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 considered necessary. A decision is then made 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 Information for complainants);
- 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);
- Council has facilitated a form of redress and/or the publication has sufficiently remedied the matter;
- it is unlikely that a breach of the Council's Standards of Practice has occurred or else the possible breach is not sufficiently serious to justify referral for adjudication;
- the issues raised in the complaint are the same as or similar to an issue or subject that has or is being considered;
- 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
- for some other reason, the complaint is inappropriate for further consideration by the Council.
In some circumstances, the complainant may be asked to raise the matter directly with the publication.
Where a complainant is personally identified or directly affected by the published material, the complaint may be considered as a "primary complaint".
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 following considerations are taken into account, in addition to those mentioned above, 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 directly affected by the material;
- 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 those directly affected by it do not wish to make or endorse a complaint themselves or they cannot be contacted;
- 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;
- the need for the APC to allocate its resources fairly and equitably across all the complaints it receives about reporting on a number and variety of issues and events, as well as across the other areas of work within its Constitutional ambit;
- the feasibility of considering the complaint in a way which will satisfactorily address any concerns arising from the above factors.
Notification of complaint to publication
Unless it is determined to discontinue consideration of the complaint, the publication will be promptly notified of the complaint.
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 to Level 1 for further consideration by the Council staff.
If it is determined to discontinue consideration, the complainant (other than secondary complainants) 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 this stage.
If a matter is referred to Level 1, the Council's complaints-handling staff undertakes consideration and, if necessary, investigation of 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.
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 complainant has withdrawn the complaint or has not responded to communication from the Council within a reasonable period;
- 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);
- Council has facilitated a form of redress and/or the publication has sufficiently remedied the matter;
- It is unlikely that a breach of the Council's Standards of Practice has occurred or else the possible breach is not sufficiently serious to justify referral to adjudication;
- 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;
- The issues raised in the complaint are the same as or similar to an issue or subject that has or is being considered; or
- For some other reason, the complaint is inappropriate for further consideration by the Council.
When considering whether a “secondary complaint” should be discontinued, account is also taken of the factors mentioned under the heading “Secondary complaints”.
A complainant (other than a secondary complainant) can seek review of a decision to discontinue. The request must be received within seven days of the complainant 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 complaint has not been discontinued or resolved during the Level 1 stage, it will be considered whether it should be referred to an adjudication process. To do so, a Provisional Summary of Issues (PSOI) may be prepared which takes 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 (other than secondary complainants) 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 to determine whether to refer the complaint to adjudication.
When the complainant’s comment is sought, the complainant will be advised that their 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 adjudication. A later request will be considered only in exceptional circumstances.
Letters of Advice
If a complaint is not referred to an Adjudication Panel, it may be decided that in addition to discontinuing the matter, a formal Letter of Advice may be sent 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 adjudication
In referring a complaint to adjudication, the following will be considered:
- The seriousness, novelty and complexity of the issues; and
- The facts, issues and evidence involved and the need for oral submissions by the parties.
These factors will inform the decision to refer the complaint to either a Direct or Full Adjudication Panel (these terms are explained below).
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.
Adjudication Panels are made up of a Chair (either the Council Chair, Vice Chair or a Public Member appointed as a 'Panel Chair'), comprise a majority of Council Members, and an equal number of 'Public Panel Members' and 'Industry Panel Members'. To ensure independence, the Council's Constituent Body representatives do not sit on Adjudication Panels.
Level 2: Consideration by Adjudication Panel
This outlines the Council’s procedures where a complaint is referred to adjudication (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, Vice Chair or a Public Member appointed as a 'Panel Chair') plus an equal number of Public Panel Members and Industry Panel Members.
Direct Adjudication matters are determined ‘on the papers’, unless the Executive Director, in consultation with the Panel Chair, believes that there are special circumstances warranting oral presentations.
A Direct Adjudication Panel may decline to deal with a complaint before it and request that it be referred 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 an as needs basis and is chaired by the Council’s Chair, Vice-Chair or a Public Member appointed as a 'Panel Chair' and may include four to six other panellists, with equal representation from Public Panel Members and Industry Panel Members.
Unless the Chair of the Panel decides otherwise, a primary 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 Secretariat. 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 that further inquiries be made 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 in accordance with Council requirements 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.