the time this article was written Graham Addley was Deputy Speaker of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly. Maria
Kurylo was an intern with the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly Internship
Program. This is a revised version of a paper presented at the 41st Canadian
Regional Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in New
Brunswick in July 2002.
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
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
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. Members are nominated for a two-year term, which can be
renewed up to two more times. The President is nominated for a four-year term,
which can be renewed once.
Unlike other press councils in
Canada, the QPC is striving towards being independently funded. However, at the
moment, 69% of its $350,000 annual budget is financed by press organizations,
two of which are publicly owned enterprises. The rest of the money is provided
through a grant from the Department of Culture and Communications of Quebec and
the Fondation du Conseil de presse du Quebec. Canada’s other press councils
vary in the number of members that sit on their respective councils and as to
where and how they secure their funding.
Like all Canadian press
councils, the QPC plays a dual role. It is responsible for hearing complaints
from the public against newspapers (or news organizations) in Quebec and
ensuring journalistic objectivity and for enhancing and upholding the freedom
of the press. The Quebec press council also hears complaints voiced by
journalists who “believe they have been hindered in the exercise of their
work”. In other words, the press council serves both the public and the
journalist. However, the QPC differs from other press councils in that it will
hear complaints made against any newspaper in Quebec, whether it is a member of
the press council or not. In other jurisdictions, the press councils will
usually only listen to complaints against their membership newspapers and only
to non-membership papers if they so consent.
A press council will review a
complaint and determine whether an infraction has occurred. Through a formal
process (depending on the jurisdiction, the review process will either be based
on precedence, on an established code of ethics or a combination of both), the
case will be reviewed and the press council will make a ruling that is
As a member of a press
council, a newspaper is required to publish any ruling the council may make.
Each press council has a constitution, which members agree to abide by once
they join. In Ontario, once a press council has made a ruling, the findings,
through a press release, are sent to all of the papers in Canada and the paper
involved in the complaint is bound, through the Ontario press council
constitution, to print it. Credibility and respect are extremely important to
most mainstream newspapers and this helps to ensure that newspapers will
publish the council’s findings, even if the information is unfavourable. Press
councils publish regular or annual reports listing all of its cases and
rulings. In most instances, hearings are held open to both the public and the
media. A press council has no legal or coercive powers to enforce its rulings.
It depends purely on the power of persuasion in order to uphold and enhance the
ethical foundations of journalism.
Generally speaking, the nature of a press council is to act as
an independent, moral authority. It is a non-judicial body that acts similarly
to an ombudsman.
A press council acts as the
conscience of journalism, which ensures that the newsprint media and
journalists are acting in the best interest of the public. It is imperative
that the body operates in an independent fashion and not be influenced by
By creating an independent
body, the public is given a neutral forum in which to air its concerns.
Similarly, journalists have an avenue of recourse to pursue if they believe
that they have been treated unfairly by their editors or newsprint owners. As
such, a press council, is a tool of accountability. It is another check and
balance that protects the democratic role of newsprint media. By holding
newsprint media responsible for what it does and does not print and the manner
in which it reports information to the public, it ensures the continuation of
open and free dialogue and access to information. This is important as
the strengths of our federation and our democracy depend on a well-informed
Newsprint media is unique in
that it is a private business and part of the public forum. Its success is
often determined by readership and sales and its ability to turn a profit.
From a private business perspective, an independent body or a government
does not have a right to dictate how a private business should operate or
present its product. However, when a product conflicts with the concept
of the public good, such as tobacco, alcohol and food safety, the government
steps in to regulate the industry in question in order to protect the rights of
the individual, and society in general. In the case of newsprint media, “…being
in the business of news and opinion, plays a crucial role in the functioning of
democracy.” And ensuring our system of democracy is vital to the public good.
The very nature of newsprint
media demands it to be involved in, and to participate in, the public arena. It
engages the public and allows for the public to interact and be informed.
Editors and journalists have a huge impact on the public consciousness by
determining, in their opinion, what is and what is not news. “Not only do
editors and reporters decide what will or will not reach their publics, they
also decide the hierarchy in which to present the news stories and all the news
items within each story.” As a result, the relationship that is born from this
interaction creates a need for trust and ethical conduct. Inasmuch,
newspapers are a public trust and, thus, are responsible to the public.
The public has a right to
ensure that their ability to participate and interact is protected. It
also has the right to have access to unbiased and ethical journalism. On the
same note, journalists have the right to ensure that their work is respected
and that they do not have to fear censorship if they have an opinion that
differs from the news conglomerate. Consequently, this is a private industry
that must answer to the public and to the democratic process.
Press councils answer
complaints made by the public regarding a variety of issues such as: the
refusal to print an individual’s opinion in the editorial section, the
alteration of public opinion columns, and the printing of skewed, biased,
negligent, inaccurate or defaming information. With respect to
journalists and editors, they are able to lodge a complaint against a
government for impeding access to public information. Press councils can
“operate as powerful lobbies serving the needs of the information industry,
defending it against any attempt at intervention by government. They will
occasionally go on the attack and criticize the public administrations for too
often resorting to closed door deliberations and official secrecy.”
In some cases, journalists may
even be able to seek recourse against their media conglomerate for censorship
or for over editing of an article. Most journalists are eager to:
promote their professional interests
and to resist the trend towards the commercialization and trivialization of
news and commentaries. For this reason, they like the idea of an
independent referee capable of setting forth standards which would be morally
binding on management and which in turn…would have to be imposed on its
employees in the newsroom. Press councils constitute a valuable line of defence
for journalists, both unionized and part of management, against the commercial
requirements, which are persistently undermining professional values.3
This touches upon an even more
important issue that is at the core of any discussion on the role of a press
council in the democratic process: the concentration of ownership of newsprint
media. This is of particular interest as, to date, Canada has one of the
“most concentrated media ownerships of any Western industrialized country”.
One example in Canada arose
when complaints were made against CanWest Global Corporation for censoring
local columnists whose viewpoints they (the owners of the corporation)
disagreed with. The owners were accused of changing articles to match their
point of view and for disallowing articles that were not to their liking.
As owners of a newspaper conglomerate, they have the right to express
their views or political opinions, but what is criticized and deemed to be an
undemocratic practice is disallowing other points of view to be printed.
This hinders public dialogue. It has been argued that, newspapers—and
especially editorial pages—should serve their readership rather than a
centralized, corporate entity.
The 1981 Royal Commission on
Newspapers stated that, “Freedom of the press is not a property right of
owners…It is a right of the people.” And diversity of opinion is the
cornerstone of a healthy, vibrant democracy.” If a corporate entity denies the
freedom of a journalist to reflect the diverse views of society, the result is
an affront to our democratic process.
Recently, it was reported that
Russell Mills, publisher of the Ottawa Citizen was removed from his post
with the CanWest Global owned newspaper after he featured two different
editorials criticizing Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He had also recently
delivered a convocation address that was “critical of CanWest’s editorial
policy”. He stated in the address that the “newspapers are not permitted to
disagree with what are described as ‘core positions”. The editorial controversy
revealed that there was a disagreement in editorial policy. CanWest
wanted to approve the editorial before it was published, but this was not made
known to Mr. Mills. As a result, CanWest, widely known for its support of
the Federal Liberal party and Mr. Chrétien, asked Mr. Mills to step down from
This episode was widely criticized
by the Federal Opposition parties. Conservative Leader Joe Clark observed
that, “this is quite an alarming pattern, which I think needs to be
investigated…these are questions that go to the root of the freedom of the
press and the root of democracy”. The concern arises most recently out of the
firing of Russell Mills, but also out of the fact that CanWest Global
has been widely and aggressively accused of “limiting diversity of opinion by
requiring its 14 biggest Canadian newspapers to publish editorials written from
headquarters in Winnipeg about once a week”. As a result, local editorials are
no longer available to the communities served by these newspapers.
When members of their press corps opposed to this
move, they were punished. Several columnists quit or were replaced as a result
of the controversy.
Such actions taken by a
super-conglomerate owner is quite disturbing. One method of recourse for
those affected by the limitations initiated by newsprint media owners is to
deliver their complaint to a press council. If a ruling were made against
CanWest Global, by virtue of their membership in the Ontario Press
Council, they would have to publicly print the findings. Public and peer
pressure can be a great incentive for an industry to mind its method of
Limitation of Press
It must be noted that not all
press councils will intervene if a journalist presents a grievance against the
ownership of the paper he or she works for. In Ontario, it is not a
practice to hear such cases. Many believe that this is an
employer-employee issue that must be resolved accordingly. As a result,
press councils are limited in their scope of intervention. Consequently,
even though a press council is a useful tool to publicly express ones concerns,
their success and utility have, at times, been called into question.
Criticisms made against press
councils include that they are watch-dogs with no teeth and they are biased
because a majority of the members on the press council are members of the media
industry and, therefore, hold a stake in the rulings. As well, many press
councils receive most of their funding by the newspapers they are asked to
criticize. Consequently, it is argued that they are not truly independent, nor
impartial. As well, some believe that the public is not very informed as
to the role and even to the existence of press councils. Enhancing the public’s
knowledge of press councils costs money, money that they do not necessarily
have at their disposal.
1. Pritchard, David. “The Role of Press
Councils in a System of Media Accountability: The Case of Quebec”, Canadian
Journal of Communication.
2. Clift, Dominique. “Press Councils and
Ombudsmen”, The Journalist; Royal Commission on Newspapers, Volume 2
Research Publications, p. 146.
3. Ibid., p.140.