By Paul Gray
Commercial broadcasters should have their licences suspended or cancelled under certain circumstances when they have repeatedly breached the industry’s code of practice, a government inquiry has found.
The inquiry was headed by South Australian Liberal Party Senator Cory Bernardi.
Widespread media reporting last week presented the inquiry as a response to on-air expletives used by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey.
In fact the inquiry was an examination of the effectiveness of the broadcasting industry’s codes of practice, and was launched after repeated expressions of concern over major broadcasters’ apparent lack of interest in acting on public complaints about obscenity on air.
The cross-party Senate inquiry involved four Senators from the ALP, four from the Liberal Party and one from the Australian Democrats.
It made 20 recommendations, including one that a federal government review of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) should be carried out no later than 2010.
The inquiry also recommended that a “parental lock-out” system should be mandated as a standard feature on digital television sets sold in Australia.
Fears that the broadcasting industry’s present regulations are essentially toothless were addressed by the committee.
This is a concern that has been raised in recent years by numerous members of the public, as well as by advocacy groups.
The committee found that the second time a broadcaster is found to be in breach of the same part of the code, the Australian Communications and Media Authority should use its existing powers to impose additional conditions on the broadcaster’s license.
In the event of subsequent breaches, ACMA should use its powers to pursue a civil penalty, refer the matter for prosecution as an offence and suspend or cancel the license.
Other new measures in the Senate committee’s recommendations were that each broadcaster should have a nominated complaints officer within its organisation whose sole role is to respond to complaints.
“The officer should be separate from the program, production and scheduling sections, and from the area responsible for classifying or rating programs.
“Officers should receive relevant training in the appropriate code of conduct and complaint management. The contact details of the complaints officer should be published on the website of the broadcaster, industry body and ACMA,” the inquiry recommended.
This recommendation, and others in the committee’s final report, were not widely reported in the general media.
The Senate committee also recommended that all broadcasters should amend their codes of practice website capabilities to allow viewers to make complaints about the code by email or electronically.
“Email and electronic complaints about code-related issues should receive the same response as a written complaint,” it said.
The Senate inquiry also said a log of all telephone complaints received by free-to-air commercial television stations should be maintained.
The log should include a short summary of each complaint, and should be provided to Free TV Australia and the ACMA.
The inquiry also found that the classification watermark showing each program’s rating should be clearly visible throughout program promotions on free-to-air television stations.
This would “increase viewer awareness of the classification of the program being promoted.”
A number of Church bodies including the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Adelaide made submissions to the inquiry during its public consultation phase.