Is that fair? Investigation concepts: fairness, impartiality and viewpoints | ACMA

Is that fair? Investigation concepts: fairness, impartiality and viewpoints

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has released the second paper in its Investigation concepts series. The paper considers the requirements for fairness, impartiality and viewpoints as set out in the various broadcasting codes.

The series was specifically conceived to assist a broad range of stakeholders to better understand the ACMA’s approach to the broadcasting code requirements.

‘We sought to balance an in-depth exploration of how these obligations operate with a succinct and clear focus on their practical implications,’ said ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman. ‘In particular, we drew on our extensive experience in assessing content against the codes to provide real-world insights and interpretations into these often complex and usually interrelated concepts.’

Matters covered in this second paper include:

  • content that attracts the fairness, impartiality and viewpoints obligations
  • 'principal relevant' viewpoints, 'diversity of viewpoints' and 'significant viewpoints'
  • the distinction/s between balance and impartiality
  • factors relevant to the consideration of impartiality and fairness
  • the fair treatment of individuals.

The Fairness, impartiality and viewpoints paper follows the recently released Accuracy paper, and includes digital links to relevant investigations to provide context into the broad principles and concepts behind the fairness requirements.

The ACMA intends to publish the third paper in the series on Decency in coming months.

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 6/2015—11 February


The ACMA is publishing the Investigations 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 ACMA regulates the broadcasting sector in Australia, including commercial and community radio, and free-to-air and subscription television. 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.

For more information about broadcasting matters see here.

The various broadcast industry codes often employ general terms and phrases such as ‘accuracy’ and ‘impartiality’ 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 licensees (including the ABC and SBS) 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 Broadcasting Services Act provides that broadcast content should respect community standards and anticipates that what constitutes ‘appropriate community safeguards’ will vary according to the degree of influence different types of broadcasting services are able to exert in influencing community views. This degree of influence is likely to alter over time as societal norms shift and technological innovations change the daily lives of Australians and their media consumption habits.

During the ACMA’s recent Contemporary Community Safeguards inquiry (the CCSi), the ACMA flagged that while all codes may cover a particular issue—such as accuracy and fairness of news and current affairs programs—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 (and updated in 2011). 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 ACMA hopes that its Investigations concepts series will make the ACMA’s regulatory approach to broadcasting investigations clearer and more accessible for both broadcasters and the wider community.

Last updated: 25 January 2017