Since its establishment nearly twenty years ago, the Communications Law Centre has been a leader in research, teaching and public debate about media and communications issues in Australia.
Established in the late 1980s following the sweeping changes to media ownership rules in 1987, the Centre was centrally involved in the many big changes to communications law since. These included the overhaul of broadcasting and spectrum management law in 1992; the progressive liberalisation of the telecommunications business in 1989 and 1991, culminating in open competition from 1997, and the privatisation of Telstra; the introduction of digital television; the passage of uniform national defamation laws in 2005; further media ownership changes in late 2006; and the steady growth in the application of competition law to communications. A National Internet Legal Practice, OzNetLaw, was established in 2000 with funding from the Commonwealth Government and two large law firms.
The last twenty years have vindicated the Centre's founding convictions: that media and communications would become more central to society and the economy; that the many discrete parts of media and communications law and policy in Australia needed to be treated as a coherent whole; that the quality of research, teaching, legal advice and public debate could be improved through an organisation which brought these elements together, in partnership with universities, and supported by industry, regulators and non-government organisations.
Those founding convictions as relevant to the future as they were two decades ago. The internet and mobile communications have turned every organisation into a media organisation and the establishment of a national broadband network is being undertaken as a national building project of unprecedented scale. The sense that the law is too often left behind by the pace of change remains.
The Communications Law Centre was originally established in Sydney in 1988 as a company limited by guarantee and affiliated with the University of New South Wales (UNSW). A Melbourne office was opened in 1990. It was affiliated with Victoria University (VU) in 1996 and became a Research Unit of the university in 2005. In 2005, UNSW disestablished the Research Centre which had subsumed the operations of the Communications Law Centre in Sydney two years earlier. In 2008 the Research Centre at VU was also disestablished.
The company Communications Law Centre Ltd nevertheless continued as an umbrella organisation and in late 2009 concluded arrangements for the re-establishment of the Communications Law Centre at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) with links to both the Law Faculty and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
The objectives for which the CLC at UTS was established, include:
- To monitor and analyse existing or proposed laws, policies and practices in the area of communications including media, broadcasting, film, privacy, information technology, the internet and telecommunications;
- To promote the reform of laws, policies or practices in the area of communications including media, broadcasting, film, privacy, information technology, the internet and telecommunications which adversely affect the public, or disadvantage the public;
- To promote, sponsor and undertake research and project work in the area of communications including media, broadcasting, film, privacy, information technology, the internet and telecommunications in the public interest;
- To promote, support and assist in the teaching and study of communications law and policy and related areas in UTS and other educational institutions and the community;
- To provide opportunities for students in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and other students of UTS, and other educational institutions to gain practical experience in communications law and related areas;
- To assist individuals and groups who are disadvantaged or lack sufficient financial or other resources to protect, advance or represent their interests in the area of communications including media, broadcasting, film, privacy, information technology, the internet and telecommunications.
- To provide legal advice in connection with matters of public interest in the area of communications including media, broadcasting, film, privacy, information technology, the internet and telecommunications;
- To provide information on the CLC's websites and to print and publish any newsletters, periodicals, books, leaflets and other publications that the CLC may consider desirable for the promotion of its objects;
- To subscribe, to become a member of, and cooperate with any other company, association, club or organisation whose objects are in whole, or in part similar to those of the CLC;
- To make donations for public or charitable purposes.
The Centre is currently supported with premises and administrative support by UTS and with funding from UTS and the Communications Law Centre Ltd.
The Centre has been very successful in brokering research partnerships between academics, industry and government. Together with its affiliated universities, it has secured several competitive research grants, including projects funded by the Australian Research Council and industry partners.
For many years it produced research reports on media ownership which were regarded as an influential resource in debate about changes to media ownership in recent years.
The Centre has produced three editions to date of the seminal text Australian Telecommunications Regulation: the Communications Law Centre Guide and a fourth edition is currently in the planning stages.
For many years Centre staff have provided newspaper publishers and broadcasters with training in relation to defamation and court reporting training and, more recently, copyright issues.
Staff have also undertaken teaching (at an undergraduate and postgraduate level) at the Centre's affiliated universities. These popular courses benefited greatly from the staff's research and policy development work.
Public debate and promoting the public interest
An active, visible role in public debate and government policy formulation has been a central part of the Centre's work. Governments and parliamentary committees actively seek contributions to formal inquiries and ongoing processes of policy development which provide frequent opportunities for the Centre's work to reach influential audiences.
The media's increasing appetite for news and opinion about communications issues means there are many opportunities for well-informed and constructive comment on matters of public concern. This helps to attract students and young researchers, the lifeblood of an energetic, relevant research program in these fields.
The Centre's conferences and seminars have always been among the most effective in bringing together different kinds of participants for timely dialogue about issues of contemporary debate
Over the life of the Centre, notable achievements in which its staff have played a big role have included the establishment of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, the introduction of program standards requiring disclosure of relevant commercial interests by radio presenters following the Cash for Comment Inquiry, revisions to universal service arrangements in telecommunications, and scrutiny of the concentration of control of major media enterprises, particularly through the regular Media Ownership Update.
In the recent landmark Federal Court case The Australian Communications and Media Authority v Radio 2UE Sydney Pty Ltd (No 2), the Court granted leave for the Centre to appear and make submissions in relation to the appropriate civil penalty for breaches of the Broadcasting Services (Commercial Radio Current Affairs Disclosure) Standard 2000.
The Centre is also well recognised for its role in representing the voice of disadvantaged groups, or the information-poor, in policy debates.
The Centre has actively sought to promote the public interest in debates about communications developments, and often took a position on issues which reflected its community based origins. Concern about equity and access to services has been a key feature of the Centre's activities, and some of the Centre's research has been aimed at ensuring that all consumers benefited from communications developments. The same issues continue to need attention today.
While at UNSW, particularly in its early years, the Centre employed solicitors and had an active role providing legal advice and representation for individuals and community organisations. The Centre acted for parties in regulatory proceedings, and was an active participant in inquiries held by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and subsequently the Australian Broadcasting Authority.
The Centre is not currently conducting a legal practice but this is a potential area of development in the future.