to say Estey’s invisible successors in Ontario and their counterparts in other provinces have failed utterly to engage the public in the worthwhile enterprise of making newspapers more accountable.

Newspaper accountability – and the threat of federal government intervention to ensure that – were definitely on the fertile mind of former Toronto Star publisher Beland Honderich when he goaded several daily newspaper publishers to establish the Ontario Press Council in 1972.

(Another impetus, of course, was the high cost of legal trench warfare in libel cases. Honderich was one of many publishers who saw the councils as an alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that could settle complaints in a timely and civil way, without the presence of lawyers.)

Two years earlier, a special Senate committee on the mass media, chaired by Senator Keith Davey, had recommended Canada’s newspapers establish a national press council with public members and a broad mandate to consider public complaints and instigate its own investigations of dubious press conduct.

Davey’s report – long remembered for its characterization of newsrooms as “boneyards of broken dreams” — saw a national press council as an institution to promote research, staff training and development in an industry that didn’t seem to value such things.

With the whiff of state interference in the air, Honderich easily became a convert to self-regulation. (He also created the office of ombudsman at The Star to give aggrieved readers a place to vent and hold his editors accountable for their inevitable pratfalls.)

Like Davey, Honderich also saw press councils as vehicles for promoting a free press, open government and freedom of information in Canada. Yet, as the press councils faded into obscurity, they appeared to shed that mandate.

Quite frankly, press councils in Canada seem content to let other organizations such as the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Association of Journalists to do battle with governments that restrict the flow of information and have been known to interfere politically with legitimate access-to-information requests.

And when did you last read a news story about a press council chair commenting on issues such as publication bans, misuse of anonymous sources, privacy concerns, the “wild West” of online journalism, unwise contempt-of-court citations or police raids on journalists?

Sadly, despite the broad vision of their founders and early promoters, the councils remain generally at arm’s length from the papers that pay their bills and are largely mute in the national conversation on journalism standards and practices.

Their independence, by the way, is normally guaranteed by appointment mechanisms that allows for an even number of public members and newspaper appointees on a council to choose a tie-breaking chair from outside their ranks.

In my experience as The Star’s ombud for 11 years, the Ontario Press Council was independent and fair,  to the point where I often had difficulty predicting which direction a case would go. It was often entertaining to watch newspaper editors endure some prickly questions from newspaper representatives on the panels.

Safe to say, many newspaper editors view a one- or two-hour appearance at the Ontario Press Council as an experience akin to a root canal procedure without anesthetic. That’s understandable.

No one likes to have his or her work closely reviewed by outsiders with 20:20 hindsight. If there is one thing most journalists value, it’s their independence and freedom to operate without busy-bodies looking over their shoulders.

Yet the worst punishment the council – a self-described “ethics body” and not a court — can deliver is a mildly-worded rebuke stating that such-and-such a complaint was upheld, rejected outright, or turned down with a minor “reservation.”

The council has no power to fine a newspaper, order a correction, or recommend that a reporter or editor be suspended or dismissed. Indeed, the complaints it decides to adjudicate are normally laid against the newspaper, not an individual (unless in rare circumstances, it involves a high-profile columnist whose name is especially relevant to the proceedings).

In a media-saturated world, it seems odd that basic newspaper practices remain a mystery to many. To me, the real value of a vigorous press council hearing is the open discussion of real-life ethics cases in a relatively informal (though sometimes adversarial) atmosphere, with the proceedings reported to  readers.

Emerging from the process there may even be lessons to learn for next time.

The moribund state of most press councils in Canada needs to be addressed, and soon. The process is often cumbersome, and cases can drag on for so long that by the time an adjudication is finally held, no one – even the participants – can possibly remember the basic facts.

Some streamlining is in order.

I can understand why a press council would give a newspaper “one more chance” to resolve a dispute before it decides to hold a hearing. But when a complaint arrives (let’s hope by email) at a press council office, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to determine whether a quick settlement is possible without a hearing.

When the paper and the complainant can’t meet such a deadline, they shouldn’t have to wait another four or five months to have the dispute dealt with. And, in the case of the Ontario Press Council, is it really necessary to assemble a five-member panel to hear a complaint? By comparison, the Ontario Court of Appeal successfully uses three-member panels on a regular basis.

There is also no excuse for holding up publication of press council decisions. They need to be issued in a timely way – and posted in their entirety on those half-dead council websites mentioned earlier.

It might also be a good idea to let readers post online comments on the findings, even challenge their wisdom.

As their importance and credibility falters, press councils may well create a vacuum that other institutions – most ominously, provincial human rights councils – may be tempted to fill.

In recent months, a Muslim group went to the federal as well as the Ontario and British Columbia human rights commissions over an article they objected to in Maclean’s magazine, “The future belongs to Islam,” by Mark Steyn.

By law, some such tribunals have a responsibility to assess and curb hate speech – a  fact that many journalists believe is redolent of state censorship. Advocates of a free press in Canada would be well advised to consider what might happen if human rights commissions strayed even further into territory occupied ineptly by press councils.

Not so many years ago, an ethnic group in Toronto lodged a time-consuming complaint at the Ontario Human Rights Commission against The Toronto Star and the Ontario Press Council.

The paper had simply declined to run a redundant letter to the editor. Later, the Ontario Press Council, having adjudicated a number of other complaints against the paper from the same group, declined to adjudicate the matter further. Maybe it should have taken the case.

Months passed and legal bills mounted before the human rights commission sensibly declined to proceed further with what was obviously a vexatious complaint.

But the commission left the door open to handling future complaints against the press by dodging the Star’s contention that it lacked constitutional authority to control editorial content of a newspaper.

That case alone is reason to re-energize press councils in Canada.

Don Sellar, a former ombud at the Toronto Star, teaches media law and ethics in the Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Writers program at Sheridan College, Oakville, Ont.