The Manitoba organization that hears complaints against newspapers is dead because the papers refused to continue paying for it.
The Winnipeg Free Press, the council’s largest member and the chief architect of its demise, noted its passing.
Although the meagre five comments today on the paper’s website suggest that interest is limited, we should care that press councils are going out of fashion across Canada.
A quick online survey reveals signs of life only in the press councils of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
Most Canadian press councils, including Manitoba’s, sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s, sponsored by newspapers desperate to demonstrate that they could police themselves (and maintain their high profits) without government interference.
The newspapers’ owners were outraged and terrified by recommendations from the Davey and Kent inquiries that the federal government impose some control over concentration of ownership.
Their ploy worked. The feds shrank from imposing the suggested regulations – and that’s probably a good thing.
Since then, not much has change in the world of press councils.
The standard model contains equal representation from newspapers and the public, with an independent chair.
Councils hear complaints about any content in a paper—advertising, news stories, pictures. They act as appeal boards in cases where someone is not satisfied with a newspaper’s response to an original complaint.
Member newspapers promise to publish every press council ruling about them.
Four years ago Don Sellar, a former Toronto Star’s ombud, lamented the decline of press councils.
More recently Brian Gabrial, director of the MA Journalism program at Concordia University, proposed remedies including broadening the mandate of press councils to include other news media and giving them a vital online presence.
His suggestions make a lot of sense – as long as governments do not sneak into the business of regulating news media content.
It’s not as if press councils have waged war against the newspapers.
The Manitoba body dealt with five cases in the last two years, John Cochrane, its chair, told me on Jan. 5.
That’s not a lot of activity. But the very existence of a press council imposes a discipline on member newspapers. If the papers don’t treat complaints seriously, they risk having them adjudicated in a more public forum, and being required to publish decisions that may criticize them.
Now the Winnipeg Free Press, the Brandon Sun and the Manitoba Community Newspapers Association owe their readers and advertisers an explanation of how they propose to replace the Manitoba Press Council.
If, on the other hand, those newspapers believe that their handling of complaints is always correct and never needs to be reviewed, they should say so – on their front pages.