Unless the media watchdog wakes up, the Kyle and Jackie O rape debacle will change nothing

It is now clear that when Kyle Sandilands uttered the words “Right. Is that your only experience?”, he was using the most disastrous six words of his career. But the furore of the last five days goes beyond a single segment on a single show.  

It also says a lot about standards at Australia’s broadcasters and their regulation, or lack of them.


Working backwards, Sandilands has taken the most immediate hit. Not just because his role is that of the pantomime baddy, but because of how he handled the crisis.

His defenders would point out that almost as soon as he spoke his initial, cold words, he began to backpeddle.

But I believe in the argument that the reason why airline pilots are so highly paid is not for the days when everything goes right and the autopilot is in control. It’s for how they react in the split second when it actually matters.

Of course, broadcasting is not life or death – although last week’s episode demonstrates that people’s lives are affected – but the same principle applies. One of the reasons any presenter is well rewarded is because there are moments when they have to make the correct, instant judgement call when every other safety net has snapped.

By that standard, he failed.

The production team

In terms of immediate responsibility, the chain of command goes to whoever was producing the show. Asking an underage girl about her sexual activities always carried a real chance that something would go wrong. But a key question is whether the production team behind the scenes has any real power. I suspect what Sandilands want, Sandilands gets. I’m told by people who’ve worked with him that Sandilands has just as much an ego off air as he does on.

Austereo management

Which brings us to the senior management. It came as a shock to me (and I suspect to others too) about the tawdry nature of that show, as I’m not a regular listener. Like many people, it took last week’s incident and a look at the show’s website to realise that demeaning, tacky content is the norm. Indeed, that’s what’s made it Sydney’s number one FM show, and highly popular in other cities too.

And then there’s the same team’s actions, or lack of them, after this blew up. The show stayed on the air for the rest of the week while the controversy grew, and last night’s statement makes the network look weaker still by suggesting the decision to stand down was Sandilands’ rather than Austereo’s.

Contrast that with the ABC (which as a publically funded broadcaster is admittedly held to higher standards) and how it handled The Chaser’s Make A Realistic Wish Foundation sketch. It rapidly took the show off the air, investigated, demoted a senior member of staff for the blunder and had it back up again after a gap of two weeks. It messed up, it dealt with it and moved on. What could have been a lingering sore is already behind them.

It strikes me that Austereo isn’t likely to discipline its number one team. And the management certainly isn’t going to discipline itself. So expect them to give it a fortnight or so for things to die down, then there’ll be a platitudinous statement (probably sneaked out on a Friday afternoon or Sunday night), putting the show back on the air. The same statement will probably also effectively change some poor sod’s job title from junior researcher to scapegoat.

But a network’s job is to maximise the ratings. And that means pushing to the boundaries of the rules, so you can’t blame them too much. They’ll do what they can get away with – it’s what the shareholders would demand.

The media watchdog

Which in turn suggests that any lead needs to come from the regulator, which in this case is ACMA, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Regulating public taste is a minefield, and it looks like ACMA wants no part of this. When it believes there is an issue to look at, it can initiate its own investigation – as it did for cash for comment – rather than wait til a station has dealt with complaints first – which is has 60 days to do. So the chances of ACMA offering a view on this at any point during 2009 seem slim.

Indeed, when ACMA releases a finding against a TV or radio company, it tends to have three things in common – it’s about events that happened months or years before; there’s no fine or other sanction; and there’s always a vague promise of tighter procedures and staff training. It does seem that – unless you’re Alan Jones or John Laws – you can get away with just about anything.

Sadly, I don’t think last week’s events will really change anything.

Tim Burrowes


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