The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is well-known to lack the powers it needs to act effectively as a content ‘watchdog’ in the Australian media landscape. The primary mechanism for its powers comes from the issuing of broadcast licences: licencees have to play nice with ACMA or risk having conditions put on their licence. The core problem is that this is basically the nuclear option and no ordinary breach of the licencee’s Code of Practice is going to merit conditions on the licence. With the ABC and SBS, the powers are even more limited. If ACMA is satisfied that the ABC or SBS breached their Code of Practice, under s 152 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, ACMA may:
by notice in writing given to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or the Special Broadcasting Service Corporation, recommend that it take action to comply with the relevant code of practice and take such other action in relation to the complaint as is specified in the notice.
That other action may include broadcasting or otherwise publishing an apology or retraction.
So weak. So weak.
The problem with having such a weak regulator is that it almost entirely depends upon broadcasters playing along and demonstrating at least some minimal level of respect. It’s like high school basketball. The poor bastard ref has literally no powers to make the players comply with the rules, but everybody learns to respect the ref and make their job easier. Yes, as a teenager I was a referee for high school basket ball and, yes, I had to rely entirely on sheer goodwill in order to manage the game according to the rules. It is an awful position to be in.
Shortly before Christmas, ACMA released a report into a two-episode series of ABC’s Four Corners that, in the view of ACMA, breached ABC’s Code of Practice. Instead of accepting the ruling of ACMA, ABC instead allowed the presenter of the episodes, Sarah Ferguson, to write the most incredibly bad faith criticisms of ACMA. Says Ferguson:
ACMA’s final report and its inflammatory press release raise questions about the regulator’s understanding of journalism.
Ferguson’s response was grossly unprofessional and did not accurately represent ACMA’s findings. Worse, the host of ABC’s Media Watch, Paul Barry, responded to a news story covering Ferguson’s attack on ACMA with:
Just FYI, if @ABCmediawatchwere on air we’d be agreeing with this 100%.
In the background to the commentary is a larger issue: many at the ABC, former journalists at the ABC, and broader community supporters of the ABC feel like the ABC is under attack. To some extent–especially with regard to certain members of the Coalition and other right wing parties, and with regard to critics from News Corp–this sentiment is justified. Some of the criticisms of the ABC are manifestly absurd. The problem is that there is a significant subset of that amalgamation who thinks any criticism of the ABC is inherently unjustified. Sure, Paul Barry is allowed to criticise the ABC for not platforming enough transphobic views (I wish I were kidding), but any other sort of criticism is roundly rejected. Audiences were even accused of being ‘ageist’ when they complained that the ABC was investing in a chat show vehicle for rusted on ABC veteran Fran Kelly instead of investing in new talent. We talk about culture wars a lot, but there is a sense that the ABC seems keen to dish it out but feigns a glass jaw when it’s served back to them.