The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has announced in a discussion paper which it released on 17 January 2020 that it is inquiring into impartiality and commercial influence in Australian commercial and subscription (or pay) broadcast news and current affairs. The ACMA also released research which showed, in particular, that more than eight in 10 Australian adults are concerned about large advertisers influencing the news.
The inquiry by the ACMA is, to an extent, complementary to the Digital Platforms Inquiry recently conducted by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and which was responded to by the Federal Government in December last year. Two of the ACCC’s recommendations arising from its Inquiry concern news quality and public interest journalism.
Like the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry, ACMA’s inquiry into impartiality and commercial influence in broadcast news and current affairs is being conducted in the context of industry disruption. The ACMA states in its discussion paper that:
"As advertising revenues shift from media businesses to digital platforms, the need to access a shrinking revenue pool may reduce incentives for media companies to invest in public-interest journalism".
The ACMA inquiry extends to all programing on commercial and subscription television and radio that includes journalistic content. This includes news and current affairs programs as well as panel discussions and talk back radio. However, the scope of the ACMA’s inquiry does not extend to Australia’s national broadcasters, ABC and SBS, whose codes the ACMA doesn’t register, nor to print media or online news which are outside the remit of the ACMA.
In July 2019 the ACMA conducted quantitative research to explore community views about commercial influence and impartiality in news. The research sample comprised 2,033 adults across Australia. More than 80 per cent of those surveyed were concerned about the accurate reporting of news, that news is being made more dramatic or sensational to attract readers or viewers, and that news is reported from a particular point of view rather than being balanced or impartial. More than 80 per cent were also concerned about the influence of large advertisers on news and current affairs content.
The ACMA also conducted qualitative research in August and September 2019 with in-depth interviews with a total of 136 regional and metropolitan participants of different ages and news consumption patterns across Australia. According to the ACMA discussion paper, impartiality was the issue most often spontaneously brought up in the focus groups in initial discussions about news in Australia. This finding is consistent with the Roy Morgan 2018 survey for the ACCC which revealed that neutrality is the second most important factor in deciding which news provider to trust, with accurate reporting being the most important factor.
The legislation which regulates broadcasting in Australia is the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (BSA). Section 4 of the BSA sets out the regulatory policy of the legislation which reflects the thinking of the pre-internet 1980s when the BSA was conceived.
Section 4(1) of the BSA provides that the Commonwealth Parliament intends that different levels of regulatory control should be applied across the range of broadcasting services, internet services and online content services according to the degree of influence that those different types of services exert in shaping community views in Australia. The BSA further provides, in section 4(2), that the Parliament also intends that broadcasting services should be regulated in a manner that enables public interest considerations to be addressed in a way that does not impose unnecessary financial and administrative burdens on broadcasters.
One of the ACMA’s roles under the BSA is to approve co-regulatory codes of practice for commercial television and radio and for subscription television. Each code has provisions in respect of news and current affairs that require accuracy, fair representation of viewpoints, and a clear separation between the reporting of factual material from commentary and analysis. The codes also require news to be presented impartially, although this requirement does not apply to current affairs programs.
In addition, the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice requires that commercial arrangements must be disclosed in factual programs (but not in news programs), and the Commercial Radio Current Affairs Disclosure Standard – which arose from the so-called ‘cash for comment’ inquiry into commercial radio broadcasting in 1999 – requires, in particular, that commercial radio licensees must disclose commercial arrangements on air at the time that a third party’s products or services are promoted by a presenter in a current affairs program.
These regulatory requirements of accuracy, fairness, separation of fact from comment, impartiality, and disclosure of commercial arrangements apply only to commercial broadcasting in Australia. The online and print media are not subject to these requirements.
It is to be expected that, in the context of declining revenue and audiences for traditional media, and the ever-increasing influence of digital platforms, the Australian commercial and subscription television and radio industry will argue that there is no reasonable basis for further regulation of commercial and subscription news and current affairs programs in Australia.
To do so would, in particular, increase the regulatory inequality which exists between commercial broadcasting on the one hand and print and online media on the other. It would seem only reasonable that a platform-neutral approach to news and current affairs regulation would require that the same regulations should apply to online platforms and broadcast media.
It will also be interesting to see what approach the ACMA considers can be adopted to effectively regulate for impartiality in news content. In this regard, it is relevant to note the frequent controversy concerning the ABC’s news and current affairs programs which suggests that concepts of bias and impartiality are often very much in the eye of the beholder.
The ACMA discussion paper can be found here. Submissions to the ACMA inquiry close on 28 February 2020.
Author: Ian Robertson AO
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Published by Ian Robertson AO