Journalist Louise Milligan’s complaint about unfair reporting in The Australian took two years to settle, only after the Press Council lost key documents and encouraged her to drop the case. By Richard Ackland.
Standing up to The Australian
Since 1976, the Australian Press Council has been Australia’s press watchdog. It is tasked with upholding the principles of free speech and democracy and maintaining the standards of ethical and responsible journalism.
At the time it was established, the government was threatening laws to regulate the press. The council was set up to avoid this in favour of self-regulation, funded by newspaper publishers. It comprises industry representatives and journalists alongside community members – the latter category being firmly in the minority.
Dissatisfaction about this regime has been rumbling for years and is again notable following the Press Council’s handling of a complaint brought by ABC journalist Louise Milligan against The Australian newspaper.
More than two years ago, Milligan lodged her complaint with the Press Council over the publication of an editorial on June 8, 2021, under the headline: “Greatest enemy of the truth is those who conspire to lie”.
The editorial followed former attorney-general Christian Porter’s decision to discontinue a defamation action against Milligan and the ABC. It made heavy weather of the importance of good journalism, accompanied by the usual swipes at the national broadcaster. In the process, the newspaper claimed: “Many senior people at The Australian know well the work, the habits and the hubris of Sally Neighbour and Louise Milligan.”
Milligan is a highly regarded reporter for Four Corners and Neighbour at the time was the program’s executive producer. Both were formerly journalists at The Australian.
With a masterful lack of self-awareness, the editorial continued: “The most dangerous enemy of the journalist is bad, lazy, deceitful journalism.” Further, good journalists do not “lie and dissemble”.
In the protracted mud wrestle that followed at the Press Council, The Australian argued that these comments were referring to the ABC in general and not the two journalists specifically.
Others in the media and beyond saw the paper as having a nasty crack at two of its ideological enemies. Their reporting had led the then attorney-general Porter to sue the ABC, resulting in his quitting as first law officer and later withdrawing from politics and the litigation at great personal cost and expense.
On September 5, after more than two years, the Press Council delivered a resounding adjudication in Milligan’s favour. The editorial writer had not taken “reasonable steps” to ensure the material was accurate. It was misleading, caused offence, distress or prejudice and was presented unfairly.
When Louise Milligan lodged her complaint with the Press Council she could not have realised that, as well as taking on the resources of the Murdoch press, she would also have to grapple with the obfuscations and delays of the council itself.
It took eight months to receive a response to her complaint. When at last one emerged, the Press Council said her annexure to the complaint could not be found. This contained dozens of messages of support from journalist colleagues, former editors on The Australian itself and management at the ABC.
Subsequently, Milligan was told her complaint had been rejected and was given one week to seek a review of that decision. In the process, the council only referred to the principle about publishers taking steps to avoid causing distress, offence or prejudice.
The journalist’s main complaint about accuracy and fairness was absent from the council’s communication.
Two months later, Milligan was toldshe could resubmit her complaint. Another three months down the track, the council advised that The Australian had responded, and that she might consider whether to drop the whole thing.
Again, there was confusion from the Press Council about the actual standards of journalistic practice about which Milligan was complaining. She had never alleged a breach of the principle relating to a right of reply. On behalf of the aggrieved journalist, a solicitor replied saying there had been evident unfairness that “creates the risk of a reasonable perception of bias”.
Almost two months after that the council rang Milligan to say that correspondence from lawyers would not be accepted. By this stage, Milligan’s complaint was 18 months old and had failed to make any recognisable progress.
Neville Stevens, the chair of the Press Council, got in touch to say he would soon be in touch. A phone hook-up was arranged for December 2022, during which Milligan outlined her concerns about the mismanagement of her complaint and the distress caused by the newspaper’s attacks.
She was required to rewrite material that had been submitted by her solicitor. The council then sent her a summary of her complaint, which Milligan claimed was weighted in favour of the case put by the publisher.
Nearly two years after the complaint was lodged, the Press Council agreed there would be an adjudication of the issues. However, The Australian objected to aspects of the public support Milligan had submitted, despite it having been on the file since June 2021.
The council agreed The Australian should be allowed to include other assertions it had historically made about the ABC journalist, in an attempt to substantiate the claims made in the editorial.
The adjudication itself moved from the Press Council’s management into the hands of an independent panel. There was one further hiccup when it was discovered that a page of Milligan’s supporting documents was missing, including a statement from ABC managing director David Anderson – an omission hurriedly rectified before proceedings began. The actual adjudication by the independent panel was everything Milligan hoped for – and a welcome change from the tangled process to get there.
Finally, on August 30 this year, the complaint was upheld. The decision was made public on September 5.
The author of the “inaccurate and unfair” editorial, which caused Milligan “significant offence and distress”, was not named. It is the practice of the Press Council not to disclose the identity of offending journalists when making critical findings.
In this instance, responsibility would fall to Chris Dore, who at the time was editor-in-chief of The Australian.
In November 2022, while Milligan was awaiting a Press Council adjudication, Dore attended an event for News Corp’s top brass at Laguna Beach, California.
Soon after he departed the company to “deal with longstanding health issues”. Nine newspapers later reported Dore had made lewd comments towards a woman at the event.
A person without Louise Milligan’s determination and stamina might easily have surrendered in despair at the obstacles posed by the complaints handling process: the misplaced documents, the incorrect claims about the complaint itself, the need to rewrite submissions that had already been sent and the interminable delays.
Conceivably, this is the way the major newspaper proprietors prefer their watchdog to function. The Press Council has a staff of seven and last year’s annual report shows it received 972 complaints, of which it deemed 694 were “in scope”.
Most get resolved by “alternative remedies”, while 27 got as far as adjudication panels, with about 22 upheld or partially upheld.
Newspapers that sign on – including The Saturday Paper – are subject to the Press Council’s standards and are required to publish adverse findings in full. In the case of the Milligan adjudication, The Australian brazenly republished the offending editorial online with a link to the adjudication.
The council’s finances are meagre, with most of the money coming from News Corp, followed by the Nine newspapers. For 2022 there was no increase in contributions from the constituent bodies and no increase foreshadowed for this year.
The core funding for 2021 was $2,147,386 and the following year it dropped by almost a quarter to $1,686,246.
The newspaper barons have found an effective way to throttle the relatively docile efforts at print media accountability.
Seven West Media withdrew as a member of the Press Council in 2012, citing frustrations with the efficacy of the organisation. It set up its own body to handle complaints about its print and website publications.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has given notice it wants to abandon its membership of the council, complaining adjudications have been “inconsistent, slow and increasingly out of touch with community expectations”, quite apart from which publishers don’t appear to give a hoot about critical findings.
Its seat on the council is held by Matthew Ricketson, until the period of notice expires in 2025.
In 2012 Ricketson sat with former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein on a review of press accountability. Their report recommended the creation of a government-funded, independent, news media council to set standards for the industry and to handle complaints.
The inquiry was inspired by the phone hacking of the British tabloids, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, and the subsequent Leveson inquiry.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of a government-funded regulator was howled down by major publishers, especially News Corp – even though countless independent bodies are funded by government, from the Bureau of Meteorology to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. It was seen as Labor’s “plan to control the media”.
Malcolm Turnbull, nowadays leading the charge for a Murdoch royal commission, was at the time the opposition communications spokesperson and not enthusiastic about Finkelstein’s news media council. It was “not one which would appeal to the Coalition, believing as we do in a free press – free in particular to hold governments to account”.
In 2017 Professor David Weisbrot, then chair of the Press Council, resigned after an onslaught of attacks from The Australian over the appointment to the body of Torres Strait Islander woman Carla McGrath, who was the deputy chair of the campaigning organisation GetUp!
In a statement to The Saturday Paper, the Press Council said there was no definitive time frame for the resolution of complaints. “All complaints received by the Council (including Ms Milligan’s) are considered on a case-by-case basis in accordance with Council processes. In some instances, the time taken to resolve a complaint may be longer than expected due to the complexity of the issues being considered, the necessity for all issues and concerns to be fully ventilated and all avenues for a remedy explored.”
The council conceded Milligan’s complaint was not initially referred to adjudication as it was considered unlikely “at the time” that the council’s standards had been breached. “Ms Milligan was offered an opportunity to review the decision to not refer her complaint to adjudication. This right of review is included in Council processes to ensure an opportunity is provided to complainants, such as Ms Milligan, to object to a decision. Upon review, the initial decision was set aside, and the issues raised by Ms Milligan were subsequently addressed by an Adjudication Panel.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Standing up to The Australian".
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