Sun Media Ontario Press Council Pullout: Who's Watching Canada's Media?

Toronto Sun

First Posted: 07/16/11 11:15 AM ET Updated: 09/15/11 06:12 AM ET

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- TORONTO - Sun Media's decision to pull out of the Ontario Press Council has raised questions about who's policing Canada's news organizations — and whether the industry is willing to monitor itself.

The company's withdrawal from the provincial print-media watchdog earlier this week, at a time when Britain's phone-hacking scandal has sparked worldwide scrutiny of media practices and ethics, has some experts worried about the future of Canadian news.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, said tight budgets and mounting pressure to boost ratings or circulation have already led some news organizations to cut corners.

Unless media companies take responsibility for enforcing journalism standards among themselves — through voluntary bodies such as press councils or other mechanisms — the public will be "stymied," he said in an interview.

"At this time right now, when there's just this crisis in tabloid journalism and tabloid methods being brought into question, the need for some kind of public accountability is greater than ever," he said.

"I think there is a system available, but the question is whether news organizations are going to avail themselves of it."

Media organizations in Canada are self-regulated and have traditionally rejected any suggestion of government oversight, saying it would threaten democracy.

Sun Media announced it would leave the provincial watchdog because the editorial direction of its newspapers was "incompatible with a politically correct mentality'' that informed the press council's decisions.

The council has denied allegations of ideological motivation or bias.

The organization investigates complaints about some of the largest newspapers in Canada, including the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.

The press council has for years overseen 37 dailies, including 27 Sun Media newspapers such as the Toronto Sun, the Kingston Whig-Standard and the London Free Press.

Last year, Sun Media's parent company Quebecor announced it was withdrawing from the Quebec Press Council.

Sun Media also owns daily newspapers in Manitoba and Alberta, but they do not belong to their respective press councils.

Participation in the country's six press councils — in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba, British-Columbia and Atlantic Canada — has dropped in recent years.

What's more, some observers have cast doubts on the watchdogs' authority, calling them insular and outdated.

Brian Gabrial, a journalism professor at Montreal's Concordia University, has said dwindling membership and a weak online presence have made the councils all but irrelevant.

In an essay published last year, he urged the councils to "regroup and refocus" their efforts to include online media and engage the public.

Some argue the public is increasingly stepping up to keep the media in line on matters of accuracy and objectivity.

"I think the media could do a better job of peer review within their own structures, including press councils, but the good news is that audiences are watching the media," said Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson University's School of Journalism.

The rise of social media and other online forums has made it easier than ever for audiences to hold media organizations accountable, he said.

"If any newspaper, whether they're a member of a press council or not, commits an inaccuracy or does something that's perceived to be unfair, then whoever perceives that inaccuracy or that unfairness is able to respond in a way that wasn't possible just a few years ago," he said.

"I think we would be very, very foolish to underestimate the weight that audiences carry, especially in the wake of the News of the World," he said.

The British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch shut down earlier this week amid allegations that reporters hacked into the phones of crime victims, celebrities and officials to fish for information.

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Filed by Lauren Strapagiel  |