Press council for a new era

The very existence of the Ontario Press Council owes much to the principles and persistence of former longtime Toronto Star president and publisher, Beland Honderich.

As the council now embarks on a much-needed major “renewal” initiative to communicate its mission to Ontario newspaper readers, it is worth looking back at the role the Star played in creating this important means for the public to hold the press to account.

In January 1970, in testimony to the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, Honderich called on the Canadian newspaper industry to create regional press councils to investigate public complaints about the news and to upgrade professional standards of journalism.

Though he strongly opposed any legislative action to create press councils, Honderich said he had been trying for some time to gain support among newspapers for voluntary press councils, “with little success so far.

“The reason for our advocacy of a press council can be summed up in one sentence: The publication of a newspaper is an exercise in arbitrary power,” he said. “The arbitrary power of the press calls for self-discipline, which press councils can encourage and guide.”

The Senate committee subsequently called for a Canadian press council and Honderich persisted in his efforts within Ontario. In November 1971, the Star’s Page 1 story “Ontario Press Council to hear complaints from public” announced that seven newspapers in the province had agreed to the formation of a press council, with Honderich chair of the interim organizing committee.

“The council will deal with complaints from citizens who have not been able to obtain satisfaction from their local newspaper,” Honderich said. “But the purpose is much broader than that: The press council will serve as a bridge between the press and the people, it will work for the establishment of high ethical standards and it will guard against infringements on press freedoms from any quarter such as government or pressure groups.”

The Ontario Press Council, modeled largely on the British Press Council, now called the Press Complaints Commision, was officially launched in July of 1972.

Of course, much has changed within the newspaper industry in the decades since with newspapers now calling themselves news organizations and publishing on many platforms. Over the past year, the council’s “renewal committee” considered the role of the press council in this new century. The conclusion: the mission and mandate summed up by Beland Honderich all those years ago remains as vital as ever.

Now, under the leadership of council chairman and former Ontario cabinet minister Dr. Robert Elgie, and the council’s new executive director, longtime newsman Don McCurdy, the OPC plans to spread that word to both readers and journalists in Ontario. For more information about the press council, check out its website.

“I think the press council is incredibly relevant at a time when ethical issues get less discussion in newsrooms,” McCurdy, former editor of the Record in Kitchener-Waterloo, told me over a recent lunch. “There is such a hurry-up-and-get-everything-done mentality in the 24/7 news cycle that sometimes people can forget about the checks and balances required for good journalism.

“With its mixture of public and professional members, the press council offers a considered opinion on public complaints,” he said. “It’s good for a newspaper to be able to tell its readers it belongs to an organization that will independently look at complaints.

“Anyone who thinks they are right all the time is wrong.”

The council launched its public outreach program earlier this year with a panel discussion on the ethics of using anonymous sources in news reporting. Among the panellists was John Honderich, now chairman of the board of the Star’s parent company, Torstar Corp., and son of Beland Honderich. At the outset, he reaffirmed the Star’s commitment to the importance of a vital press council in Ontario.

But this council has considerable work ahead in renewing itself and remaining vital to the public and the press. In a 2010 paper “Existential Crisis! Canada’s press councils’ struggle for relevance in a new media age,” Concordia University professor Brian Gabrial argues that press councils in Canada are in “serious, if not fatal, trouble” and have become largely irrelevant.

Press councils are under the gun financially as revenue-strapped newspapers have abandoned their memberships to cut costs, he writes. As well, a “credibility gap” exists because councils have done a poor job of informing the public of their purpose.

“Without visibility, there is no credibility,” he states.

Gabrial makes the case that press councils are “important bodies for journalism and for the public.” And, as journalism evolves in this digital age, “the need for healthy press councils is greater now than at any time.”

He is right about that. Media accountability matters and press councils can provide readers with an important measure to hold newsrooms to account.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on June 2, 2011.

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