Media inquiry ‘unbalanced’

28 May 2008

By The Record

By Paul Gray
THE Australian Christian Lobby has complained that the interests of the broadcasting industry have been unfairly represented in a current Federal Government inquiry into the industry’s codes of practice.

Paul Gray

At the same time, widespread concerns, voiced by churches and parents, that broadcasters are getting away with violations of acceptable community standards on television are in danger of being swept under the carpet, Australian Christian Lobby spokesman Jim Wallace has claimed.
Mr Wallace suggested it was odd that a submission to the inquiry made by his group, the Australian Christian Lobby, was passed to a number of media groups including the Nine network, and that their responses to the ACL’s submission have already been published.
A Senate inquiry into the Effectiveness of the Broadcasting Codes of Practice has received a large volume of written submissions including ones from the Australian bishops and from the archdioceses of Adelaide and Melbourne.
The gist of many submissions has been that ‘self-regulation’ in the broadcasting industry isn’t working, and that outrages such as repeated use of the ‘f-word’ by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in a prime time show on the Nine network are typical of the problem. on free-to-air television.
Last Friday, public hearings were conducted by the inquiry in Adelaide.
Mr Wallace said the hearings had been unfairly stacked in favour of maintaining the status quo, with the majority of witnesses coming from the broadcasting industry itself.
He said the inquiry seemed more intent on listening to the views of the broadcasting industry than anyone else.
“Just as the complaints process for the broadcasting industry is often completely ineffective, with concerns being snowed and effectively ignored, so too does this inquiry risk going down that path.
“Obviously the broadcasting industry does need to have a role in the hearings but not the main one.”
The Senate inquiry’s office told The Record last week that the inquiry is on track to report back to parliament by its due date of June 9. There is no indication yet of what the final recommendations will be.
In an earlier submission to the inquiry, the Adelaide archdiocese’s Office of Family and Life said that broadcasting legislation should include a direct financial penalty on broadcasters for persistent breaches of the Industry Code of Practice.
The submission said that Episode 4 of the TV show Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares screened recently on the Nine network had descended to new broadcasting depths.
The show which featured vilification of kitchen employees should never have been aired on Australian television, the Office of Family and Life said. “There can be no excuse for vilification of this sort.”
The Adelaide submission noted a distinct lack of coarse language in programs emanating from the USA where the Congress approved a 2006 legal amendment by US Senator Brownback which imposed heavy penalties for obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts.
Penalties imposed under the Brownback amendment include $325,000 per violation of the law and a maximum of $3million for continual repeats of the same violation.
In Australia, by contrast, the classification statements in respect to language are too loose and subjective to provide an accurate understanding of what is and is not acceptable in programs, the Adelaide submission said.
When the industry’s code of practice and the classification system are undermined by broadcasters, these loose statements “provide an easy defence” for offenders.
The Office argued that a classification regimen that includes both direct and indirect penalties for violations does work, saying:  “Commercial broadcasters’ reliance on advertising income will drive compliance with the code.”
Paul Russell, Senior Officer at the Office of Family and Life and the submission’s author, was invited to appear as the final speaker at last Friday’s Senate hearings in Adelaide.
In his verbal evidence, Mr Russell emphasised the argument that parents need and deserve clarity and certainty about what is and is not allowable within the broadcasting rating system and within the recognised timeslots.
He also stressed that the complaints system needs to be more closely aligned to the principles of justice. In other key written submissions to the broadcasting inquiry:
l  The Australian Catholic bishops recommended that a more uniform national approach to broadcasting regulation be adopted including a single set of classification standards for cinema, radio and television.
Rather than stipulating requirements about “coarse language” in broadcasting, the regulations should refer to “violent language” and should include categories of “low, medium and high violent language,” the bishops recommended.
The bishops also recommended that a national hotline number be set up for people to call and leave a verbal report about any audiovisual material “about which they wish to complain or commend.”
l The Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese says it receives many phone calls from persons whose religious sensitivities have been offended by television programs.
Many callers were upset and angry after the screening of the first epside of theChannel 10 television series Californication, depicting a priest and a nun enaging in a sex act in a church, albeit in a dream sequence.
The submission said it is important that the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice be strengthened because, despite the public outcry over Californication, the broadcasters could reasonably claim that no breach of the Code in its current form had occurred.
l The Presbyterian Church of Australia, through its Federal Church and Nation Committee, made a submission to the Senate inquiry asking the committee to recommend the re-introduction of a ‘bleep’ system for deleting the airing of words which are blasphemously and gratuitously offensive to Christians.