Media & morals | ACMA

Media & morals

Thursday 18 April 2013

Speech by:
Jennifer McNeill
General Manager
Content, Consumer and Citizen Division
Australian Communications and Media Authority

Good evening and thank you.

  • A radio quiz about the funeral arrangements for asylum seekers who died when their boat crashed into rocks off Christmas Island.
  • A television news item exposing the ‘secret’ homosexuality of a senior politician.
  • A radio program that sees an under-aged girl hooked up to a lie detector and interrogated about truancies and her sexual experiences.
  • A television news item about a fatal boating accident that shows extended footage of a survivor grieving and remonstrating with the camera crew.
  • A radio show that sees the host deride one of his critics as a ‘fat slag’ who he will ‘hunt down’.
  • A reality television show in which one of the participants ‘turkey slaps’ another.
  • A radio current affairs show in which the presenter is secretly paid to give positive comments about the paying business.

I am here on behalf of the Australian Communication and Media Authority, the regulator of broadcasting, telecommunications, radiocommunications and the internet.

The ACMA is probably best known to you as the government agency responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the Broadcasting Services Act (the Act) and the various broadcasting codes. The broadcasts I’ve referred to above give you a taste of the issues we deal with.

When the ACMA is investigating such allegations, it concerns itself not with the morals displayed by the broadcaster under investigation. In determining whether the law has been broken the ACMA is considers only the broadcaster’s compliance with the terms of the Act or the code.

If the ACMA finds a breach, in determining its regulatory response, the ACMA will have regard to the compliance culture of the broadcaster involved. To the extent that an organisation’s compliance culture (‘the way we do things around here’) reflects its ‘morals’, it might be said that ‘morals’ inform the ACMA’s approach to dealing with breaches.

Sometimes the ACMA’s (proper and necessary) focus on compliance with the rules can lead to uncomfortable outcomes. But if those outcomes are uncomfortable—if they are out of step with community expectations—it seems to me that the problem is likely to be with the rules themselves.

That brings me neatly to a less well-known ACMA role. In addition to investigating compliance with broadcasting codes, the ACMA is responsible for registering the codes. And codes only become ‘law’ once they are registered.

So—does the ACMA make moral judgments when it is deciding whether or not to register a code? Does it concern itself with right and wrong? Remember, the stated objectives of the Broadcasting Services Act include:

"to promote the availability to audiences throughout Australia or a diverse range of radio and television services"

"to ensure the maintenance and ... development of diversity … in the transition to digital broadcasting"

but also

"to encourage providers of broadcasting services to respect community standards (s3)."

For all broadcast industry segments (other than the nationals ABC and SBS), before the ACMA can register a code developed by that industry segment, the ACMA must be satisfied that it (the code) provides appropriate community safeguards for the matters it covers.

In the ACMA’s world, ‘appropriate community safeguards’ is the closest proxy for or best accommodated community norms or ‘morals’.

Each broadcasting code embodies protections with respect to issues such as decency, factual accuracy, impartiality, privacy and commercial disclosure.

Although the codes are developed by industry, the Federal Court recently reiterated that:

"Parliament intended the ACMA to play and important and prominent role in ensuring that regulations affecting broadcasting provide appropriate community safeguards in respect of the subject matter of such regulations.  (Harbour Radio Pty Ltd v ACMA (2012) 202 FCR 525 at 552)."

As an evidence-based regulator, the ACMA has a significant research program intended to inform its understanding of community standards and attitudes.

The ACMA’s research has consistently shown that, even in the world of a 24 hour news cycle where any person holding a mobile device is potentially a reporter, the community generally expects broadcasters to:

  • report news accurately and impartially
  • respect people’s privacy
  • put systems in place with regards to disclosure of commercial arrangements; and
  • broadcast content that accords with community standards.

But community standards are not hard and fast, they alter over time, and between audiences as societal norms shifts. Many things that are broadcast today would have been regarded as unacceptable in previous generations, even things as basic as song lyrics. Only relatively recently, have the broadcasting codes allowed electronic complaints to be made to broadcasters. Most of us cannot imagine a world where your only complaint avenue is snail-mail.

It’s also the case that different broadcasting sectors might attract different community expectations and appropriately be subject to different code rules.

The Broadcasting Services Act says:

"The parliament intends that different level of regulatory control be applied across the range of broadcasting services … according to the degree of influence that different types of broadcasting services … are able to exert in shaping community views across Australia. (s4)."

Should a higher standard of accuracy be required of news channels higher than general channels? Can we forgive lapses in accuracy that are attributable to the demands of competing in a 24/7 world? To what extent should the rules allow for extreme or ‘niche’ audience tastes? Should we have regard to the expectations of the target audience; the accidental (school run) audience; or the general community as a whole? If some subset of the community—how can we know what their expectations or standards might be? Is there such a thing as an ‘accidental audience’ in these days of subscription broadcasting and the ’parental lock’.

To what extent should people simply learn to change channels? I recall reading a letter of complaint to the ACMA which began with a passage to the following effect:

"Presenter X is a misogynistic racist who needs to be taken off the air. Every week I tune in and it is exactly the same thing …"

The nature of ‘contemporary community safeguards’ is the issue with which the ACMA will be grappling in its recently announced Contemporary community safeguards inquiry. The purpose of the inquiry is to identify those core principles and safeguards that should be enshrined in broadcasters’ codes of practice.

How are we going to gauge what these principles and safeguards are? We are:

  • undertaking attitudinal and economic research;
  • engaging with stakeholders;
  • calling for submissions from the public; and
  • in June, we will be hosting a series of Citizen conversations.

Our Citizen conversations programme is going to explore community and industry perspectives on a range of practical problems in the broadcasting media, such as:

  • factual accuracy
  • balance and fairness
  • privacy
  • classification and community standards for decency and advertising.

We’ll also be having an industry workshop on complaints-handling.

Ultimately, the inquiry’s outcomes will inform the content of broadcasting codes going forward. They will give the code rules a contemporary—albeit communal—‘moral framework’.

I invite you all to get involved. Further information including details of how to be part of the Citizen conversations, can be found on our engage website at


Last updated: 07 April 2014