There are limitations to what the press councils will handle. Only someone who is directly related to the story in question can make a complaint. So a survivor of the terror attacks in Norway could complain about the news coverage of it, for instance, but an average reader who found the coverage distasteful or excessive wouldn’t have grounds for complaint. Typically, no more than a few months can have elapsed between publication or broadcast and a complaint. The councils can only rule on news published domestically, by a member organization; so the Norwegian press council had to dismiss the many complaints they received about a Daily Beast piece on the July 22nd bombing attacks, because although its author is Norwegian, the website is not.
By design, the press council system is kept separate from the judicial system. (Denmark’s council was originally mandated by a law, and Finland’s council is partially funded by the Ministry of Justice, but all operations are independent of the government). When the complaint looks to involve a legal matter, the councils will refer it to the courts, of course. But from the perspective of the complainant, it’s often preferable to try the press council before hiring a lawyer, etcetera; as representatives of all four countries’ councils happily described, the self-regulatory systems aim to be “free, fast, and fair.”
As the news industry has adapted to digital technology, the press councils have adapted, too. Finland’s Council for Mass Media, Julkisen Sanan Neuvosto, recently amended the journalistic code of ethics to address the proper monitoring of user-generated comments. Norway’s council now broadcasts a portion of each monthly meeting in a live online stream on the industry website Journalisten. And several of the council secretaries say that they’ve seen a noticeable increase in complaints coming in just in the past few years. They attribute that trend, in part, to a rise in click-bait headlines and the kinds of hasty errors caused by competitive online publishing.
In all, the press councils of Norway, Finland, and Sweden receive about 300 complaints a year; Denmark’s gets about 100. (The separate Swedish Broadcasting Commission, which regulates TV and radio alone, gets up to 800 complaints a year.) Of these, only a small portion will result in a formal criticism and the rest will be dismissed. Representatives from all of the councils were quick to say, though, that every complainant will get a reply and an explanation of the outcome, whether or not the complaint goes through.
“You always get some kind of reply,” says Nina Porra, council secretary at Finland’s organization. “Somebody takes you seriously. And for many people, that seems to be very, very important.”
By all accounts the Scandinavian press council model is healthy, effective, and held in high regard. But would the same model work elsewhere—for instance, in less centralized, more diverse media landscapes?
The Swedish Press Council, which was founded in 1916, claims to be “the oldest tribunal of its kind in the world.” The Alliance of Independent Press Councils (AIPCE) shows that the press council model has spread far and wide, from Armenia to Zambia. There have also been some efforts to follow the model in the US—most notably the Minnesota News Council, which shut down last year after four decades because of a lack of funding, and the Washington News Council, which has been mediating press complaints from the public in Washington state since 1999—but these councils have not had direct support from news organizations, relying instead on foundation support and individual donors.
One press council that has become infamously embattled in recent months is the British Press Council, which was first established in 1953 and served as the inspiration for Minnesota’s system. But its predecessor in the UK, the Press Complaints System (PCC), recently announced that it will soon shut down (or “move into a transitional phase”) after heightened and sustained criticism over its mishandling of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
Its chairman still says he believes in the basic philosophy of self-regulation. “The problem really was that the Press Complaints Commission was being criticized for not exercising powers it never had in the first place,” PCC chairman Lord Hunt told the BBC last month. “So I recommended that we start again, with a new regulator, a press regulator, with teeth.”