15 November 2011

Golden Tonsils

The Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA), the national broadcasting regulator, has released a 17 page report [PDF] on the review of the formal Commercial Radio Standards (CRS), a key feature of the broadcasting co-regulatory regime. The report reflects a mere 17 submissions in response to an issues paper, most of them from broadcasting interests.

ACMA plans to strengthen the Advertising Standard and Disclosure Program Standard, along with abandonment of the Compliance Standard. The current standards are being redrafted; new regulatory instruments are due to come into effect on 1 March 2012 after a period for public comment (presumably a short period over the Christmas break).

The three standards were articulated by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (predecessor of ACMA) following its 1999 ‘Cash for Comment’ Commercial Radio Inquiry [PDF] that revealed leading commercial radio figures - the so-called Golden Tonsils such as Alan Jones - were being paid for 'opinion', ie advertising in the guise of personal comment. One fallout from that inquiry, criticised by Media Watch and others as unduly permissive, was the resignation of then ABA chair and fervent monarchist Professor David Flint. The controversy features in works such as Jonestown: The Power and The Myth of Alan Jones (Allen & Unwin, 2006) by Chris Masters, 'Cash and Controversy: A Short History of Commercial Talkback Radio' by Liz Gould in 122 Media International Australia(Feb 2007): 81-95 and 'Media Ownership and the Productivity Commission: Market Theory and Regulatory Practice in the Global Age' [PDF] by Denis Cryle in 1(1) Ejournalist (2001).

ACMA chair Chris Chapman, who recently thundered that poor practice in the telecommunications sector "must change, and change immediately" [it hasn't, of course, and judging by the latest news from ACMA will not do so in the immediate future], stated that -
The ACMA has decided that it is appropriate to continue regulating both commercial influence in current affairs programs on commercial radio and advertising on commercial radio. However, given improvements in the industry’s compliance practices and culture the Compliance Standard will be revoked. ... ACMA believes these reforms will provide better insights and clarity for citizens while materially lessening administrative burden on licensees
The new report indicates that if the commercial broadcasters develop "an appropriate code of practice for dealing with advertising" ACMA will consider revoking the Advertising Standard. Let us hope that it considers carefully, with emphasis on implementation of the code rather than merely development of a code in an expression of bureaucratic capture.

The existing Disclosure Standard will be broadened to require disclosure of both ‘presenter agreements’ (where the presenter has a commercial agreement with a sponsor) and some ‘licensee agreements’ (where the presenter has an interest in the licensee company which in turn has a commercial agreement with a sponsor). However, current affairs presenters will have more flexibility in how they identify sponsorship arrangements, rather than being compelled to use one of six scripted statements. The register and formal notifications process will be amended so that the broadcasters can keep online registers without the need for formal notices to ACMA. Changes to the Advertising Standard involve clarifying that advertising must be distinguishable from other program material at the time of broadcast rather than later in a segment or program generally. In both standards "the definition of 'consideration' will be broadened to better capture instances of paid advertising and commercial influence by including within its scope other beneficial and indirect benefits".

The report states that ACMA has decided to -
• Regulate advertising on commercial radio through a program standard with new elements that more effectively promote community standards and provide more stable and predictable regulation — until such time as the commercial radio industry has in place an appropriate code of practice dealing with advertising
• Regulate commercial influence on commercial radio current affairs programs through a program standard based on a disclosure model, with new elements to more effectively promote community standards and provide adequate community safeguards as well as reduce the financial and administrative burdens on licensees.
• No longer regulate compliance with regulatory obligations through a program standard, but rely on existing provisions of the Act to deal with breaches on an individual licensee basis to reduce the regulatory, financial and administrative burdens on licensees.
The report can be read in conjunction with the submission from the Communications Law Centre [PDF].