The journalists’ union has advocated the establishment of a “one-stop shop” for complaints against news organisations, covering broadcast, print and online media.

Appearing before the Sydney hearings of the federal government’s media inquiry this morning, the federal secretary of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Chris Warren, suggested that dealing with complaints under the journalists’ code of ethics could be handed over to this new body.

Warren said that unlike the main media organisations, the union did not regard the media inquiry as unnecessary, a joke, or a vendetta against News Limited. There were problems in media that would benefit from examination and action, despite what employers said.

The head of the inquiry, Ray Finkelstein quizzed Warren on whether membership of the “one-stop shop” body should be voluntary, and whether it should have the power to fine journalists and media organisations, or force the publication of corrections and apologies.

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Warren advocated public exposure as the main sanctions. The freedom of the press should not be abridged by an external body, even if it was set up by the publishers, he said.

Finkelstein floated the idea of tying statutory privileges for journalists to membership of the Australian Press Council or a similar body. Warren opposed this, again on freedom-of-speech grounds.

Warren told the inquiry that employers had fought self-regulation at every step of the way, opposing the establishment of the union’s code of ethics and establishing the Australian Press Council only to ward off the threat of government regulation.

He said that declining profitability and “short sighted” decisions by managements to cut editorial staff numbers had led to a decline in standards, and declining public trust in journalists.

Warren said that the union often was approached by journalists seeking advice on ethical issues, particularly favourable treatment being given to advertisers.

He said the “craft” had arrived at a consensus that the behaviour of journalists in taking pictures of David Campbell outside a massage parlour had been wrong, even though he was a government MP, and even though the pictures had been taken in a public place.

Other ethical issues, such as “death knocks” we’re more complex, he said. Some people liked to tell their story, seeing it as giving meaning to a sudden death or other tragic event. Doing death knocks was a skill, said Warren. “Some people can do it. I can’t. I used to knock on the grass more often than knock on the door.”

On issues such as using photos from Facebook, society was still working out its ethical norms, and journalists were part of that process.

Under questioning, Warren said that no journalists had been fined for ethical breach of the union’s code over the past decade. The most usual penalty was censure. Warren said “maybe three” journalists had been censured for ethical breach in the past decade.

He agreed that matters worthy of censure, such as those featured on the ABC’s Media Watch, did not usually come before the MEAA judiciary committees. A one-stop shop would help to resolve confusion among the public about who to complain to about the media. The MEAA often passed complaints on to ACMA and the Press Council, he said, because people had not known who it was appropriate to complain to, he said.

At the beginning of this morning’s hearings, Finkelstein made a public statement saying that he intended to meet “academics” in private to canvass issues such as the justification for freedom of the press, and the operation of press council bodies overseas. The transcript of these discussions would be available on the inquiry’s website.

A former chair of the Australian Press Council, Ken McKinnon, will give evidence this afternoon followed by Fairfax Media. News Limited appears tomorrow.

*Declaration: I have made a submission to the inquiry, and am scheduled to appear before it tomorrow morning.