The Council’s role
The main roles which the Australian Press Council may undertake when handling complaints include:
- investigating and considering the complaint;
- seeking to facilitate an outcome acceptable to the complainant and the publication;
- providing information and comment about the relevance of the Council's Standards of Practice to the particular circumstances;
- making an adjudication, where appropriate, as to whether the publication has breached the Council’s Standards of Practice.
Adjudications must be published by the publication in accordance with the Council’s specific requirements.
The Council has no power to order compensation, fines or other financial sanctions. Where a complaint is upheld, the adjudication may also include a reprimand or censure, and may explicitly call for (but not require) apologies, retractions, corrections or other specified remedial action by the publisher. The Council may also call for specific measures to prevent recurrence of the type of breach in question.
Complaint Handling Process
The Council’s procedures for handling of complaints can be divided into the following three stages:
- Reception of complaints
- Level 1: Consideration by Council staff
- Level 2: Consideration by Adjudication Panel
Reception of complaints
After receiving the complaint, a member of the Council’s complaints-handling staff obtains any further details which he or she considers necessary at this stage. The Executive Director then decides whether the complaint should not be considered further because:
- it does not meet the requirements about what can be complained about, or who can make a complaint, or when and how a complaint should be made (see Making a Complaint); or
- it is more appropriate for consideration by some other process (such as the Council considering whether to issue or amend a relevant Standard of Practice; or referring the complaint for consideration by another organisation); or
- Council has facilitated a form of redress and/or the publication has sufficiently remedied the matter.
- even if the facts alleged in the complaint are correct, it is unlikely that a breach of the Council's Standards of Practice has occurred; or
- the extent to which consideration of the complaint might require the commitment of greater resources by the Council, the publication or the complainant than is reasonably proportionate to the significance of the likely breaches; or
- for some other reason, the complaint is in appropriate for further consideration by the Council.
In some circumstances, the Executive Director may ask the complainant to raise the matter directly with the publication.
Where the complainant is not personally identified or directly affected by the published material, the complaint may be considered as a “secondary complaint”. In this situation, the Executive Director also takes into account the following considerations, in addition to those mentioned in the previous paragraph, when deciding whether the matter should be considered further:
- the risk of aggravating any possible invasion of privacy or other harm caused to people or organisations which are directly affected by the material; or
- the extent to which informing the complainant, the media industry and the general public whether a particular type of breach has occurred may provide an important example of the application of the Council’s Standards, even if people or organisations directly affected by it do not wish to make or endorse a complaint themselves or they cannot be contacted; or
- the extent to which consideration of the complaint might require the commitment of greater resources by the Council, the publication or the complainant than is reasonably proportionate to the significance of the possible breaches; or
- the extent to which the matter requires the primary person’s input and/or participation.
Notification of complaint to publication
Unless the Executive Director decides to discontinue consideration of the complaint, the publication will be promptly notified of the complaint.
The notification will focus on whether the publication has already taken action in relation to a direct complaint about the material in question or may be willing to consider doing so in relation to the complaint received by the Council.
Referral to level 1 or discontinuance
Unless the complaint has been discontinued or resolved as a result of these initial processes, it will be referred by the Executive Director to Level 1 for further consideration by the Council staff.
If the Executive Director decides to discontinue consideration, the complainant will be informed accordingly and may seek review of that decision, provided the request is received within seven days of being notified. For further information, see Review of Decisions. The discontinuance will not be reversed on review unless the grounds for doing so are very strong.
If a review is not sought, or is unsuccessful, the publication will then be notified of the discontinuance.
Level 1: Consideration by Council staff
This outlines the main processes for consideration of complaints by Council staff (known as Level 1). In practice, the great majority of complaints are finalised at Level 1.
If a matter is referred to Level 1, the Executive Director or another member of the Council's complaints-handling staff undertakes informal consideration and, if necessary, investigates the issues, before deciding whether to seek a response from the publication.
There may be further communication with the complainant and the publication in order to clarify the issues and, where appropriate, explore the possibility of an outcome which both are willing to accept. This may involve a request for response being sent to the publication that identifies particular issues on which the Council is seeking information or comment from the publication. In some circumstances, the Executive Director may conduct or organise a formal mediation if the complainant and publication agree to that course of action.
Possible outcomes from discussions with publications which may fully or partially address complainants' concerns include:
- An explanation of why the material was published;
- An informal expression of regret by the publication;
- Publication of balancing material (e.g. a reply by or on behalf of the complainant);
- Publication of a correction, clarification or apology in an agreed form;
- Amendment or removal of material on a website;
- Commitments about future coverage of particular people or issues; or
- Commitments to standards training and education
Consideration of a complaint is discontinued at Level 1 if the Executive Director decides:
- The complainant has withdrawn the complaint or has not responded to communication from the Council within a reasonable period; or
- It is more appropriate for consideration by some other process (such as the Council considering whether to issue or amend a relevant Standard of Practice; or referring the complaint for consideration by another organisation); or
- Council has facilitated a measure of redress and/or the publication has sufficiently remedied the matter; or
- Even if the facts alleged in the complaint are correct, it is unlikely that a breach of the Council's Standards of Practice has occurred; or
- The extent to which consideration of the complaint might require the commitment of greater resources by the Council, the publication or the complainant than is reasonably proportionate to the significance of the likely breaches; or
- The issues raised in the complaint are the same or somewhat similar to this issue or subject that are or have been considered in accordance with the Systemic Investigation process; or
- for some other reason, the complaint is inappropriate for further consideration by the Council.
When considering whether a “secondary complaint” should be discontinued, the Executive Director also takes account of the factors mentioned under the heading “Secondary complaints”.
A complainant (other than a Secondary Complainant) can seek review of a decision by the Executive Director to discontinue. The request must be received within seven days of being notified of the decision. For further information, see Review of Decisions. The original decision is not changed on review unless the grounds for doing so are very strong.
Consideration of systemic investigation
In addition to considering individual Complaints, the Council may also look at the reporting of an issue or subject in print and online publications.
By identifying potential systemic issues, the Council can work with publications and the community to improve media standards and minimise complaints.
For further information, see the fact sheet on Systemic Investigations.
Consideration of referral to an adjudication process
If the matter has not been discontinued or resolved during the Informal Consideration stage, the Executive Director will consider whether it should be referred to an Adjudication process. To do so, the Executive Director will prepare a Provisional Summary of Issues (PSOI) taking into account information and comments provided by the complainant and the publication. The PSOI will include:
- The relevant wording or other aspects of the published material in question;
- The relevant parts of the Council’s Standards of Practice; and
- Facts and issues relating to the complaint.
The PSOI will be sent to the complainant for comment and then, after consideration of any such comment, will be sent to the publication for a response. The complainant and the publication will be given an opportunity at that time to suggest supplementary material which they consider should be taken into account. These responses will be considered by the Executive Director, who will then decide whether to refer the complaint to one of the Council’s Adjudication processes.
When the complainant’s comment is sought, the complainant will be advised that his or her name and some details of their complaint are likely to be disclosed publicly if an adjudication is made. Any request for confidentiality must be made at this stage, before a decision is made whether to refer the matter to the Council’s Adjudication process. A later request will be considered only in exceptional circumstances.
Letters of Advice
If a complaint is not referred to an Adjudication Panel, the Executive Director may decide that in addition to discontinuing the matter he or she will send a formal Letter of Advice to the publication about any substantial risks of breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice that are relevant to publishing material of the kind in question.
The Letter of Advice may identify factors which increased or reduced the risk of breach in the particular case and provide advice about any action which may reduce the risk in future. In order to provide general guidance for other publications and for members of the public, any such advice may subsequently be made public without identifying the publication or complainant.
Referral to the adjudication process
Once submissions have been exchanged, the next meeting of one of the Press Council’s Adjudication Panels will consider and usually determine the complaint. Panels comprise the Chair (either the Council Chair or, usually, one of the Vice-Chairs) plus an equal number of Public Members and Industry Members.
In referring a matter to either the Direct or Full Adjudication process, the Executive Director will identify and refer those complaints considered suitable for handling through this streamlined process. Consideration is given to:
- The seriousness, novelty and complexity of the issues; and
- The facts, issues and evidence involved and the need for oral submissions by the parties.
In appropriate circumstances, guided by the rules of natural justice, the Council may request or receive further information from one or both of the parties.
Level 2: Consideration by Adjudication Panel
This outlines the Council’s procedures where a complaint is referred to the Council’s Adjudication Processes (known as Level 2).
Direct adjudication meeting
Where a complaint is referred to the Council’s Direct Adjudication process, the matter is listed for the next available meeting. The Direct Adjudication Panel may be conducted in person or by teleconference. Panels are comprised of the Chair (either the Council Chair or one of the Vice-Chairs) plus an equal number of Public Members and Industry Members.
Unless the Executive Director believes, in consultation with the Panel Chair, that there are special circumstances warranting oral presentations, Direct Adjudication matters are determined ‘on the papers’, without the requirement for oral submissions on the day.
A Direct Adjudication Panel may decline to deal with a complaint before it and request the Executive Director to refer it to a Full Adjudication Meeting.
Full adjudication meeting
Where a matter is referred to the Council’s Full Adjudication process, a date is set for the complainant and publication to participate in a discussion with the Council's Adjudication Panel. The Panel generally meets to consider matters on a monthly basis and is chaired by the Council’s Chair or a Vice-Chair and may include four to six other members, with equal representation from Public Members and Industry Members (current or former journalists who are not employed by an Industry Member of the Council).
Unless the Chair of the Panel decides otherwise, the complainant and the publication participate in the discussion by teleconference. The complainant may be assisted by a friend or relative for support. The publication’s editorial staff member may be assisted by a relevant journalist or other contributor to the material in question. Lawyers or other professional representatives are not usually permitted.
These rules about participation in a discussion may be waived by the chair of the Panel in exceptional circumstances.
An Adjudication Panel arrives at its conclusions by consideration of the Final Summary of Issues and any supplementary material referred to it by the Executive Director. In matters referred to the full adjudication process, the Panel also may have regard to the discussion with the complainant and the publication. It also may ask the Executive Director to make further inquiries of the parties or other relevant people, and to provide any such material to the parties for comment before reporting back to the Panel.
A Panel has the power to determine whether or not a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice has occurred. The Panel’s provisional adjudication is sent to the complainant and publication on a strictly and permanently confidential basis. The complainant and the publication may request revision or review of a provisional adjudication within a specified period.
A request for revision relates to a possible change to the wording of an adjudication but does not involve a change in whether aspects of the complaint are upheld or dismissed. The grounds may include, for example, lack of accuracy, clarity or due protection of privacy.
A request for review relates to a possible change in a Panel’s decision to uphold or dismiss any aspect of the complaint. The only permissible ground for seeking a review is that
a serious error of fact or procedure occurred, or significant new evidence has become available which it was not reasonably possible to provide earlier; AND
correction of the error, or consideration of the new evidence, is reasonably likely to justify a change in the decision to uphold or dismiss.
A party seeking revision or review of a decision of an Adjudication Panel should consult the fact sheet Review of Decisions
Publication of the adjudication
The final adjudication must be published by the publication in accordance with requirements approved by the Executive Director concerning the required date, page and positioning, and accompanying material such as headlines. Failure to comply with the approved detail may lead to a requirement for compliance by re-publication.
The final adjudication and requirements for publication are sent to the complainant and the publication on the basis that they are strictly confidential until the date on which the adjudication is to be published.
Direct Adjudication decisions will be published in the form of a shorter summary (up to 200 words, with a link to the full decision on the publication’s website.
Full Adjudication decisions may either be published in full length (usually 500-800 words) or the short summary.
Each adjudication is also published on the Council’s website and in its Annual Report, as well as being distributed widely through its website and social media outlets. Complainants are also free to publicise the outcome through their own communication channels.
For further information on publication of adjudications, see the fact sheet Publication of Adjudications.