Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Holding the Media Accountable

As the fallout from the Hazzard report on the Cronulla Riots continues, I note that the talkback caller I quoted and agreed with last week proved to be more or less correct. This caller suggested the report was being held back out of fear of media reprisals more than anything else. As today's Sydney Morning Herald reports:
Mr Hazzard's briefing note states Mr Scully was concerned "that the media would respond adversely to any perceived criticism of them in the report".

But Mr Hazzard said he had urged Mr Scully and Mr Moroney not to worry about this and let him take the heat for the part of the report dealing with comments before the riots by the 2GB hosts Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Jason Morrison.
This was pretty canny advice on Hazzard's part. Shock jocks love to bash a pollie, but they can hardly find them responsible for findings about them that were made in an independent report. Nevertheless, it does show the extreme anxiety on the part of the Government and police about reprisals from a mere handful of powerful individuals.

I'd be interested to know the comments to which the reports refer, because, having suffered through a lot of Jones, Hadley and Morrison in a past life, I know that this certainly wouldn't be the first time they've made incendiary comments, but it may be the first time they've been picked up on it.

Apart from anything, it's surprisingly difficult to make a complaint about radio and television content. It's pretty easy to complain about the content of an advertisement, through the Advertising Standards Bureau, but content is another matter.

At the very least, the Australian Communications and Media Association (ACMA) has finally got a proper website, after the whole department was more or less shut for over a year after the departure of the Dr David `Dear Alan' Flint (during which the details of the second Cash for Comments affair sat gathering dust in a drawer somewhere) - a case whose results alone show us that, quite honestly, there's really no such thing as accountability in the Australian media.

Basically, the ACMA acts as an arbitrator on disputes between listeners or viewers and broadcasters, rather than a regulator. You must first complain to the station (I'm sure 2GB would throw the book at Jonesy if he came up with a clanger or two about Muslims) and only refer the issue to them if you are dissatisfied with the station's response. Issues of journalistic ethics are, quite absurdly, referred to the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, whose Code of Ethics, though of course recommended for all journalists, is entirely voluntary unless you are a member.

ACMA also suggests that complaints be made as soon after the broadcast as possible - not because this is a sensible thing to do, but `because the broadcaster may no longer have a tape of it otherwise'. This is patently absurd. Media monitoring companies retain archives of virtually everything broadcast on mainstream Australian radio, twenty four hours a day, going back years. The ACMA must surely know this.

Say you finally do get a complaint heard by ACMA. For an unknown reason, you are required to not only provide your name and address to the broadcaster, but agree to its publication on ACMA's website. I cannot think of any other regulatory body who requires this sort of invasion of privacy. Certainly, it is fair to separate out vexatious or frivolous complaints, or to identify conflicts of interest, but this is a job for the body itself, not the broadcaster. I would certainly think twice before complaining if I suspected my name and address would be publicly released, and I imagine plenty of other people would, too.

I am certainly not arguing for increased censorship - only accountability. The media can deeply effect how people act, how they think, and the opinions they hold. How is it that an official police report can find members of the media culpable for a major civil disturbance, yet the mechanisms for identifying their culpability and punishing them are so pathetically deficient? Naturally, free speech should be our guiding principle - but that certainly hasn't helped Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilaly escape his atrocious comments. The same rules should apply to everyone. All broadcasters must take responsibility for the things they say. Current regulation allows them to evade this responsibility.

I daresay that, should the broadcaster have come from the ABC, they would have had the book thrown at them. Ironically, the whole thing would have ended up on Media Watch, perhaps the last arbiter media accountability left.

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