Province’s watchdog organization for newspapers closes doors

The Manitoba Press Council shuts down after Winnipeg Free Press decision

Media watchdog no more: the Manitoba Press Council recently folded, after the Winnipeg Free Press pulled its funding to the organization. “The council saw very limited use,” Free Press publisher Bob Cox says. Dylan Hewlett

After nearly 30 years as the province’s arbitrator for complaints against local newspapers, the Manitoba Press Council has ceased its operations.

“It was a sad thing to have happen,” said John Cochrane, the council’s former chairperson. “It was not something we were expecting.”

The council, which was founded collectively by various newspapers in the province as a response to the threat of a possible federal organization of the same sort, suffered a steady decline in support since its inception in 1985.

The recent withdrawal of the council’s last remaining major funder and member, the Winnipeg Free Press, effectively signalled the organization’s end.

“The council saw very limited use,” explained Free Press publisher Bob Cox. “It did handle some complaints, but it was almost inactive, I’d say.”

The council dealt with only two cases in its final year of operation.

In spite of this, the discontinuation of the MPC has been a cause for concern among some members of the community.

“I think it’s a shame,” said Duncan McMonagle, a journalism instructor at Red River College and former executive editor of the Free Press. “It’s an important bit of symbolism.”

“(The MPC) was a good appeal system,” he added. “It was a nice safety valve.”

According to a report by the Winnipeg Free Press, the paper supplied $14,000 of the council’s $17,000 annual budget at the time of its discontinuation.

It’s foolish for a newspaper to try to save such a small amount of money on such an important symbolic matter.

Duncan McMonagle, journalism instructor, former Winnipeg Free Press executive editor

Neither Cochrane nor McMonagle believe the Free Press acted for reasons beyond economics.

“I think (the Free Press’s explanation) is true and honest,” McMonagle said. “But I think it’s foolish for a newspaper to try to save such a small amount of money on such an important symbolic matter.”

Cochrane expressed that the organization of which he was a part held a subtle, yet significant role.

“Newspapers examine things every day at a great benefit to the public,” he said. “But if they themselves do that on a daily basis, I think it’s only fair that an organization examine them too.”

In an age of online newspapers accompanied by public comments sections, McMonagle argues the importance of press councils is as great as ever.

“I think there’s more of a need for some kind of mechanism in the online world,” he said, referring to the slanderous tendencies of many commenters on news websites. “There needs to be a forum not only for what a paper publishes itself, but also for what is published (on its website) by the community.”

In the wake of the MPC’s discontinuation, no other out-of-house body for newspaper complaint arbitration currently exists in the province. The question of whether or not a new organization with the same objective will replace it in the future is, as of yet, unanswered.

“A national press council is being discussed by Newspapers Canada,” mentioned Cochrane. “It’s only something in discussion, though. It may or may not happen.”

In the meantime, press councils operating in other provinces similar to the former MPC are showing a steady decline in membership, a trend that McMonagle believes reflects poorly upon the state of the industry.

“Newspapers are being foolish by getting rid of press councils and not at least replacing them with something else,” he said.

Published in Volume 66, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 22, 2012)

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