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The struggle for press self-regulation in contemporary South Africa: charting a - page 42 / 51





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With press councils, on the other hand, a substantial proportion of the decision-makers come from the media, which raises questions about whether they can be truly impartial in judging complaints against the media. The body that makes initial rulings on complaints to the Quebec Press Council is the Comité des cas, which has three members appointed by journalists' organizations, three appointed by management organizations, and three representatives of the public. Two-thirds of the committee, in short, has a direct interest in the world of journalism.

Although QPC rules do not require that Comité des cas members disqualify themselves when their news organizations are directly implicated in a complaint, that is the common practice. The fact remains, however, that the QPC is a form of professional self-regulation--basically, people from the world of journalism making rulings that, in principle at least, will either expand or contract journalistic autonomy. That journalistic interests are dominant on the Comité des cas, coupled with the fact that the QPC is funded principally by journalistic interests, has led many to question the impartiality of the Comité des cas.

Among the critics was Louise Pagé, a lawyer who chaired the Comité des cas in 1986. She wrote that "les journalistes et les représentants d'entreprises de presse ont souvent les mêmes intérêts à défendre, soit la profession journalistique. Cet élément important amène, selon moi, un déséquilibre dans le rapport de force entre les différents groupes composant le comité. . ." (Pagé, 1987).

Louis Falardeau of La Presse, one of the founders of the QPC, takes essentially the same position. When someone complains to the press council, the council generally tells him or her that "c'est comme cela que ça marche dans la profession" (Falardeau, 1986, p. 90).

In addition, the QPC's files contain many letters from complainants who expressed doubts about the body's impartiality. When a citizens' group complained that a local newspaper refused to publish its press releases, the QPC sided with the newspaper. The president of the citizens' group wrote a letter saying that the decision didn't surprise her: "Cette décision, je l'avais prédite d'ailleurs, puisque les professionels tendent à se protéger entre confrères" (Regroupement des citoyens de Lachine c. Le Messager de Lachine, 1985). Similar skepticism was voiced in a letter from unsuccessful complainant Julian Samuel: "People are going to take you a lot less seriously because of your constant defense of the media/journalists in general" (Julian Samuel c. Derek Conlon, The Concordian, 1985).

A sixth major difference between courts and press councils has to do with the sanctions each has at its disposal. Courts can impose fines and, in criminal cases, prison sentences. Their orders are legally enforceable. Press councils can do little more than publicize their decisions, in hopes that publicity will make unethical behaviour less likely in the future. The QPC, for example, acknowledges that it has nothing but what it calls "moral authority."

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