A new system for dealing with complaints to ACMA is one of the recommendations of the Independent Media Inquiry.
Ray Finkelstein QC has recommended a new ‘super-regulator’, the News Media Council, to oversee print, radio, television and online (including blogs).
Amongst his findings the Australian Media and Communications Authority comes under the spotlight, including its complaints-handling system within the Broadcasting Services Act.
The report notes that ACMA takes too long to resolve complaints, an average of four months, and longer in some cases. The investigations do not involve the complainant, and there are limitations to what ACMA can require of a broadcaster in breach.
Specifically, ACMA does not have the power to require a broadcaster to publish a finding of any breach.
As a result, the report says “a new system is needed, one which is swift in its operation, treats complainants and licensees on the same footing, and which requires licensees to broadcast findings of a breach.”
Here are some select excerpts from the report in relation to ACMA’s complain system:
ACMA’s investigations are almost always assessed on the papers. After receiving a complaint, ACMA notifies the broadcaster that a complaint has been made, and obtains a copy of the broadcast. Normally the broadcaster will make a submission about how the broadcast complied with the relevant requirement. In some cases, for example allegations of factual inaccuracy, ACMA might research independent resources.
ACMA prepares a report of its investigation. If a breach finding is proposed, ACMA provides a draft of the investigation report to the broadcaster for its comment. There is no internal appeal network—informal reconsideration of an investigation decision takes place on a case-by-case basis, depending on the individual circumstances.
On average, an investigation by ACMA takes four months to finalise.
It appears that ACMA is less concerned to provide the complainant with opportunities to comment. ACMA observes that although investigations are triggered by a complaint, the complainant is not a ‘party’ to the investigation.
There have been a number of criticisms of the handling of complaints under the Broadcasting Services Act.
Whatever the position may be, these criticisms indicate that the Broadcasting Services Act does not provide an appropriate model for dealing with complaints, whether against broadcast media or any other. Most significantly, an ACMA investigation of a broadcasting complaint takes months to finalise (four months on average, but any given complaint could take much longer). Where the complaint is that a statement about a person is inaccurate, that period is much too long.
Moreover, there is delay built into the process by requiring a complainant in most instances to complain first to the broadcaster before going to ACMA. In addition, despite ACMA’s enforcement powers being expanded in 2006, it does not have the power to require a broadcaster to publish a finding that there has been a breach of some standard.