ACMA CEO denies loss of nerve saying SCA management change ‘critical’ to 2DayFM deal

ACMA chair Chris Chapman

ACMA chair Chris Chapman

The CEO of the Australian Communications and Media Authority has described today’s deal with Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) over the royal prank call incident as a “better outcome” than a rumoured suspension of its broadcast licence.

In an interview with Mumbrella this afternoon Chris Chapman said the deal, following a protracted court battle with SCA, would hopefully serve as a case study for other broadcasters, adding a recent change in senior management, was also “critical” today’s deal.

While many had expected the ACMA to make an example of 2DayFM over the broadcast of the prank call in December 2012 by suspending its broadcast licence, the media watchdog instead decided on a series of lesser penalties, including a new licence condition.

“The change in chairman and senior management was critical to the breakthrough in the negotiations,” said Chapman, referring to the departures of SCA chair Max Moore Wilton and Rhys Holleran who were replaced by Peter Bush and Grant Blackley.

“In the absence of a change it may well have been that we ended up in a different situation. A suspension may have been the only, comparatively blunt way forward,” he said while also rejecting criticism that the broadcast regulator had lost its nerve in failing to suspend 2DayFM.

The settlement comes more than two-and-a-half years after Southern Cross Austereo broadcast a prank call which saw hosts Mel Greig and Michael ‘MC’ Christian, who were impersonating Prince Charles and The Queen, put through to the ward where the then pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for acute morning sickness.

Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who put the call through to the ward, took her own life days later.

Asked it if it had “lost its nerve” over suspending the station following a lengthy court battle between the ACMA and 2DayFM which was finally resolved in March, Chapman rejected that saying: “I don’t think that’s a fair characterisation.

“What we did was that we had the ability to suspend them consistent within our enforcement guidelines it would have been a very brief suspension.

“The reality is we have negotiated a much better more constructive outcome than what would been dead air.”

As its penalty for breaking the broadcasting code SCA has been hit with a third licence condition, all staff made to have ethics training and the station told to broadcast a three-hour show to “raise public awareness of the signs and risks of bullying, depression and anxiety”, with ads either suspended or money from them donated to charity.

“We have agreed with them that they will produce a special program, we have agreed that they will put their management, production staff and talent through ethics training and we have imposed a licence condition,” added Chapman.

“I think it is an unprecedented proactive, constructive deal. After we won the High Court decision 6-0 unanimously we demonstrated that we have made the right decision.

“I can’t help but think this is the sensible way through.”

Chapman noted how the new SCA management team had been much more conciliatory in its discussions with the regulator.

“I sat down with the new chairman of Southern Cross (Peter Bush) and they apologised, they have acknowledged the correctness of the ACMA’s findings and they have dedicated themselves to a way forward,” he said.

The ACMA boss said he hoped when other breaches of the Codes of Practice occurred in the future that other broadcasters would look to do a deal with the ACMA rather than hire lawyers.

“What we are saying to broadcasters is that they are not exempt from making mistakes, but if you make a mistake then proactively deal with it. Discuss it with the regulator and don’t embark upon expensive, futile, protracted litigation.

“We have always always sought to facilitate outcomes rather than be a blunt regulator.

“This is a terrific example of what can be done if people just accept circumstances, deal with it maturely and move on.”

Nic Christensen

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