Finding the right person to run an outfit like a national press council requires infinite patience, a forensic analysis of all likely candidates' CVs, an exhaustive cross-checking of referees, friends and enemies, an informed assessment of their real or likely political loyalties and, above all, deciding if he or she is actually up for the job and all it entails.
In Nigeria, all of this was done – well, nearly all of this was done – by President Muhammadu Buhari before he settled on Senator Francis Okpozo last December to be the Chair of their Press Council. Senator Okpozo had all of the right qualities it seemed, the principal one being that he was a senior member of the President's ruling party.
But there was one small problem – Senator Okpozo was dead. In fact, he died in December 2016 and President Buhari had obviously forgotten that he had issued a heart-felt statement at the time praising his dead colleague and extending condolences to the grieving family. The dead Senator's widow was remarkably forgiving saying that the President couldn't be expected to know everything that was going on, could he?
Happily, the new Chair of the Australian Press Council (APC) Neville Stevens is very much alive and he started his job on 22 January. Mr Neville is a former Secretary of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
The job had been vacant since the resignation in June last year of the previous Chair, Professor David Weisbrot who quit in a bit of a huff after becoming embroiled in a bitter stoush over the appointment of Carla McGrath to the Council that month. Ms McGrath was, and still is, deputy chair of the left-leaning activist group GetUp.
Perhaps rather oddly, Ms McGrath's biography on the APC website makes no mention of this senior activist role although her GetUp profile proudly states, "In 2017 she became a public member of the Australian Press Council."
Announcing his resignation only days after the appointment of Ms McGrath had generated such fury, Professor Weisbrot said "my heart is simply no longer in the job, and it's a difficult enough job at the best of times." He said the attacks on the appointment of Ms McGrath were "thoroughly misconceived" and that she had been appointed after a "fair and open process". Indeed, Ms McGrath had "shone" as a candidate.
The denunciations of Ms McGrath's appointment included a perhaps surprising attack from the journalists' union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance as their own Press Council representative Matthew Ricketson had voted in favour of the appointment. But the Union reacted swiftly when it learned of the appointment with its Chief Executive Paul Murphy saying that her concurrent positions on the Council and GetUp were "incompatible". He added, "...we don't believe that it is appropriate for someone to sit on the Press Council who also holds a senior position in such a politically active organisation"
The Australian and News Limited generally also heavily criticised the appointment saying that they would not co-operate with Press Council inquires involving Ms McGrath. The Editor of the Fairfax paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, tweeted that it seemed "weird that political activists would be appointed to oversee and potentially police the press. Not good." Even the National Affairs Correspondent of the left-leaning New Matilda described the appointment as a "disastrous decision".
The Press Council has continued to defend Ms McGrath's appointment saying that it is aware of its duties to disclose potential conflicts of evidence. But there is no doubt that this appointment has done the Press Council serious harm.
The Press Council was established in 1976 and is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice and handling complaints against Australian newspapers, magazines and associated digital outlets. Its birth was an attempt by the industry to head off the move by the Whitlam Labor Government the previous year to create a government authority to police it. With the dismissal of that government, the proposal lapsed.
It has had a chequered history.
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