Journalism and media ethics pre 2010
There are several sources of regulation of journalism in Australia. In some cases, the authority of these regulations flows more from professional obligations than legal obligations. The main distinction is between regulation of broadcast media and regulation of print media, although the professional code administered by the Australian Journalists Association applies to members of the Association in their work across all media.
Main Sources of Regulation
Broadcasting: Codes of Practices
Print Media: Australian Press Council - APC Statement of Principles
Journalists in general: AJA Code of Ethics
Other aspects of the law and regulation relevant to newsgathering: Privacy, Trespass, Nuisance, Surveillance, Confidential Information, Consumer Protection and Fair Trading.
Codes of Practice are registered with the ABA. The codes for the two most prominent commercial media forms are the Commercial Television Code of Practice (developed by Commercial Television Australia) and the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice (developed by Commercial Radio Australia).
All codes require news and current affairs programs to be (in some form of wording) accurate, impartial, and balanced. They also deal with correcting errors and presenting some form of balance of significant viewpoints.
The National Broadcasters (the ABC and SBS) are covered by their own codes of practice.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 requires the ABC to develop and maintain an independent service for broadcasting news. The ABC Code of Practice includes the provision that every reasonable effort must be made to ensure that the content of news and current affairs programs is accurate, impartial and balanced.
The Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 requires SBS to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and balanced over time and across the schedule of programs broadcast.
The codes of practice for both commercial and national broadcasters contain a range of provisions relating to news and information, classification of programs, advertising (where relevant) and other matters. Part 9 of the Broadcasting Services Act expressly provides for the development of codes of practice by the following sections of the industry:
- Commercial broadcasters
- Community broadcasters
- Subscription broadcasters
- Subscription narrowcasters
- Open narrowcasters.
Section 123 of the BSA includes a list of matters which may be included in a code of practice, one of which is 'promoting accuracy and fairness in news and current affairs programs' (section 123(2)(d)).
All codes establish a complaints system. In most cases complaints must be made to the broadcaster before they can be referred to the ABA.
Cash for Comment - Commercial Radio Inquiry
In its investigation of commercial radio in 1999, the ABA found a 'systematic failure' to ensure the effective operation of self-regulation, particularly in relation to current affairs programs. The inquiry concerned four of the leading Australian talkback radio stations (2UE, 3AW, 5DN, and 6PR), which are widely syndicated and considered very influential. The Inquiry resulted in licence conditions imposed on some stations, followed by the implementation of an industry-wide standard for commercial radio broadcasters relating to disclosure of financial and other benefits and interests.
The Broadcasting Services (Commercial Radio Current Affairs Disclosure) Standard 2000 now requires the following:
- on-air disclosures are required when the name of a sponsor is mentioned by a presenter or someone from the sponsor is interviewed, or material from the sponsor is used, or material is used which directly promotes the sponsor;
- a register of commercial agreements is to be kept;
- presenters are obliged to disclose agreements to licensees and licensees are required to make it a condition of the presenter's contract that they do disclose;
- disclosure of payment of production costs is required for any current affairs program on air at least once per hour through the program.
The Broadcasting Services (Commercial Radio Compliance Program) Standard 2000 requires licensees to establish a compliance program.
The Broadcasting Services (Commercial Radio Advertising) Standard 2000 requires that advertisements be distinguished from other programs.
Commercial Radio Standards - Latest Developments
In October 2002 the Media Watch program on ABC TV reported on agreements within the commercial radio industry. Media Watch featured statements that had been made by Alan Jones on 2GB and John Laws on 2UE in support of companies that were sponsors of either the presenters themselves or the two radio stations. Media Watch alleged that at least some of these statements appeared not to comply with the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice. (Excerpts and a transcript from the three programs broadcast on 07.10.02, 14.10.02 and 28.10.02 appear on the Media Watch site.)
Following the Media Watch programs, on 29 October 2002 the Communications Law Centre made a formal complaint to the Australian Broadcasting Authority about these matters. (For a copy of the CLC Complaint to the ABA, see the Attached Publications List below). The CLC alleged that the radio stations (that is, the companies that hold the broadcasting licences for both 2UE and 2GB) had breached the Commercial Radio Standards and the Broadcasting Services Act.
The Communications Law Centre also urged the ABA to investigate the loop-hole which appears to exempt presenters from the disclosure requirements if agreements are made between a sponsor and the radio station instead of between a sponsor and the presenter. Finally, we requested that the ABA look into the extent of Alan Jones' control of the 2GB licence.
The ABA announced investigations into these matters in November 2002.
The matter involving ownership and control of 2GB was separated from the matters involving the commercial agreements of Alan Jones (and 2GB) and John Laws (and 2UE). (See the terms of reference for the ownership and control issue). The investigation into commercial agreements was conducted separately for 2GB and 2UE but the matters are covered by the same terms of reference. (See the terms of reference for the commercial agreements investigations).
The investigations were completed in April 2004 when the ABA delivered the third and final report. The investigations and reports are as follows:
- The investigation into control of 2GB and 2CH and specifically the interests of Alan Jones. (Report of Investigation into matters relating to the control of the 2GB and 2CH licences, June 2002).The ABA found no breach of the Broadcasting Services Act on the part of the licensee of 2GB and 2CH or Alan Jones.
- The investigation into the commercial arrangements of John Laws and 2UE and specifically the sponsorship arrangements involving Telstra and NRMA. (See Investigation into Radio 2UE Sydney Pty Ltd - Sponsorship of Mr John Laws by Telstra Corporation Ltd and NRMA Insurance Ltd, November 2002). The ABA found that arising from the conduct of John Laws, the licensee of 2UE had breached the Commercial Radio Disclosure Standard along with a licence condition imposed on 2UE following the Commercial Radio Inquiry, plus provisions of the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice.
- The investigation into the commercial arrangements of Alan Jones and 2GB and specifically the sponsorship arrangements involving Telstra. (See Investigation relating to the sponsorship of the Alan Jones Program pursuant to an agreement between Telstra Corporation and Macquarie Radio Network Pty Ltd, April 2004). The ABA found that in relation to the conduct of Alan Jones, there was no breach by the licensee of 2GB of the Commercial Radio Standards, the Broadcasting Services Act, or the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice. The ABA did indicate that there could be some improvements made to the Codes of Practice and that it would pursue this matter with Commercial Radio Australia.
In response to the final report, the Communications Law Centre wrote to the ABA on 08.04.04 requesting that the ABA give further consideration to improving the Commercial Radio Standards and that this matter be subject to public comment. The Communications Law Centre commented:
"In our view, the fact that Alan Jones and 2GB did not breach any of these provisions does not mean that their conduct was suitable conduct for a highly influential presenter and the licensee of a commercial radio broadcasting service. Instead, it reveals that the regulatory framework governing sponsorship deals in commercial radio is incomplete.
... The latest report on Alan Jones has effectively documented a strategic means of by-passing regulation of commercial agreements ... In our view the ABA needs to regulate these matters by way of mandatory industry Standards."
For a copy of the CLC's letter of response to the Australian Broadcasting Authority in relation to the report on Alan Jones, 2GB and Telstra, see the Attached Publications list below.
Latest Instalment - Media Watch program 19 April 2004
In the program broadcast on 19 April, Media Watch reported on a draft version of the ABA report on Alan Jones and 2GB and the agreement with Telstra (See the Media Watch report). The draft version is substantially different from the final report.
The draft report demonstrates a different, more forceful regulatory approach. It contains additional points of evidence and its findings are strikingly different from those contained in the final report. In the draft report 2GB is found to have breached one of the Commercial Radio Standards as well as two sections of the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice. In the final report, the ABA finds no breach on the part of 2GB.
Media Watch provided a copy of the leaked report to the Communications Law Centre for comment. We concluded:
...the intention to vigorously uphold the spirit of the Commercial Radio Standards, the Broadcasting Services Act, and the Codes of Practice was tempered - indeed, it was abandoned - by the time of the final report. In December 2003 the ABA had produced a strong public interest finding in the John Laws case - the Authority found that Laws' conduct had led to breaches by 2UE of the Commercial Radio Disclosure Standard, the 2UE licence condition governing disclosures, and the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice. This spirit of enforcement seems to have evaporated by the time of the Jones report in April.
...It is a reasonable conclusion that in the case of Alan Jones and Macquarie Radio Network the Australian Broadcasting Authority was overly timid in its approach to compliance and enforcement of the existing regulations. Furthermore, the Authority's narrow focus served as an obstacle in its consideration of new provisions that would protect the public interest.
For a copy of the CLC analysis of the differences between the two reports, see the Attached Publications list below.
The Australian Press Council acts as an industry self-regulatory body, made up and funded by its members who are print media organisations (newspapers and magazines).
It has two aims which reflect its dual role as a regulatory agency and a peak body for its members: to help preserve the traditional freedom of the press within Australia and to ensure that the free press acts responsibly and ethically.
The APC has established a Statement of Principles which sets out guidelines for news reporting and complaints.
Examples of some of matters covered by the Statement of Principles are:
- Readers of publications are entitled to have news and comment presented to them honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals.
- However, the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest.
- Rumour and unconfirmed reports, if published at all, should be identified as such.
Press Council Adjudications are published and available online through Austlii.
AJA Code of Ethics
The Australian Journalists Association (AJA) is a division of the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA). The Code of Ethics applies to all AJA members.
The introduction outlines the Code's philosophy:
"Respect for truth and the public's right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities."
An example of matters covered by the Code is:
"Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply."
The Code also provides a complaints system.
Other Legal Actions
Some further limitations are placed on conduct in newsgathering. These may be imposed by either the common law or by statute.
These include privacy (although there is no general right to privacy), the law of trespass, nuisance, surveillance, confidential information, and consumer protection and fair trading.
Journalists in general: Australian Journalism Association (AJA) Code of Ethics
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)/AJA Code of Ethics
Federation of Radio Broadcasters of Australia Code of Practice
Print Media: Australian Press Council Statement of Principles
Attorney-General's Privacy and the Media factsheet
Caslon Analytics: Media and Privacy
Caslon Analytics: Survey of Australian Privacy Laws
Journalism, privacy and the High Court
Covert Surveillance in the Public Interest (interim) Report (2001)
Australian Press Council Privacy Standards
Media Ethics Review: Final Report 1996
Stephen Stockwell: the All-Media guide to Fair and Cross-Cultural Reporting
Article 19 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Freedom and Expression) in Australia
Resources for Australian journalists
The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism
Journalism Ethics and Confidential Sources
Australian news resources
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Sally Begbie: Professionalising Journalism
Journalism Ethics and Confidential Resources
Australian Press Council: Freedom of the Press 1989-1999