Australian Press Council chairman Professor David Weisbrot has resigned, citing personal attacks over the appointment of GetUp! activist Carla McGrath, as two of his predecessors speak out over her suitability as a public member.
Former chairman Julian Disney said yesterday the appointment of the GetUp! deputy chair was ill-advised, and suggested she should resign from one or other organisation. Professor David Flint, who was chairman for 10 years from 1987 until 1997 told NewsMediaWorks the appointment was “inappropriate”.
Prof Flint said that while, on the surface, there were no constitutional conflicts, Ms McGrath’s place on the council was problematic. “My feeling is you don’t appoint people who are in active politics to the council, because the role of the press is in monitoring the role of the political class in Australia, and it would be inappropriate to have someone who is very active.”
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Prof Weisbrot said believed the controversy surrounding the suitability of Ms McGrath had been misinformed, insisting that the appointment followed a “fair and open process”.
The press council announced the appointment in May, which precipitated a storm of protest over potential conflicts of interest and a threat to the council’s independence because of GetUp!’s role.
Following the announcement, eight News Corp Australia mastheads – led by The Australian – launched a boycott of any decisions that involved Ms McGrath. Since then, there have been a number of calls for her resignation, as well as concerns expressed over her suitability by both major political parties.
Prof Disney told NewsMediaWorks yesterday that while the coverage may be seen as excessive, this was a legitimate campaign.
“In this case, they [publisher members] have a legitimate grievance and that should have been addressed. I think it has left the council in a very difficult position.
“On numerous occasions when I was chair, I didn’t take forward suggested people because I felt they had taken too strong an approach on issues which made them unsuitable for the council,” he said.
Prof Weisbrot still defends the appointment. “For the record, the basis of these attacks is thoroughly misconceived, suggesting that the appointment of a public member to the council is within the gift of the chair, and that I have the authority unilaterally to ‘rescind’ that appointment. In fact, the whole appointment process was carried out with careful attention to good process and the requirements set down by the council’s constitution,” he said.
The resignation of Prof Weisbrot, however, does not diffuse the issue that surrounds the appointment. It is unclear how the press council may resolve the controversy, as the organisation refused to comment further on the matter.
Prof Flint believes the organisation should own up to its mistakes.
“All organisations make mistakes from time to time, I think they probably realise that this appointment was in error, and like any other organisation, they are wondering how best to overcome that error,” he said.
Glenn Stanaway, News Corp Australia’s representative on the press council, said he had warned the council of this possible outcome.
“I admire David Weisbrot; he did a fine job at the council and I am saddened that my warning of the predicament the council would find itself in, if it appointed the deputy chair of GetUp! as a public member, has come to this,” he said.
“I stand by my view – one held widely by many people in all sections of the media industry – that the deputy chair of GetUp! is not an appropriate person to represent the public on the council.”
When questioned by NewsMediaWorks on the appointment earlier this month, Prof Weisbrot said public members were appointed as individuals and sat on the council as individuals, not as representatives of any particular organisation or employer.
“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.”
Prof Weisbrot said Ms McGrath’s vast experience made her ideal for the role, despite her need to declare conflict of interest in some cases.
“She is remarkably experienced for someone her age in corporate governance,” he said.
During his time on the council, Prof Weisbrot held an international conference on press freedom, redeveloped the Press Freedom Medal awards and launched the press council’s first Reconciliation Action Plan earlier this year. Several publishers joined the organisation during his time, including Daily Mail Australia, HuffPost and the Koori Mail.
The chairman’s tenure will come to an end after two and half years on Tuesday, July 18.