Professor Matthew Ricketson, lately the subject of a News Corp campaign to remove him as the journalism union’s representative on the Press Council, has survived a meeting of MEAA’s media council unscathed. Representatives from Australia’s major media organisations decided not to remove him from the position.

Ricketson has been a controversial appointment to the Press Council because of his role in 2011-12 assisting the Finkelstein commission, which recommended the creation of a new government-funded body to act as a central press regulator across print and broadcast. Critics described it as a “Stalinist watchdog”. Print media in Australia is currently self-regulated through the Press Council — broadcast media is regulated by a government body, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Ricketson, a media academic and former Age journalist and editor, was appointed as MEAA’s representative on the Press Council in December, after having been invited by the union to apply for the position (calls for a representative on the Press Council were sent out to all of MEAA’s membership, but the December meeting only had two or three nominations to choose between). Concerns about his role in the Finkelstein commission were raised at that meeting, and he agreed to provide an undertaking to represent the union’s views at the Press Council. He has nonetheless since then been the subject of a furious backlash in The Australian.

Since March, the paper has published, to Crikey’s count, 11 pieces on Ricketson, who it views as something of a Manchurian candidate who will bring down the Press Council from within. Perhaps the most colourful was an opinion piece by legal editor Chris Merritt, which began:

“Matthew Ricketson deserves no blame for his appointment to the Press Council. To criticise him would be as senseless as blaming a rabid dog for having rabies.

Another piece quoted several Australian journalists and union members who were very concerned about his appointment, including Gold Walkley winner Hedley Thomas and Tony Koch, The Australian‘s Queensland correspondent. Yet another revealed how Liam Houlihan, editor of News Corp’s Geelong Advertiser, had resigned from the union in protest at Ricketson’s appointment.

At a teleconference of the union’s media council yesterday afternoon, councillors received around half a dozen complaints about Ricketson’s appointment from members. The issue took up most of the one-hour meeting. Ricketson was given time to to make a statement defending himself, but did not remain for the discussion. Crikey understands he referred the meeting to MEAA’s own code of ethics, which states that journalists scrutinise power but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable. He stated:

“I believe in press freedom. I also believe in media accountability, which is an important element of press freedom.

“The hardest thing in ensuring media accountability is ensuring any regulator is independent of those who fund it.

“The Press Council is funded by the press industry, but since 2012 it has put in place measures that ensure it is not only properly funded but has independence from the industry by virtue of four-year contracts which industry signs to be a member of the Press Council. The system appears to be working, and is far preferable to regulation of the press by government.”

The changes Ricketson refers to were in response to the Finkelstein report — the lack of certainty regarding funding was one of the key reasons why the Finkelstein report recommended a press regulator be funded by government.

After what sources described as “full and vigorous discussion”, the council agreed on a motion to issue a statement saying it had considered the complaints raised about Ricketson’s appointment, and stating that Ricketson had agreed to represent the union’s positions on the council. The statement also reaffirmed the union’s opposition to “any government media regulator”:

“MEAA opposed the Finkelstein recommendations at the time, and worked to ensure they were not enacted by the government.

“We oppose any government media regulator. As stated in our submissions to the Convergence Review and many times since, there should be a single independent industry-funded complaints body. This should be on the existing model of the Press Council and take over the complaints function currently performed by ACMA.”

Stuart Washington, president of MEAA’s media section, declined to comment to Crikey beyond the statement the council agreed to.

*The author of this piece is a member of MEAA

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey