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The struggle for press self-regulation in contemporary South Africa: charting a - page 38 / 51

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It has been suggested that there may be fewer lawsuits against news organizations in areas served by press councils than elsewhere (Farrar, 1986; Henry, 1989). The assumption is that press councils have characteristics that make them more attractive forums than courts for the resolution of disputes (O'Malley, 1987). To understand why people unhappy with media performance might complain to a press council instead of filing a lawsuit, it is helpful to compare courts and press councils on several dimensions, with specific examples provided by the experience of the Quebec Press Council.

Table 1 outlines some important differences between courts and the QPC.

Table 1 A Selective Comparison of Attributes of Courts and of the Quebec Press Council

Courts

Press Council

Rules of standing to complain

Restrictive

Broad

Jurisdiction in media cases

Narrow

Broad

Rules of procedure

Strict

Fairly relaxed

Involvement of lawyers

Almost always

Rarely

Cost of complaining

Fairly high

Low

Disinterested decision-makers

Yes

Not entirely

Nature of possible sanctions

Fines, prison

Publicity

Decisions legally enforceable

Yes

No

State of jurisprudence

Indexed

Not indexed

Some of the differences have to do with access to the forum. In general, press councils accept a wider range of complaints than do courts. Courts receive complaints only from individuals or organizations who have been directly involved in a dispute. For example, article 1053 of Quebec's civil code allows the use of the courts by anyone who believes that the actions of another have harmed him or her. The harm, however, must be relatively direct (Vallières, 1985). People unhappy with how the news media have covered a particular event or issue have no standing to bring a lawsuit in the courts unless they have been identified, directly or indirectly, in the offending coverage.

The QPC, on the other hand, gives virtually everyone standing to complain. The council accepts complaints from "any individual, group, or organization that believes its right to information has been infringed." The underlying assumption is that low-quality information harms all consumers of information, and thus any consumer of information has the right to complain. He or she need not be identified in the offending media content.

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