The Netherlands Press Council - An introduction Drucken

The Netherlands Press Council (Raad voor de journalistiek)
An introduction

1. History

The origin of the Press Council in The Netherlands leads back to 1948. In that year the Netherlands Union of Journalists founded the 'Raad van Tucht', a disciplinary council, which functioned as a kind of Press Council until 1960. The competence of this disciplinary council extended only to members of the Netherlands Union of Journalists. In case of bad professional conduct the disciplinary council could impose one of the following sanctions: warning, rebuke, suspension, or expulsion as member of this Union. During the twelve years of its functioning the disciplinary council came to a judgement in fifteen cases.

An incident led to the institution of our present Press Council, the 'Raad voor de Journalistiek'. What happened? A journalist of a daily paper had published an article about a government statement, presented to the press under embargo. The journalist did not accept the embargo, because he already knew the content of this statement from his own sources. In reaction to this event the government excluded this journalist during one year from all information on the part of the government. The Prime Minister declared, when asked for his opinion in Parliament, that the government could not accept the disciplinary council judging this question, because the council was only competent to judge the members of the Netherlands Union of Journalists. So, if a journalist ended his membership, the disciplinary council lost its competence to examine the complaint and to make a statement. In reaction to this attitude of the government the Netherlands Union of Journalists reformed the disciplinary council into a council of opinion in 1960. This Press Council was given competence with regard to all journalistic practice, including the practice of non-organised journalists (in the Netherlands Union of Journalists).

2. Establishment and financing

At present the Netherlands Press Council is established and will be maintained by a foundation named Stichting Raad voor de Journalistiek. In the Foundation all important media organisations participate:

  • the Netherlands Union of Journalists (Nederlandse Vereniging van Journalisten)
  • the Netherlands Society of Chief-Editors (Nederlands Genootschap van Hoofdredacteuren)
  • the Netherlands national news agency (Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau)
  • several co-ordinating organisations of printed press
  • (co-ordinating) organisations of public and commercial broadcasting

Recently the first Internet organisation Planet Internet joined the Foundation.

The board of the Foundation appoints the members, chairmen and secretaries of the Press Council. The Press Council consists of four (vice) chairmen, thirteen member-journalists and thirteen members-not-journalists. The chairmen and members all do theirs work in their spare time and beside their normal jobs. The chairman and his substitutes are members of the judiciary. The member-journalists have various jobs in journalism such as editor, editor-in-chief or freelance journalist. The non-journalist members have different positions in society, all in some way related to journalism. They work for example as a professor, teaching at a School of Journalism, or they have a non-journalistic post at a publishing or broadcasting concern. The secretary and acting secretary must be a lawyer.

Further the board of the Foundation determines the regulations of the Press Council.

3. Mission

According to article 3 of the Statutes of the Foundation the Press Council is charged with the examination of complaints against violations of good journalistic practice. But not every complaint leads to such an examination. Only they, who are to be considered as directly involved in a case of journalistic (mal)practice, can complain. The complaint must concern journalistic practice of either a professional journalist or someone who, on a regular basis and for remuneration, collaborates on the editorial content of a mass medium.

Besides, the Press Council cannot treat complaints concerning the maintaining of the standard of good taste or general complaints against the press. The complaint always must be in regard of a specific matter, as far as journalistic practice is concerned. Since the change from a disciplinary council to a council of opinion the Press Council no longer can impose a sentence on the journalist. Neither can the Press Council assure the complainant financial compensation. The Press Council gives its opinion on a complaint and publishes its decision on its website and in the professional magazine for journalists. Also it circulates its decisions on a wide scale by sending it to the national news agency and to several other media. As a satisfaction to the complainant and as a contribute to the debate on journalistic ethics, it is of great importance that media publish the opinions of the Press Council, especially those on valid or partially valid complaints. The number of media, which actually publish in valid and partially valid cases, is now around two-third, and still growing.

4. Procedure to complain

The procedure to file a complaint is very accessible; the complainant just has to send his complaint in writing to the office of the Press Council. No charge is made. Legal representation is permitted, not compulsory. After a complaint is received the journalist or chief-editor involved will be asked to respond on the complaint in writing within three weeks. Then in most cases a public hearing will be arranged. The Press Council is convinced that the best way of dealing with the complaints is to hear both parties, if possible. However, parties are not obliged to appear. In practice it occurs that both parties attend the hearing, that only the complainant or the journalist is present, or that both parties are absent. During the hearing both parties may explain their points of view. Further the hearing gives the Press Council the opportunity to ask questions and to explain the standards of journalistic ethics and the circumstances in which these standards must be realised.

The Press Council deals with an average of four to five complaints per hearing. At its sessions the chamber of the Press Council consists of at least three and not more than five members: a chairman and a proportional amount of journalist members and non-journalist members (1/1 or 2/2). If one of the members is suddenly unable to attend, the Press Council may deal with a case with four members if the parties present approve.

After the hearing the Press Council considers the case behind closed doors. The definite decision will be sent to both parties within eight weeks after the hearing. In its decision the Press Council asks the journalist or mass medium in question to publish the decision.

5. Developments

Over the years the statutes and regulations have been adjusted. Since 1993 there is also the possibility of mediation between complainant and journalist. As from that same year the Press Council can give a statement of opinion about a case of principal interest on its own initiative. Up till now this has happened three times: about the use of stolen information by journalists (RvdJ 1995/32), about the use of hidden camera's and microphone's (RvdJ 1996/44) and about embargo (RvdJ 2003/50). Since January 2003 a complainant may apply for an accelerated treatment of his complaint. Further the Press Council introduces consistency in its decisions by expressing the tendency in its decisions, referring to its earlier opinions in similar cases.

The latest adjustments are made in 2005. Since February a term of six months is implemented, in which a complaint must be filed. Further in order to shorten its procedure the Press Council hired four freelance clerks, all working at the Council of State, to formulate draft decisions. Nowadays the parties receive an opinion approximately within four weeks after a hearing.

The Press Council is now looking into the possibilities and ways to play a more active role in the public debate on journalistic practice. More aims for the near future are to modernize the design of the website and to update the brochure. Furthermore the board will evaluate the work of the freelance clerks and try to collect more extra funds.