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When will the media regulator act on breaches of the broadcasting code?

The board of Southern Cross Austereo is expected to release a statement on today in response to global condemnation of radio station 2DayFM and its presenters.  At the same time, hacking collective Anonymous and multiple social media sites are taking up the suggestion of Opposition MP, Malcolm Turnbull, by organising a media blockade against the radio station.

The radio station has been inundated with complaints in what has become the latest shock radio story to rile the Australian public, after the DJs prank-called a London hospital and posed as the Queen and Prince Charles inquire about the recently-hospitalised Duchess of Cambridge’s health, in what became known as the Royal Prank.

Earlier this year, 2DayFM was reprimanded by Australia's independent communications regulator after a radio host talked a 14-year-old girl into revealing on air that she had been raped.

So-called "shock jock" radio announcers are frequently denounced in Australia for their deeply personal and often derogatory attacks on politicians and ordinary citizens. The issue has arisen at Austereo over the years.

Way back on July 29, 2004, Patrick Joyce, the general manager of Austereo Sydney (who resigned in August this year) released a statement regarding a controversial phone call to former Bardot singer Katie Underwood, saying:

“We require consent of persons who are featured in a call before it is broadcast. It is noteworthy that “prank calls” have been a feature of Australian commercial radio for well over two decades.  

“It is worth mentioning that there have, over the years, been occasional instances of calls that have not been approved or have not met our preconditions for broadcast and which have resulted in disciplinary action…”

This week Southern Cross Austereo chief executive Rhys Holleran told a news conference in Melbourne on Saturday that the company would work with authorities in any investigation. He said he was "very confident" that the radio station had done nothing illegal.  

The commercial code of conduct is pretty clear on the issue. Under clause 6.1 of the commercial radio code:

“A licensee must not broadcast the words of an identifiable person unless:

(a) That person has been informed in advance or a reasonable person would be aware that the words may be broadcast; or

(b) In the case of words which have been recorded without the knowledge of the person, that person has subsequently, but prior to the broadcast, expressed consent to the broadcast of the words.”

Earlier this year in June, as the station was appealing against strict conditions imposed on the station by ACMA, Holleran pointed to the station’s commercial success: “We have managed to improve margins despite a 3.9% reduction in revenues and met the commitment we made to shareholders when we acquired the Austereo Group by delivering an underlying net profit after tax of $100.1 million.”

The media fallout from the latest recent tragedy could extend beyond Australia's shores, says British radio presenter Steve Penk, who has made a career out of prank calls.

"I think it will probably be the death of the wind-up phone call. I think [British media regulator] Ofcom will wrap it in so much red tape that it will make it almost impossible to get these things on the air," he told Sky News.

The independent broadcast regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, has received complaints about the hoax.

Earlier this year, communications minister Stephen Conroy said it was clear that ACMA must have more effective powers. "The ACMA has a gap in its regulatory armoury, and the convergence review [of media] is talking about possible extra powers for ACMA, so instead of just having the slap on the wrist or closing down the station there are what you'd call mid-tier powers,” he told ABC.

This week shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull responded, referring to another shock jock “incident” involving presenter Alan Jones: “I’ve made the point elsewhere that all of ACMA’s efforts to introduce a higher degree of accuracy and civility with Sydney broadcast radio, doesn’t seem to be very effective.

“But a Twitter campaign did seem to have a very significant impact on Mr Jones and 2GB. And what that tells me is that the answer to some of the ailments of the press that we complain about is more likely to be more freedom, rather than more regulation.”

A few days ago, Turnbull stated: “As far as privacy is concerned, the big challenge is always going to be defining it. There is, of course, a need for restraint and respect of people’s personal private space, and often, but not nearly as often as in the UK, the media [here] does step over that, and I think the media can be held to account and soundly criticised for that.

“The industry codes that ACMA enforces, that operate with the broadcast media by and large prevent that from happening and there was recent decision regarding the Channel Nine affiliate in Adelaide concerning that. So, ACMA is certainly on top of that, at least.”

Turnbull went on to say “We have not had the same appalling conduct that Lord Leveson so eloquently and comprehensively chronicled in his report [into the use of phone tapping by the media in the UK]. Now of course, intrusive, unethical or shoddy reporting, publication or broadcasting of misleading or untrue information, lurid distortions and partisan barracking happen here as well. There’s nothing particularly new about it, but we should be very suspicious and sceptical about politicians who call for more regulation of the media.”

In a statement, Chris Chapman, chairman of ACMA, which is yet to begin an inquiry into this latest breach of the law, said: “The ACMA does not propose to make any comments at this stage, but will be engaging with the licensee, 2Day FM Sydney, around the facts and issues surrounding the prank call.”

Let’s leave the last word to Malcolm: “There’s been a decline in confidence around the world in media organisations. The correlation with struggling business models cannot be overlooked. The fact is that the foundations of the news media, the foundations of journalism, are under threat in a way that would have seen unbelievable, inconceivable, only a decade ago.”

* If you are in need of help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services.

Colin Benjamin

The Change Maker

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Colin Benjamin OAM is the chairman of Cultural Infusion Ltd and director general of the Life: 'Be in it' Australia charity.
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