A storm of protest has followed the Australian Press Council appointment of GetUp! activist Carla McGrath as a public member, with calls for her resignation and eight mastheads threatening a boycott of any adjudication in which she is involved.
The Australian has led the campaign against the activist, beginning last Friday when the masthead announced it would not support any adjudication in which Ms McGrath participated, with editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker saying the appointment a made a “mockery” of the council’s independence.
Other News Corp Australia mastheads, The Daily Telegraph, The Townsville Bulletin, The Advertiser, the Herald Sun, the NT News, The Mercury and The Courier-Mail took similar action.
Ms McGrath is the deputy chair of GetUp!, a left-wing group that has campaigned against the $16.5 billion Adani mine in Queensland, has raised funds to unseat Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and is a strident advocate of green-left causes.
Her appointment last week was supported by Australian Press Council chairman Professor David Weisbrot.
It has come to light this week that the council’s publishing members voted 14-1 in favour of Ms McGrath’s appointment with News Corp’s Glenn Stanaway the only representative in opposition.
Industry figures, including Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance chief executive Paul Murphy and former Press Council chairman David Flint have called for Ms McGrath’s resignation.
The MEAA representative, Matthew Ricketson, voted in favour of the appointment but Mr Murphy has since pulled the union’s support. He said Ms McGrath’s presence on the Press Council represented a conflict of interest that could not be ignored.
Mr Flint suggested that the best solution would be for Ms McGrath to resign or for the council to ask her to refuse the appointment.
He said it was “astonishing” that the council even considered her as a candidate. It should be “obvious that current members cannot be engaged in active politics,” he said.
Communication Minister Senator Mitch Fifield questioned the impact the appointment would have on the council’s core value of independence.
“A free and independent press is an essential underpinning of our democracy. Press review bodies need to maintain industry and community confidence. As partisan participants, GetUp! activists have no place sitting in judgement on publishers and journalists,” Mr Fifield said.
Shadow Communication’s minister, Labor’s Michelle Rowland, said the logistics of the appointment should have highlighted serious issues.
“It is essential that the Australian Press Council avoid the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest to arise.
“The fact that the Council had to canvass the issue of this appointment at length indicates a reasonable level of disquiet that goes to the credibility of and trust in the system,” Ms Rowland said.
Ms McGrath believes her roles on the Press Council and GetUp! would complement each other, rather than create conflict.
“We don’t know how that relationship will play out until I attend my first meeting, but certainly GetUp! has an important role in the public accountability structure for the media and I don’t feel those two roles are in conflict,” she told NewsMediaWorks.
“The genuine intent of both organisations is to have a press that performs their role as effectively as possible in informing the public … done in the most responsible way possible,” she said.
In its editorial on Saturday The Weekend Australian was in vehement disagreement.
“The Australian Press Council seems oblivious to the fact its decision to cosy up to GetUp! has imperilled its future. This media watchdog has just two assets, its credibility and its independence, both of which are now in doubt,” it said.
“Press Council chairman David Weisbrot needs to admit his mistake and rescind the appointment of his organisation’s latest member … Her appointment is untenable – which is apparent from the barrage of protests from all parts of the media spectrum.”
The editorial said that when Ms McGrath chose to be an activist, it meant she could not be an independent arbiter. “She cannot have it both ways,” it said.
Prof Weisbrot defended the decision to NewsMediaWorks last week.
“Public Members of the Australian Press Council are appointed and sit on the council as individuals, not as representatives of any particular organisation or employer they may be associated with,” he said.
“Every member of the Press Council is aware of their duties to disclose potential conflicts of interest and the Press Council has a long history of successfully – and conservatively – managing these conflicts to avoid any suggestion of bias.”