Noting the ABC's Media Watch segment ‘Relaxing the TV rules’ broadcast on Monday, 16 November 2015, the Australian Communications and Media Authority wishes to clarify several matters raised about the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice, which was recently registered by the ACMA (the new code).
Impartiality and current affairs programs
The segment suggested that the explicit acknowledgement (in the new code) that current affairs programs are not required to be impartial amounts to the removal of an existing rule concerning this requirement – this is simply not the case.
The effect of the new code and the previous code are the same – only news must be impartial and current affairs programs can take a particular view on issues.
‘Gratuitous emphasis’ in news and current affairs programs
The segment implied that the removal of the ‘gratuitous emphasis’ provision would allow more programs such as the 2012 A Current Affair (ACA) ‘All Asian Mall’ broadcast (which the ACMA found in breach of the previous code). The Media Watch commentary lacked important contextual information about the application of the new code.
The ACMA’s investigation of that ACA program found the licensee breached not only the gratuitous emphasis provision, but also the accuracy rules and the ‘provoke or perpetuate intense dislike’ provision. Importantly, the ‘provoke or perpetuate intense dislike’ provision is retained in the new code – and provides a wider protection than the ‘gratuitous emphasis’ provision as it applies to all programming (not just news and current affairs). Under the new code, licensees must not broadcast material:
‘which is likely in all the circumstances, to provoke or perpetuate in, or by a reasonable person, intense dislike, serious contempt or severe ridicule against a person or group of people because of age, colour, gender, national or ethnic origin, disability, race religion or sexual preference’.
The segment included a suggestion that ‘complaining about TV programs is also going to get harder’ because the new code precludes complaints about material provided online by the broadcasters (i.e. online catch-up services).
Such online content has never been regulated by the commercial television code. This is simply a function of the legislation governing broadcasting and the internet in Australia. It is not the result of the new code or any decision by the ACMA, and the suggestion to the contrary is incorrect.
The segment included a suggestion that the new code will ‘make it easier for the networks to bombard us with advertorials’ because of the changed disclosure rules. Again, this is incorrect. There is nothing in the current or new code which constrains the amount of ‘advertorials’ broadcast. Changed disclosure rules won’t make advertorials easier or harder to broadcast.
Rather, the new disclosure rules provide that a disclosure can be made in a number of ways: but, in any event, one that adequately brings the arrangement to the attention of viewers.
‘Public panic’ in news and current affairs programs
The segment implied that the removal of the ‘public panic’ rule would allow content like the featured Pauline Hanson interview to be broadcast in the future.
There is little or no reason to believe that that is the sort of content contemplated by the previous rule (which, because it called for actual public panic to manifest, set a very high bar for a breach finding). The removal of this particular provision brings the new code into closer alignment with both the ABC and SBS codes neither of which has a ‘public panic’ rule.
Viewers of the Media Watch segment should be reassured to know that the new code includes a number of provisions regulating the broadcast of distressing material in news and current affairs programs to minimise the risk of harm or distress.
The move to allow M and MA15+ programs earlier in the evening
Contextual and environmental issues are important here. The fact that time zones are becoming less relevant is a reality. Both the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Classification Review and the ACMA’s own Contemporary Community Safeguards inquiry (CCSi) explored the impetus for, and the reality of, changes in this area.
Time zones are not currently consistent across free-to-air broadcasting sectors. To better suit changing viewer behaviours, SBS and the ABC have previously amended their codes to allow PG content on their main channels, all day.
As importantly, the time zone changes are accompanied by an extensive package of tools and targeted safeguards that enable viewers (particularly parents) to manage their own and their children’s viewing. For example, in the 7.30pm to 8.30pm period:
- all M programs must have consumer advice to assist people to make informed viewing choices; and
- no promotions or advertisements classified higher than PG are permitted in sports programs, G programs or PG programs.
In registering the new code, the ACMA was satisfied that it provided a package of community safeguards appropriate to a contemporary media environment – which is the test it is required to satisfy itself of under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (the BSA).
In coming to the decision to register the code, the ACMA carefully evaluated the views contained in all of the submissions, its own research and the directions that emerged from the CCSi. The evidence gathered in the CCSi clearly indicated that there was scope and support for rationalisation, simplification and adaptation in media markets and practices.
During the CCSi, the ACMA conducted extensive consultation. This included qualitative and quantitative community research exploring contemporary citizens’ experiences of, and expectations about, broadcasting content. The qualitative component comprised group discussions among participants aged 15 years and over segmented by life stage and metropolitan and regional areas. The quantitative component comprised a national telephone survey (1, 700 people) of a representative sample of Australians aged 15 years and over, including 200 respondents from mobile-only households. The topics which were covered included classification of television content, time zone requirements, accuracy, fairness, advertising and privacy. The research has been accessible since March 2014 and is available here.
The ACMA has to exercise judgment in balancing competing considerations when discharging its regulatory role under the BSA. Under the BSA, broadcasting services must be regulated in a manner that does not impose unnecessary financial and administrative burdens on the providers of broadcasting services.
When taken as a whole, the ACMA is satisfied that viewers and the community will have appropriate protections under the new code.
A link to the information provided to Media Watch’s specific enquiries prior to its broadcast on Monday night is available on the ABC website. Viewers of the segment may find the information helpful in contextualising the segment and in better understanding the matters the ACMA considered against a backdrop of the competing policy objectives set out in the BSA.
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact: Emma Rossi, Media Manager, (02) 9334 7719 and 0434 652 063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.