New era for media accountability in Canada

By Kathy English

Toronto Star

The Ontario Press Council has died. Canada’s new National Newsmedia Council is born.

Media accountability in our country took a historic leap forward this week with the launch of a national media council that replaces longstanding press councils in Ontario, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces that have been floundering for some time and were officially shut down last month.

For more than four decades, Toronto Star readers who are dissatisfied with this news organization’s response to their concerns about the Star’s journalism have had the option of turning to the OPC for further, no-cost adjudication. The new national council will serve the same function.

You can expect the Star to be a strong supporter of the NNC. Indeed, the Star was a founding member of the OPC and in recent years, John Honderich, chair of the board of Torstar Corp., has been a vocal advocate of the idea of creating a national council to enhance media accountability in Canada.

This is an idea whose time has come. Full disclosure: I served on a committee that oversaw the transition plan to amalgamate the three regional councils into a national media accountability body. From the outset, I have regarded this important initiative as good for both readers and media credibility in Canada.

Following years of dwindling financial support for the regional press councils, news organizations across the country have now stepped up “with enthusiasm and financial support” (says the NNC press release) to make this national mode of media self-regulation a reality.

The council is supported by daily and community news organizations across Canada, including the Star, Torstar’s Metroland Media, the Globe and Mail, Postmedia and its newly acquired Sun Media properties.

Similar to the regional councils that the NNC replaces, the council will include both industry and public members from across the three regions to provide independent review and adjudication of readers’ concerns and complaints about print and digital content.

While the NNC does not incorporate either the Quebec Press Council or the Alberta Press Council (both will continue to operate independently), the cross-country scope of the news organizations that have signed on to the national council recognizes the digital media reality that news now has no geographic boundaries. And, as one former newspaper editor so aptly put it on Twitter this week, “neither should the watchdog.”

Indeed, I am as likely to handle complaints from Star readers in Vancouver and Halifax as in the Greater Toronto Area. And, from one end of this country to the other, the expectations of accountability and transparency of news organizations have never been greater with social media providing readers opportunity to publicly and loudly question journalism and its standards.

According to its first press release, the NNC is committed to “the highest ethical and professional standards of journalism” and will also seek to serve as “as a medium of understanding between the public and member news organizations.”

The council has attracted strong leadership to make this mandate a reality. Its first chair is Frances Lankin, former chair of the United Way Toronto and a former Ontario cabinet member. Lankin was at the helm of the transition process and, having served on this committee, I well know she is a formidable leader, adept at driving change and achieving results.

The inaugural president and CEO of the NNC is award-winning journalist and author John Fraser, former master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College and its journalism fellowship program. Fraser’s high energy and his impressive record of journalistic achievement will serve him well in earning the respect of news organizations, journalists and the public in this new role of overseeing media accountability in Canada.

Fraser well understands that the NNC’s primary responsibility is to the public interest.

“Newspapers and magazines serve the public and it is the public, first and foremost, who need to have confidence that this industry-supported agency is working to protect its best interests,” he said in this week’s press release, “At the same time, the news media industry is in tremendous transition and we have an important role to play in assuring that this transition includes the very best standards of journalism.”

I will tell you more about Fraser and his plans for the national media council in coming weeks. But now, I would be remiss if I did not pay tribute to the outgoing executive director of the OPC, Don McCurdy, who was a driving force in the creation of a national media accountability body and will continue to work with Fraser in handling reader complaints from across Canada.

From the outset of his appointment in 2011, McCurdy championed a national council — he even raised the idea of dissolving the Ontario council during his interview for the job of running it. Throughout his tenure he worked to bring Canada’s news organizations and other regional press councils onboard to support the idea.

McCurdy can be well proud this week that this idea is now a reality for readers across our land.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on 11 Sept. 2015.

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