Journalism professor: Crumbling advertising-editorial firewall means ACCC should be more involved in media

mark_pearson_headshotThe media should come under more regulatory scrutiny when its editorial coverage is tainted by commercial interests, an influential journalism professor has urged.

The call for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to become more involved came from Bond University’s Mark Pearson, author of several editions of The Journalist’s Guide To Media Law.

Speaking to ABC Radio National’s The Media Report, Prof Pearson said that new laws are not necessarily needed to regulate the Australian press – but current exemptions to consumer law should be looked at again.

He said: “There are already so many laws controlling the behaviour of news organisations and journalists, we don’t really need any more. We need to make those that exist more effective. But if there had to be something more, the consumer law that exists at the moment, and already applies to the media in many ways, could be extended to cover heinous ethical breaches.”   

Prof Pearson’s comments come shortly before the findings of the Finkelstein Inquiry into print and online journalism are released.

Pearson said that the likes of radio’s cash for comment scandal in which 2UE’s John Laws and Alan Jones were found to have given favourable comment to brands that were paying them to do so.

Pearson said the Competition and Consumer Act could be used to control some of the unethical conduct of media outlets if current examptions were relaxed. He said: “It was introduced in 1974 and it has a provision, basically banning misleading and deceptive conduct, which is normally applying to advertising. But for the first few years, some court decisions held that it might also apply to misleading claims made in news stories; the editorial columns of newspapers and their equivalent in broadcast. So because they didn’t want this impingement on free expression and because of lobbying by the major media groups, they had an exemption to that introduced for prescribed news providers which basically, unless it was in advertising or promoting their own products and so on, they would be exempted from these misleading and deceptive conduct provisions.”

He added: “I don’t think some tinkering with that would do any great harm which would cover the most drastic ethical breaches, clearly contrary to the public interest, where there’s been real misleading and deceptive conduct involved, of the order of your cash for comment kind of situation.

” The more the media is moving towards breaking down that firewall between editorial and advertising the more they need to be treated like just another business except where they’re doing genuine public interest journalism.”

Perason’s new book Blogging And Tweeting Without Getting Sued is released next month. He will be speaking at tomorrow afternoon’s Mumbrella masterclass in Managing Risk In Social Media.


  1. Devil's advocaat
    29 Feb 12
    3:13 pm

  2. He’s right.

    Advertorial aka ” integrated ” should be marked as such by law.

    Office of Fair Trading in the UK already started looking at bought Tweets and blogs:

  3. Kevin
    1 Mar 12
    10:49 am

  4. Hmmm
    There is a fine line between intervention for high-level cash for comment and allowing magazines to decide if they like a product and possibly have it as a prize and/or a favourable write-up.

    Readers are very sophisticated today and know to check reviews and editorial. For example, a number of times recently I wanted to purchase an A3 printer/scanner.

    I didn’t read the good reviews in magazines and on the web – I looked for the bad reviews. The result was (a) I didn’t buy any of them and (b) wrote to one tech review site and suggested they delete five bad reviews, as they were all by the same person under different names.

    The site apologised, saying it was one of the disadvantages of an open forum.

    How does this relate to the issue? Very few magazines can survive, without assisting advertisers with Editorial. When I was a Managing Editor at a magazine company, we did more editorial for advertisers, but would never do so if we knew the product was not one of the best. So it was win-win for us all – especially readers.

    Any attack on this business model (which 99 percent of the public are aware of) will put most magazines out of business and I suspect make business more difficult for the professor too.

  5. Journo
    1 Mar 12
    2:03 pm

  6. Pffft… in the social media era, by the time the regulator acts on behalf of consumers the self-same consumers have figured it out, publically castigated the publisher and long since moved on to the next media transgression… A regulatory review of dumb things said by dinosaur media academics would be more useful.