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Is Hawkesbury Council’s new draft media policy trying to censor the press? 

Aug 28, 2023

Hawkesbury City Council (HCC) has positioned itself as the second Sydney council bidding to assert control over the media  and public discussion by proposing a contentious media engagement strategy. 

This strategy has raised concerns, as it empowers the council to cherry-pick the media organisations it interacts with, potentially leading to a skewed narrative.

The Local & Independent News Association (LINA), a national industry group representing independent news publishers, has strongly urged Hawkesbury City Council (HCC) to revise its media policy. LINA wants the policy to align with established industry benchmarks and State government guidelines, ensuring transparency and impartiality in media interactions. 

In a formal submission to the HCC, LINA Executive Director, Claire Stutchbery, cautioned that the draft policy steps outside recommended practices from both the Office for Local Government and industry experts in media engagement.

“The Hawkesbury City Council’s Draft Media Policy steps well beyond best practice advice from the Office for Local Government and industry on engaging with media,” Stutchbery warned.

The submission comes following recent controversies surrounding the media policy of the neighbouring Hill Shire Council (HSC) – which is subject of an ongoing corruption probe. HSC has drawn sharp criticism from residents who believe its move to block online criticism is anti-democratic. Under the policy any comments of a political or partisanship nature, opinion or platform” will be deleted or hidden from their social media ages. LINA’s submission argues that the Hawkesbury City Council’s media policy should maintain transparency, equity, and a platform for open dialogue. 

In its submission LINA said  that the council’s intention to selectively interact with media outlets exceeds established industry norms. This approach, the association suggests, not only deviates significantly from industry standards but also exposes the council to potential allegations of discretionary abuse.

“Rather than inventing its own rules around media engagement and investing resources determining which media individual Council staff want to recognise, it would be more efficient to draw on the industry standards of the Journalist Code of Ethics and/or LINA’s Editorial Standards tailored for small publishers, which keeps the door open for emerging news services to engage with Council, Stutchbery said

“These national standards exist to mitigate subjective media engagement or lack thereof in local areas, and to support strong public interest journalism from local news services,” she said.

The association, which represents 62 digital news publishers with 86 mastheads across Australia, including the Hawkesbury Post and The Hills to Hawkesbury Community News, stressed the vital role played by local news organisations in upholding grassroots democracy and fostering social cohesion.

Citing the research of award winning journalist, Penny Abernathy, LINA underscored how local journalists play a pivotal role in covering significant events and meetings that contribute to community integration and informed decision-making.

While acknowledging the council’s intent to manage its resources effectively and manage reputational risk, LINA expressed concern about certain elements within the Draft Media Policy. Specifically, LINA raises questions about the subjective application of certain clauses and recommends a transparent and standardised approach to media engagement.

The Hawkesbury Post has also made a submission to the draft policy.

LINA has also encouraged the council to harness the unique relationship that local news services share with their communities, advocating for collaborative editorial and advertising partnerships that can contribute to the enrichment of the local media ecosystem.

HCC’s draft media policy can be viewed here: https://www.yourhawkesbury-yoursay.com.au/draft-media-policy-on-exhibition

A spokesperson for HCC said all responses will be made public when the draft policy returns to Council for consideration “at a date to be determined”.

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