Journalists union the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has queried whether its judiciary function could be shunted to bolstered media regulator the Australian Press Council.

In a surprise move buried in a Press Council adjudication uploaded to its website on Monday, veteran APC adjudicator Jack Herman revealed that MEAA had recently asked the council to consider taking over its powers of complaint handing.

“In the interests of transparency,  it should be noted that the MEAA has asked the Press Council to consider taking over responsibility for adjudicating complaints under the union’s code of ethics,” the ruling read.

In a follow-up email sent to the complainant, former independent NSW upper house MP Alan Corbett, Herman said the council and the union were currently “negotiating about this” with the regulator mulling whether to “accede to the request”.

A successful referral could mean that the union’s independent mechanism — which currently receives just 3-4 referrals a year — might be ceded to a body controlled by journalists’ employers. Journos could also have their work judged by the proprietor’s rivals if they weren’t a council member.

Under the current MEAA mechanism, a member of the public is able to lodge a complaint against a particular hack to the union’s branch secretary that is then referred to the union’s judiciary committee for deliberation.

The committee, headed by Murdoch University journalism academic Chris Smyth, can dismiss or uphold the complaint without hearing further evidence, ask the journalist to provide further evidence in writing or hold hearings on the issue.

In the event of a proven complaint, the union can “censure or rebuke” the journalist, whack them with a $1000 fine, or withdraw their membership of the alliance.

Corbett’s beef was over a story published in September in The Courier-Mail on the media’s internal complaints processes. The children’s rights campaigner was aggrieved over the yarn’s reference to the “independent experts” on the  panel, when in fact they comprise several senior journalists. While the APC agreed that the wording was unclear, it said the ambiguity was not sufficient to uphold it.

Smyth is currently dean of media communications and culture at Murdoch University. He told Crikey that the negotiations — prompted by the fact the union was only receiving 3-4 complaints a year — were only in their early stages.

“The terms would have to suit the union and if they don’t we won’t be doing it,” he said.

When asked whether there was a potential problem in complaints against journalists being overseen by a body funded by their employer, he said the union’s code of ethics would “feature prominently” in any new structure.

“The union’s got a seat on the Press Council, we clearly support an independent self-regulation system. [The move] suggests the union’s view is not covered at the moment by the Press Council for which the code of ethics is the most appropriate regime.”

Crikey understands the negotiations have been bubbling along since 2005 when the union was deciding on what basis to return as a full member of the council. Under the mooted plan, complaints made initially to the union would be passed on to the council for adjudication.

A union spokesperson told Crikey this morning that “it believed in a one-stop shop … the APC has the infrastructure to run a complaints-handling scheme.”

The union’s current judiciary committee includes Margaret Wenham from The Courier-Mail, UNSW academic David McKnight, The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Kate McClymont, former Age court reporter-turned Monash University academic Peter Gregory, the Herald Sun‘s Norrie Ross and Judy Hughes from Fair Work Australia alongside three members of the public. When a case is heard, two journos and one public member are selected to preside.

In April, the Press Council announced that its members, which include the MEAA, had agreed to double their funding of the regulator — often derided as a toothless tiger — from $0.8 million this year to $1.6 million in 2012-13 and to $1.8 million in the following year. Following the recent brouhaha over the Finkelstein and Convergence reviews, the number of complaints has spiked and is currently oscillating at about 1000 a year.

The day before that announcement, Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media announced it was pulling out of the organisation and setting up its own regulator presided over by former WA-based Corruption and Crime Commission kingpin, Christopher Steytler.

Earlier this week, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph was forced to publish two critical Press Council rulings over stories on asylum seekers and Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore.

In March, Crikey publisher Private Media announced it would join the strengthened Press Council.

Peter Fray

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