Press Councils and Democracy

Article excerpt

Free and open expression of opinion is key to the full and proper operation of democracy. One important way people participate in the democratic process is through the media. This article looks at the creation of press councils and asks if they contribute to free and fair reporting essential to the democratic process.

The establishment of the first press councils in Canada arose in response to "proposals for greater government regulation of the press".(1) There had been a few cases where it was believed that news reporting had become sensationalized or biased, even to the point of prejudicing the court system against defendants. As a result, in Ontario, a provincial commission investigating Human Rights suggested that a press council be established in order to control and discipline the press and other news media.

At the federal level, a Special Senate Committee on Mass Media was established to examine such matters. The Committee was in favour of establishing press councils to look into matters of concentration of media ownership, objective and ethical journalism and a forum for the public to air complaints against newspapers.

In order to encourage newspapers to voluntarily form press councils, the Committee issued a suggestion for a national press council. At the time, and even today, this was not an option most newspapers would consider.

As well, many newspaper owners believed that a certain amount of cynicism was developing as to how newspapers were portraying information. Consequently, many thought that:

the establishment of a press council would help rehabilitate the press in the eyes of political parties and of public authorities, thereby warding off the possibility of intervention.(2)

As a result, the first press council established in Canada was a community council serving Windsor Ontario, in 1971. The Windsor press council was based on the British model, created in 1963. Following suit, the Ontario and Alberta press councils were established in 1972 and the Quebec press council in 1973.

The rest of the Canadian provinces followed suit in the 1980's once the federal government released the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission on Newspapers in 1981. In the final report, the Commission stated that, "newspapers which do not become enthusiastically involved in the establishment and operation of press councils are exceedingly short-sighted". A Newspaper Act was also recommended by the Commission, which would have forced the creation of local press councils in communities "with chain-owned monopoly newspapers" and would have created a Press Rights Panel that would oversee and assess the performance of Canadian newspapers and would have the power to publish reviews of all of Canada's newspapers.

The last thing newspaper owners desired was for their businesses to become federally regulated and face the same kind of regulations that the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) wields in the area of television and broadcasting. Therefore, in order to avoid such a possibility, all provinces, except Saskatchewan, established voluntary press councils. British Columbia and Manitoba established their own provincial councils and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island joined together to form an Atlantic press council.

Roles and Duties of Press Councils

There are no specific guidelines as to how a press council operates, who sits on its panel or where the council's funding comes from. Each jurisdiction has established its own rules and procedures to follow.

It has often been noted that the Quebec press council (QPC) is one of most effective councils in Canada and perhaps the best representation in the world of how a press council should operate. The QPC is a voluntary organization composed of 19 members: six from management organizations, six from journalists' organizations and seven from the general public. …