Opinion

Sandilands saga demonstrates (again) that ACMA is a toothless tiger in need of new powers

acmaI must confess I wrote today’s Kyle Sandilands story an hour before the press conference.

Once I got my hands on the findings I didn’t have to change much.

It was yet another demonstration that when it comes to real time media regulation, The Australian Communications and Media Authority is a toothless tiger.   

ACMA's Chris Chapman: Toothless tiger

ACMA's Chris Chapman: Toothless tiger

By the end of the press conference, I was starting to feel a little sorry for ACMA chairman Chris Chapman, as he struggled to find new ways of telling the press pack of 40 or so that he didn’t really have any immediate powers.

The nearest he came, towards the end, was when he acknowledged there had been “frustration over a lack of a graduated process”.

The problem for ACMA is it lacks the powers to impose immediate sanctions such as a fine.

So Sandilands may indeed have demonstrated “a flagrant disregard” for the guidelines on the portrayal of women on commercial radio. But they’re guidelines, not a code of practice. Or as ACMA put it in today’s ruling: “While not enforceable, the guidelines can usefully inform the ACMA’s consideration of generally accepted standards”. Pow! Take that, 2Day FM.

And where it found Sandilands has breached the standards of decency, ACMA took the only real step available to it. Proposed making it a specific condition of 2Day FM’s licence that in the future it shouldn’t breach that condition.

In practical terms, that means the public will be able to complain directly to ACMA in the future rather than have to go to the radio station first – so long as the complaint is about that specific clause of the code.

And if there are further breaches then – and only then the ACMA might be able to issue a “remedial direction” or get a legally enforceable undertaking that could lead to a fine or ultimately licence suspension.

But the breaches would have to be specifically against the indecency clause.

For Kyle Sandilands himself, there are no direct consequences of his personal attack on Alison Stephenson.

A further problem with the regulatory regime – which the Finkelstein media inquiry correctly identified – is the sheer length of time it takes to deal with such complaints. The incident was four months ago. Hilariously, the fact that it was dealt with this quickly is practically a record.

I suspect that the government’s long running media convergence review will have reported and been enacted, creating a new regulatory regime, long before any of that happens.

Tim Burrowes

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