Australia’s journalists’ union – the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) – has voted to end its decades long relationship with the Australian Press Council, citing concerns about governance and consistency of rulings at the press regulator.
Formed in 1976 as an alternative to government intervention, the Australian Press Council has been an important arbiter of media standards, adjudicating complaints from the public about material in newspapers, magazines and online news sites at publishers that belong to the Press Council.
MEAA’s predecessor, the Australian Journalists’ Association, played a crucial role in establishing the Press Council after more than 20 years of lobbying for self-regulation. Despite not being a publisher itself, MEAA has contributed more than A$100,000 each year to the organisation within recent years.
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The Press Council also draws on media academics and selected public representatives to run its adjudication processes.
In recent years, MEAA members have become increasingly frustrated by a lack of financial transparency and accountability at the Press Council and the inconsistent manner in which it has adjudicated on complaints, some of which are out of step with community expectations.
In April, delegates to MEAA’s National Media Section committee, made up of rank-and-file union members, voted to formally quit the Press Council.
Under the rules of the APC, four years notice must be given to withdraw, which means MEAA will officially leave the organisation in 2025.
The decision to withdraw came after MEAA – which represents more than 5000 journalists and other media workers – consulted with its members, who overwhelmingly gave feedback that the union should leave the Press Council.
The federal president of MEAA’s Media section, Marcus Strom, said there was a pervasive dissatisfaction among MEAA members about the role played by the regulator.
He said it had failed to change with the times during more than a decade of media convergence and was not effective in the contemporary industry where there is cross-over between print, digital and broadcast journalism.
Australia’s broadcast media are regulated by a government agency, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
“The Press Council has lost credibility with journalists and even with the publishers who make up its membership. There have been too many cases in recent years where adjudications have been mocked or ignored,” Strom said.
“Currently our members are more concerned about being hauled over the coals on Media Watch [a weekly national television program that regularly exposes misdemeanours and unethical practices by journalists and publishers] than being called before the Press Council. That’s obviously not an acceptable situation.”
MEAA Media federal vice-president Karen Percy said readers who made complaints were also frustrated with the response they received from the Press Council, which eroded trust in journalists and the media.
Credible regulator ‘is critical’
“In order to maintain integrity in journalism in Australia, a credible regulator – where there are real consequences for breaches – is critical,” Percy said.
“Unfortunately, the Press Council is no longer fit-for-purpose for the modern, cross-platform media industry.”
Percy said MEAA’s Journalist Code of Ethics should play a more prominent role in media standards.
First established in 1944, and updated twice since, the Code of Ethics is the most enduring and best-known set of guidelines for journalists.
The public are also able to make complaints about union members who breach the code, with a range of sanctions available including termination of membership of MEAA.
“The industry needs a simpler system of self-regulation that is consistent across all platforms and organisations, upholds the standards of public interest journalism, and serves the needs of members and the public who want ethical practices and accountability,” Percy said.
“The status quo is serving no-one – not the industry, nor the public.”
Senate media inquiry
The decision by MEAA to withdraw from the Press Council coincides with an inquiry into media ownership by the Australian Senate, with the future of media regulation and questions of how to maintain trust in journalism coming under scrutiny by inquiry.
Strom said many journalists regarded the Press Council as toothless and wanted a more robust regulator to ensure standards of good journalism were maintained.
“Arbitrations at the Press Council have been inconsistent, slow and are increasingly out of touch with community expectations.
He said it was time for a broad review of media regulation in Australia. MEAA has publicly stated it would like to see a one-stop-shop regulator to replace the multitude of confusing, inconsistent bodies and processes currently in place.
“We want our notice to leave the Press Council to spark a serious discussion about media regulation,” he said.
As part of its decision to withdraw from the Press Council, MEAA will engage with the Press Council and other industry stakeholders to discuss what shape the regulatory environment should take in future.
As the IFJ’s Australian affiliate, MEAA is the largest and most established union and industry advocate for Australia’s creative professionals.