Decency, classification, and harm and offence: is that okay? | ACMA

Decency, classification, and harm and offence: is that okay?

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has released a third paper in its Investigation concepts series, an initiative developed to share insights from the ACMA’s broadcasting investigations work. This latest paper considers the requirements in broadcasting for decency, classification, and harm and offence as set out in the various broadcasting codes and how the ACMA has applied those provisions.

‘In this paper we sought to cast light on the increasingly complex question of where one draws the line today between content that is offensive to some individuals and content that simply should not be broadcast,’ said ACMA Chairman, Chris Chapman.

‘Drawing that line is challenging because there are a range of standards that are not hard and fast, either over time or across all sections of the community. In view of that reality, this paper is designed to provide a clear and measured account of our work and is therefore intended to improve understandings around what are often nuanced and complex matters.’

This third paper seeks to capture:

  • the requirements relating to decency, classification and harm and offence
  • the way the ACMA ‘operationalises’ these requirements in its work, having regard to community standards and expectations in broadcasting
  • the shifting and evolving nature of ‘community standards’ over time.

Investigation concepts—Decency, classification, and harm and offence follows the earlier released Accuracy and Fairness papers, and includes links to relevant investigations to allow readers to more thoroughly explore the application, in practice, of the relevant provisions.

The Investigation concepts series was conceived to assist a broad range of stakeholders to better appreciate the ACMA’s approach to the broadcasting code requirements. The papers in this series are ‘living’ documents, with the ACMA regularly updating the information in each to keep them current. The ACMA welcomes feedback on the papers and is also seeking suggestions for further topics for papers in the series.

For more information, please see the backgrounder below or to arrange an interview, please contact: Emma Rossi, Media Manager, (02) 9334 7719 and 0434 652 063 or

Media release 29/2015 - 2015


The intention behind the Investigation concepts series

The ACMA is publishing the Investigation concepts series to share the insights developed in its investigations work when investigating broadcasting code complaints.

The objective of the series is to identify how various important principles of broadcast content regulation have been exemplified, clarified or applied through the ACMA decisions. The papers examine common threads in their specific topic area and sketch how these threads weave into a coherent picture.

The ACMA welcomes feedback on the papers and will consider carefully any suggestions on possible further topics for inclusion in the series. It also intends to update the information it contains so as to keep it current and helpful to the broadcasting industry and citizens alike.

The various broadcast industry codes often employ general terms and phrases such as ‘decency’ and ‘offence’ about which there can be very real questions of interpretation. One task of the ACMA is giving meaning to such terms and deciding which broadcasts, viewed in context, ‘cross the line’ between acceptable and unacceptable. Therefore, interpretative guidance offered by the ACMA can be crucial in helping broadcasters to understand their obligations and apply them in different circumstances.

The ACMA has historically, through its individual investigation reports, offered such guidance in a whole range of areas. To broaden the usefulness of these published decisions, the ACMA has embarked on the Investigation concepts series with the aim of making an assessment of key areas of ACMA decision-making in relation to the broadcasting codes.

The Contemporary community safeguards inquiry

During its Contemporary community safeguards inquiry (the CCSi), the ACMA flagged that while all broadcasting codes may cover a particular issue—such as content that might cause distress for viewers or listeners—in practice, the drafting across the codes is not necessarily consistent. This can present difficulties for interpretation and application and uncertainty in the minds of Australian citizens. Despite these challenges, there are considerations which can be applied across all sectors and play a part in informing the ACMA’s assessment of broadcast content.

This is not to say that there is necessarily any value in an insistence on uniformity as such, since different broadcasting sectors maintain different imperatives, different degrees of influence and play different roles in the lives of our citizens. However, the ACMA felt that greater clarity and commonality about the underlying intended protections was a valuable objective.

The ACMA’s pre-disposition as a light-touch regulator is that regulatory design should be best-practice, proportionate and evidence-based, which has been documented in its public paper Optimal conditions for co- and self-regulation, released in 2010 (updated in 2011 and mostly recently updated in June 2015). This public paper identifies 10 conditions as a benchmark framework for the ACMA to reference when considering appropriate regulatory responses for specific circumstances.

This framework recognises that regulation needs to be firm, clear and enforceable, but at the same time must be flexible and open to future developments, so that the ACMA will be able to adaptively accommodate emerging issues, refine its interpretations and adequately address new concerns.

The general regulatory construct in broadcasting

The ACMA regulates the broadcasting sector in Australia, including commercial, community, subscription and national services. It works with broadcasters to ensure that the content broadcast respects community standards.

The ACMA can investigate code complaints first made to broadcasters, where the complainant remains dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response. While investigations of such complaints make up only a relatively modest percentage of the ACMA’s overall workload, it is among the organisation’s most profiled and critiqued work.

More information about broadcasting matters is available.

Last updated: 26 June 2015