26 February 2020
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) recently announced that it is inquiring into impartiality and commercial influence in Australian commercial free and pay broadcast news and current affairs.
The ACMA inquiry extends to all programming on commercial and pay television and on commercial radio that includes journalistic content. This includes news and current affairs programs as well as panel discussions and talkback radio. However, the inquiry does not extend to the ABC, SBS or digital platforms.
Australia’s competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recently conducted an inquiry into digital platforms which reported last year. The ACCC found that a large number of Australians now obtain their news online and have strong concerns about impartiality and fake news in particular on digital platforms such as Google and Facebook.
The ACCC report also highlights the reduction in advertising revenue of traditional media businesses in the past 20 years as a result of the rise of online advertising. This has reduced the ability of most media businesses to fund Australian news and journalism.
Analysis undertaken by the ACCC showed a significant reduction in public interest journalism – journalism which performs a critical role in the effective functioning of our democracy. In other words, quality public interest journalism in Australia is under threat as a result of the reduced ability of traditional media, including commercial broadcasters, to pay for it.
One of the most important recommendations by the ACCC is that Australia should have a platform-neutral regulatory framework which ensures effective and consistent regulatory oversight of all entities involved in content production and delivery. The Australian Government announced in December last year that it accepts the ACCC’s recommendation and will commence a staged process to reform media regulation with the aim of platform-neutrality.
So in a policy environment where the Australian Government is committed to a media regulatory approach which achieves platform-neutrality, it is surprising that the ACMA has decided to single out commercial broadcast news and current affairs as apparently requiring further regulation. Given the extensive work already undertaken by the ACCC on the importance of digital platforms, it would be expected that the ACMA would look beyond traditional media to consider the best approach to address community concerns about online news services.
The ACMA inquiry draws on research it commissioned last year into community views into commercial influence and impartiality in all types of news content. 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 an audience, and that news is reported from a particular viewpoint. There was also a high level of concern about the influence of large advertisers on news and current affairs content.
However, the research conducted by the ACMA deals with all forms of news content and shows that there is greater community concern about news on online platforms than about commercial broadcast news and current affairs.
Codes of practice registered and enforced by the ACMA regulate Australian commercial television and radio, and pay 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 and analysis.
The codes also require news to be presented impartially. The code of practice for commercial television requires that commercial arrangements must be disclosed in factual programs. The regulation applicable to commercial radio requires that commercial arrangements must be disclosed on air.
The codes provide a comprehensive set of regulatory requirements for commercial broadcast news and current affairs which work well. There is no comparable regulation of news and current affairs content on other media including digital platforms.
The ACMA’s discussion paper states that accuracy in news and current affairs is already sufficiently covered by the existing codes. The ACMA also notes that, in the case of accuracy, the principal concern of consumers is with the accuracy of online news which is an issue highlighted by the ACCC in its report. This suggests that codes could be developed which cover the accuracy of news on digital platforms.
The principal problem with the ACMA inquiry is that it’s being conducted at all. The correct approach to future Australian media regulation should be a platform-neutral approach which includes digital platforms. Continuing to regulate the communications sector using the pre-internet thinking of the 1980’s and 1990’s is likely to hasten the demise of traditional media. The end result will be even less quality public interest journalism in Australia to the detriment of us all.
Author: Ian Robertson AO
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