Sanctioning radio station over royal prank 'sent a clear signal', says outgoing media regulator

Chris Chapman, who has stepped down from Australian Communications and Media Authority after 10 years, says the watchdog proved it would not be deterred by litigious media organisations

Outgoing media regulator Chris Chapman says that sanctioning the radio station that broadcast the royal prank call sent an important signal to the public as well as media companies.

In 2012 2Day FM presenters Michael Christian and Mel Greig imitated the Queen and Prince Charles and made a hoax call to the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for morning sickness. The nurse who put the call through, Jacintha Saldanha, 46, later took her own life.

In the public outcry that followed, the pressure was on Chapman’s Australian Communications and Media Authority to act. But 2Day FM maintained it had done nothing illegal and fought the regulator all the way to the high court.

“I am very careful to separate out the tragic consequences for the poor woman from what we were doing,” Chapman told Guardian Australia before stepping down after 10 years in the role as media watchdog with responsibility for regulating broadcasting, communications, radio communications and the online space.

“Our decision was not informed or based on her tragic suicide or death. But we felt that we had a threshold issue to defend. It’s important for the public to see that the regulator is prepared to take some positions and to see the distance out.”

After a two-and-a-half-year legal battle, 2Day FM owners Southern Cross Austereo lost their bid to challenge Acma’s powers in March last year and were ordered to pay the authority’s costs.

“It was very important for us for two reasons,” Chapman said of the high-profile case. “One is that you send a message to broadcasters that we weren’t going to be deterred by being strung out in litigation. Secondly, the high court confirmed six-zip that it was legitimate for a regulatory agency (like ourselves) to enforce licence conditions that reflect criminal law but to do so on the basis of a civil standard.”

Similarly, Acma resisted Channel Seven’s litigious streak which saw the broadcaster take Acma to court seven times, including over a Sunday Night story about a Brazilian tribe which the Acma said was racist. The authority won six times and Seven racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs.

Although Chapman had the power to suspend 2Day FM’s licence, he avoided the punitive route and the station agreed to broadcast a special three-hour program about media ethics and mental health to raise public awareness, as well as implement an ethics and media law training program for all staff instead.

Chapman, who is the longest-serving head of all of the commonwealth’s 194 agencies, has presided over an era which has seen the media landscape change dramatically and free-to-air broadcasters lose their monopoly.

In his last appearance before Senate estimates last week, Chapman said he had seen six prime ministerships, five communications ministers and six department secretaries.

But it was the rapid change in technology that had marked his tenure, he said, and admitted regulation was lagging behind and needed a radical overhaul.

He gave Senate estimates a snapshot of this change: “Traffic from wireless and mobile devices overtook traffic from wired devices in 2015; more than half of the world’s population has a mobile phone; by 2019 video will comprise 80% of all IP traffic and mobile will help to push internet penetration beyond 50% of the world’s population during this year.

“The scope and scale of this digital disruption clearly should give, and is giving, government, the legislature and policymakers cause to pause and think about what it will actually mean to be a ‘communications regulator’ in the future,” Chapman warned at last week’s hearing.

He said he was also aware of the inadequacies of the regulatory framework. “This thing we call the internet can be found in a schedule to the Broadcast Services Act,” Chapman told Guardian Australia. “That says it all.

“The TV was once an institution in your life. Now when you do watch it you are distracted by at least a mobile phone or a tablet. That’s interesting because from an advertising perspective the effectiveness and impact of ads is in question.”

But there was one area in which he was able to bring regulation into the 21st century: the new code of practice for commercial TV which he describes as the “edgiest in the world”.

“I think it is the first code in the world that seeks to recognise that the world has changed for commercial broadcasters; that multichanneling requires greater flexibility in scheduling and that a one-size-fits-all approach to content classification is far too inflexible a device,” Chapman said.

He was highly critical of the “uncalibrated” range of powers available to deal with breaches by shock jocks and tabloid TV shows. “We have high-end powers to suspend a licensee but we have no powers at the bottom end if we find a breach, only the sanction of a breach itself,” he said.

“It’s not satisfactory and it creates tension between the licensee and the regulator. It would be much better if we could deal with breaches quickly and progressively.”

Despite his long-running battles with broadcasters such as Kyle Sandilands and Alan Jones who have racked up plenty of licence breaches, Chapman believed the authority commanded attention and the cowboy antics slowed during his tenure.

Acma ruled that a Sandilands tirade against a female journalist he called a “fat slag” was “deeply derogatory and offensive” and prohibited the radio station from broadcasting indecent content and content that demeans women or girls.

“Every time a shock jock makes a comment like ‘I bet that will go down well at the Acma’ that tells me that the defender of community safeguards is in their subconscious,” he said. “And I think they are aware. Again there hasn’t been any matters recently.”

Chapman, who once held executive positions at Channel Seven, Stadium Australia Management and Optus and was the chairman of Film Australia and Sports Vision, will take up the role of president at the International Institute of Communications, the London-based independent policy forum, in April.

The former lawyer said he is proud to be the first president in the IIC’s 47-year history to not be drawn from North America or Europe.

“I think Australian media is impressive, challenged, full of outstanding individuals at all levels,” he said.

“I am blessed that I worked in media and communications for so long. I love the industry. I think they do a fabulous job and I think they do media and communications with impressive Australian style.”


Amanda Meade

The GuardianTramp

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