Journalists and entertainers are at odds over structural changes to their union, which would see a new CEO appointed rather than an elected secretary.

The stoush inside the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance — first reported by Crikey on Tuesday — was inflamed overnight, with Chaser member Charles Firth posting a letter explaining his opposition to the move. Firth wrote:

“The problem with the MEAA in 2014 is there aren’t more elected officials. The lack of elected officials has meant over the years that purges have been able to occur because the staff have increasingly been there at the Federal Secretary’s behest, rather than as elected representatives of various constituencies. Indeed, if you look at what has happened to the MEAA as its de-democratised, you could argue that having an unelected CEO will actually allow them to further consolidate their power over time. In my experience, the whole point of a good CEO is someone who is able to manage their board. Over time, an effective CEO will make sure that those on their board (the Federal Management Council) support them, and make sure the information flow goes that way. Anyone who doesn’t believe that an effective CEO will, over time, make sure they have a sympathetic Federal Management Council to support them, is being naïve at best. You could say the same goes for a directly elected Secretary – it’s in their interest to organize the Federal Management Council – but at least we’ll have the possibility of directly unseating such a leader, should the worst occur. If we had an unelected leader, it will be even worse than the situation we’ve found ourselves up till now.”

Since Monday — when a site opposing the structural change was put up by ABC journalists Jeff Waters and Greg Miskelly, Firth and Pacific Magazine’s John Roper — numerous journalists have added their names to the push to keep the head of the union an elected position. They include Walkley-winning Fairfax business journalist Adele Ferguson, former Fairfax Europe correspondent Paola Totaro, and senior Fairfax business reporter Ben Butler, who’s vice president of MEAA’s Victorian branch. Entertainer Anthony Field (the blue Wiggle) has also added his support.

Others have expressed their concerns with the new model, though not publicly. Crikey has been sent an email thread in which SMH morning news editor and union organiser Marcus Strom writes he has misgivings about putting MEAA under a corporate structure:

“In the CEO model, how can unpaid, time-poor (elected) volunteers be able to keep track of what is happening in the union office? They will have to rely on the reports from the CEO and any employees — and those employees will rely solely on the CEO for their continued employment. Not very transparent.”

MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren, who is stepping down next year, confirmed to Crikey on Tuesday that the change in structure was being considered at a vote at the MEAA’s Federal Council later this month, and said changing his role to being an appointed, CEO-type arrangement would make for a more transparent, accountable union executive.

“We believe the union is most democratic when it’s led by people working in the industry. That means when you have elected officials who increasingly come from outside the industry, then you undermine the power of activists and working journalists, performers and musicians,” he said. An appointed head would answer directly to the union’s delegates, giving them more power, Warren says.

Warren adds that under the current model, it’s extremely difficult to remove an elected official from the union because the benefits of incumbency are too great. He argues having someone appointed rather than elected, and answerable for their performance to a small group of highly engaged elected officials, will remove the benefits of incumbency while allowing the union to attract the best people for the role.

Yesterday, the MEAA published a list of 10 reasons why an appointed leader would be more efficient and democratic than the current arrangement.

Some journalists have supported the changes. Seumas Phelan, a senior subeditor at News Corp, wrote on the MEAA Needs Democracy website that he supports merit-based selection:

“Some of the people running this campaign are friends of mine, and I respect their right to their views, but if they take over — which is basically what they’re trying to do — I think the effect on the union would be disastrous … My message is to have an open mind, not to be taken in by simplistic slogans and to help keep our union united and strong.”

Crikey understands many delegates, who’ll vote on the proposal later this month, aren’t sold on the changes – with particular concerns revolving around the lack of consultation about the changes with the union’s broader membership, and a fear that the non-elected CEO could end up dominating the union. Delegates from the union’s Equity section – which represents creative performers – are seen as more supportive of the CEO model.

Disclosure: The author is Private Media’s staff MEAA rep.

Peter Fray

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