The MEAA Code of Ethics: all spin and no stick

By MARK PEARSON

The go-to document for journalists refusing to ‘fess up their sources or taking the high ethical ground is the MEAA Journalists’ Code of Ethics – but the irony is that the journalists’ union uses notoriously ineffective and opaque processes to police this high profile code.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 12.40.47 PMUnlike the Australian Press Council, the ethics panel of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has actual disciplinary powers at its disposal for use against individual journalists who breach its Code of Ethics – but it has rarely used them. Its powers extend to any journalists who are members of the Alliance. However, these days large numbers of journalists throughout the industry are not members.

In 1999, the alliance updated the code to a twelve-item document, requiring honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others. The alliance’s ethical complaints procedures are outlined in Section 8 of the Rules of the  MEAA (2009), summarised on the union’s website. Complaints must be in writing stating the name of the journalist, the unethical act and the points of the Code that have been breached. The judiciary committee (made up of experienced journalists elected every two years by state branch members) then meets to consider the complaint. They can dismiss or uphold the complaint without hearing further evidence, call for further evidence and hold hearings. Hearings involve the committee, the complainant and the journalist and follow the rules of natural justice. Lawyers are excluded. Penalties available to the committee include a censure or rebuke for the journalist, a fine of up to $1000 for each offence, and expulsion from the union. Both parties have 28 days to appeal to an appeals committee of three senior journalists in each state elected every four years and then to a national appeals committee of five journalists.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the cases and their outcomes there are few ethics panel case studies to work with. In 2003 Chris Warren provided me with the judgment of a 2002 case involving a complaint against a Sydney cartoonist who, the complainant alleged, portrayed the then opposition leader Kim Beazley as a person with a ‘physical and intellectual disability’, in breach of clause 2 of the code. The complaint also suggested the depiction was ‘inaccurate, unfair and dishonest’ and denied Mr Beazley a ‘right of reply’, in breach of clause 1. He also complained of a ‘continuing and malicious campaign of denigration of Labor leaders by this cartoonist’. The cartoonist’s defence was that all cartoonists regularly breached the letter of several clauses every time they did their work, but that this was the nature of artistic expression and satire. The complaint of unethical behaviour was dismissed on the basis that there was no ‘malicious bias’ and that any inaccuracy ‘was consistent with the satirical traditions of newspaper cartoons’.

Under Rule 67(h), the decisions and recommendations of the ethics panel shall be published in accordance with any guidelines that may be issued by the National Journalists’ Section Committee. When I interviewed MEAA federal secretary Chris Warren in 2003, he said the issue of publication of adjudications was a difficult one because of potential defamation action by participants. This makes it difficult to get information about MEAA ethics panel cases. Muller (2005: 185) wrote: ‘The practical result of this is that no one other than the parties, the panel and the MEAA executive ever hear about the complaints that are lodged, or what happens to them. This not only severely circumscribes the effectiveness of the procedure as a mechanism of accountability, but it offends against the principles of free expression, openness and transparency, and leaves the profession open to accusations of hypocrisy.’

While the MEAA’s website outlines the complaints procedures, it does not feature any records of complaints against journalists. Thus, both its journalist members and the general public remain ignorant of the nature and progress of any complaints against its members. In 2003 Chris Warren confirmed that the organisation received very few complaints each year, and that most were referred to the Australian Press Council. The Walkley Magazine in 2006 noted that the committee received only 67 original complaints and held five appeals between 2000 and January 2006, but could not deal with 34 of the complaints because they were to do with journalists who were not MEAA members. This meant only 33 complaints were handled in five years, an average of just over six per year. A separate tally of complaints to the Victorian branch of the MEAA by Muller (2005: 183) found that over the ten years 1993–2002 inclusive, just 23 complaints were received by the ethics panel of the Victorian branch. He provided a summary of each of them (Muller 2005: 187-8).

MEAA National Secretary Chris Warren told the Independent Media Inquiry last year that since the revised code was adopted in 1999 only three members had been censured or rebuked and that no member had been expelled for almost four decades (Finkelstein, 2012, p. 195). The reality is that with membership voluntary, the MEAA needs someone else to discipline its members when they act unethically. Its return to Press Council membership in 2005 opened the way for the MEAA to refer most complaints to that body or to the ACMA rather than having its own ethics panel deal with them at the risk of an embarrassing finding and the potential loss of a member.

There are scores of ethical codes of practice and guidance documents across the various media industry platforms – far too many for a single journalist to reflect upon while encountering a particular ethical dilemma. The irony is that the MEAA ‘Code of Ethics’ is the best known and most highly regarded ethical statement for the profession but there is a remarkably ineffective mechanism for its enforcement.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2013

1 Comment

Filed under Media freedom, Media regulation, Press freedom

One response to “The MEAA Code of Ethics: all spin and no stick

  1. Pingback: Media regulation in Australia | A Field of Inquiry

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