Media Regulatory Bodies, Codes and Laws

In Australia there are no uniform standards, codes of conduct and ethics operating to regulate all media, all of the time. Rather, a somewhat confusing array of professional codes and legal constraints exists, which at best can guide or constrain what some media say about Aboriginal people and other ethnic groups, some of the time.

First, the Australian Journalists Association (AJA) has a Code of Ethics, which contains the following relevant clause:

They [journalists] shall not place unnecessary emphasis on gender, race, sexual preference, religious belief, marital status or physical or mental disability.

The Code is binding on all journalists, and this includes broadcasters who are members of the AJA. Charges can be made against a journalist for breaching the code, who is then liable to be fined if found guilty by the AJA's Adjudication Committee. A limitation of the Code is, of course, that non-members of the AJA are not bound by it.

But as the RCIADC pointed out, problems lie in the interpretation of the words 'unnecessary emphasis'. The RCIADC found many examples where newspaper reports stressed the Aboriginality of alleged criminal offenders for no reason other than that the journalists or editor considered this to be relevant. However, their reports did not identify race when white people were pursued or arrested for similar crimes.33

Second, the Australian Press Council (APC) has Principles. The APC is a voluntary body, mainly consisting of press representatives, which adjudicates on complaints against newspapers. It is the only regulatory body for the press, and as many studies have shown, has a very poor record of upholding complaints over racial discrimination.34 The APC Principles include the following:

The publication of material disparaging or belittling individuals or groups by reference to their sex, race, nationality, colour, country of origin or intellectual or physical disabilities is a breach of ethical standards.

A newspaper should not, in headlines or otherwise, state the race, nationality or religious or political views of a person suspected of a crime, or arrested, charged or convicted, unless the fact is relevant.

Despite these admirable principles they have little effect in practice. For instance, The West Australian in early 1991 was able successfully to defend its infamous headline 'Aboriginal gangs terrorise suburbs' against a complaint to the APC by then WAAMA chairperson Rob Riley. The headline was found to be a 'fundamental untruth' by the RCIADC in its report in May 1991, but not to be a breach of ethical standards by the APC.35

The APC has no jurisdiction over broadcasting, but there are equivalent voluntary broadcasting bodies: the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters and the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations. These have no codes specific to discrimination. The development of such codes is obviously of burning necessity considering that the vast majority of complaints relating to race concern commercial broadcasters.

Both the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service have guidelines for non-discriminatory programming, with specific reference to the treatment of Aboriginal issues, but these welcome advances are binding only on their own organisations.

Some non-media laws may hold the prospect of allowing legal action against racist and discriminatory broadcasting, but these have never been tested. They include the WA Equal Opportunity Act, which has seen a number of successful prosecutions for discrimination in the provision of services and goods (taxis, hotels) to Aboriginal people. It remains to be seen whether a talk-back radio program can be deemed to be a service, and the broadcaster a service-provider for the purposes of this Act.

The WA Criminal Code includes provisions prohibiting 'incitement to racial hatred', added in 1990 in response to racist poster campaigns in Perth. While the provisions stop newspapers from publishing racist material, no mention is made of broadcasting.

The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal is the Federal government organisation responsible for the administration of commercial electronic media licensing matters, and the enforcement of standards of radio and television programs under the Broadcasting Act (1942). Unlike the press, which has no external regulatory authority over it, TV and radio programs are by law required to meet certain standards of style and content. Radio Program Standard 3 [RPS 3] deals directly with discriminatory and derogatory program material.

A licensee

may not transmit a program which:

is likely to incite or perpetuate hatred against;

or gratuitously vilifies;

any person or group on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, sexual preference, religion or physical or mental disability.36

'Gratuitously vilifies' is a legalistic term which means to malign or defame someone or a group without good reason or grounds. The ABT interprets 'vilifies' in the context of RPS 3 as 'to regard as worthless or of little value, to contemn [hold in contempt] or despise'. The 'intention of the broadcaster is irrelevant'. Persons or groups believing a broadcaster has broken this standard are able to complain to the ABT which will carry out a complaints investigation process, which may involve a public inquiry.

Nothing in the ABT guidelines states that only comments by the professional broadcaster are liable to complaint. In the case of The Sattler File the most overt racist utterances have come not from Sattler himself, but from callers to the program. However, the broadcaster and the licensee are still responsible for allowing such material to go to air, and are the culpable agents. Two examples of this follow.

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