Commercial broadcasters' standards are enforced with sanctions - the ABC has an in-house club
Tuesday, 29 October 2013
The Australian Communications and Media Authority has very wide powers to punish commercial radio operators who breach standards. ACMA can:
• Impose an additional condition on the license;
• Refer the matter for prosecution as an offence;
• Issue a civil penalty notice;
• Issue a remedial direction;
• Suspend or cancel the license; or
• At any time, accept an enforceable undertaking.
ACMA can also take informal action in relation to breaches of standards.
Alan Jones of 2GB is in their sights at the moment. Here's The Age's report of ACMA's most recent finding against him.
Alan Jones breaches code with exaggerated climate change broadcast: ACMA
Radio talk back host Alan Jones is in hot water again with the media watchdog after breaching the commercial radio code of practice by making unsubstantiated comments about power station closures and the salaries of climate change bureaucrats.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority rejected a third complaint that the Sydney broadcaster got his facts wrong about NBN rollout costs.
But the regulator was critical of Jones' use of exaggerated and emotive terms, such as "white elephant" and "disaster". "His delivery was emotional, the language judgemental and hyperbolic, and the statements lacking in specificity," ACMA said. All in all, Jones was deemed to be expressing his opinion, not fact.
These investigations cost commercial radio station owners heaps in lawyers, time, extra staff and training etc. Any ACMA investigation hurts commercial stations regardless of the ultimate sanction.
Compare and contrast that with the ABC which spends other people's money. It's allowed to develop and operate its own in-house complaints management system. Unsatisfied complainants can go to the ACMA after the in-house process is exhausted but to what effect? The ABC has no profit motive and the pain associated with an external investigation doesn't hit the ABC with anything like the effect it has on a commercial station.
Here's part of a July 2013 letter from the ABC's Michael Millett, Director of Corporate Affairs in answer to a request for submissions as set out below:
ABC submission in response to the ACMA’s issues paper
on contemporary community safeguards
Thank you for the opportunity to provide input into the Australian Communications and Media
Authority’s inquiry into contemporary community safeguards. The ABC understands the ACMA’s purpose in conducting this inquiry is to develop a conceptual framework in relation to contemporary community standards that the ACMA can draw upon when performing its role in relation to the registration and review of codes of practice developed by licensed broadcasters under sections 123 and 123A of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (“BSA”).
The ACMA is not similarly empowered under the BSA when it comes to codes developed by the
national broadcasters. Under the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (“ABC Act”), the ABC Board is responsible for developing the Corporation’s Code of Practice, which it must notify to the ACMA.The ACMA has no role in the development, review or approval of that Code. This helps preserve the ABC’s independence by effectively ensuring that there is no capacity for an external body that may be open to Government direction, as the ACMA potentially is, to influence the editorial principles that underlie the Corporation’s programming activities.
The ABC seeks to fully comply with its Code of Practice and Editorial Policies at all times. It
acknowledges, however, that, despite its best efforts, there will from time to time be perceived or actual lapses in its performance. To that end, the Corporation employs a robust and effective system for responding to and resolving complaints.
The ABC accepts written complaints in physical or electronic form. Such complaints are handled by its Audience and Consumer Affairs area in accordance with the ABC Complaints Handling Procedures, which are separate from the Editorial Policies and the Code of Practice. Audience and Consumer Affairs operates independently of the program-making areas of the Corporation and aims to achieve a timely resolution of all complaints.
Complainants who have made a complaint in relation to the Code of Practice and who do not receive a response from the ABC within 60 days, or are dissatisfied with the response they do receive, are entitled under section 150 of the BSA to refer their complaint to the ACMA for review.
In 2012–13, the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs unit finalised 21,280 complaints. Of the 3,177 complaint issues ultimately investigated by the unit, only 220 were upheld, suggesting a very high level of compliance with the Editorial Policies and the Code across ABC programs and services. Only 47 complaints investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs were referred to the ACMA and, of those, only one resulted in a finding that differed from that of the ABC’s own complaints-handling processes.
Importantly, the ABC seeks to resolve complaints as soon as practicable. This is reflected in the
principle of swift corrections and clarifications in relation to inaccurate information (ABC Code, 4 principle 3). Significantly, as an outcome of the 2009–10 review, the ABC introduced a new category of complaint outcome—“resolved complaints”—to promote early and effective resolution of matters where it appears there was a lapse in standards. The Code now specifies that a failure to comply with the Code will not constitute a breach if, prior to a complaint being referred to the ACMA, the Corporation has taken steps that are adequate and appropriate in all the circumstances to redress the cause of the complaint (ABC Code, III).
The ABC publishes summaries of upheld and resolved complaints on its website.
I hope that this information will be of some assistance to the ACMA in developing its contemporary community standards framework. Should you have any further questions, please contact me by email at [email protected] or by phone on (02) 8333 2311.
Director of Corporate Affairs
The ACMA website tells us that if ACMA upholds a complaint against the ABC:
37. What about the ABC and SBS?
The ACMA’s enforcement powers in regard to the ABC and SBS are different from those it has in respect of other broadcasters.The ACMA can recommend by written notice that the ABC or SBS take some specific action in relation to the breach and complaint.If the relevant broadcaster fails to act on that recommendation within 30 days, the ACMA may report that failure to the Minister.
It seems to me that the odds are loaded in the ABC's favour. What effective sanctions can apply to it? The mechanism for review of an internal ABC decision is for the complainant to refer the matter to the ACMA and ACMA "may" refer its finding and recommendation to the Minister.
The nett effect is that the controls only apply effectively, or with teeth, to the commercial operators. That means that only the conservative voice faces controls on matters like "exaggeration".
So 10 metre high ocean level rises, earthquakes caused by climate change, misquotes alleging Tony Abbott called asylum seekers irritants etc all go unchecked. But woe betide the conservative host who misquotes a fact or figure.
Our regulatory regime is doing us a great disservice.