Alan Jones has been found to have encouraged violence and racism in his broadcasting around the time of the 2005 Cronulla riots. No one should be surprised. The broadcasts were so outrageous that it would have been nothing short of a major scandal had the Australian Communications and Media Authority failed to find against him, as it did in this report released yesterday.

So does this mean that the system of media regulation is working? Far from it. In fact, the ACMA report simply confirms that regulation of broadcast media content is teetering on the edge of irrelevance and farce. The four complaints that triggered the investigation were made between mid-January and mid-March 2006. The Jones broadcasts were a gross example of abuse of media power. They probably did incite violence. It is hard to imagine a case where it was more important for the regulator to take prompt and firm action — to lay down the line on what is and what is not acceptable in the interests of free speech.

Yet it has taken over a year for ACMA to deliver this report, and even now we don’t know what the consequences, if any, are likely to be for 2GB. ACMA plans to write to 2GB about “significantly heightened compliance measures”, the details of which will be announced when they are “finalised”. Very reassuring. Not.

Anyone who follows media matters knows that ACMA has been busy lately, particularly with the preparation for the proclamation of the new media ownership laws. Even so, a time lag of more than a year in making findings and taking action in such a grave and extreme case is hardly consistent with a tough and fair system of regulation.

There are more problems. Read the report, and it is clear that the biggest surprise in this case is not that findings were made against Jones but that ACMA found that the majority of his broadcasts on the Cronulla matter were not racial vilification or incitement to violence. The broadcasts ACMA thought were acceptable included references to “Middle Eastern grubs” and other choice remarks.

Read the report for ACMA’s reasoning, amidst a forest of legalistic and dictionary definitions on what amounts to vilification and what constitutes an “ethnic group”. It’s hardly high level moral reasoning, and it certainly isn’t tough.

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that ACMA leant over backwards to make a minimum number of adverse findings. Of course, any media regulator should be hesitant to restrict freedom of speech — but the ACMA system of industry co-regulation is in any case hardly draconian. We saw that in the Cash for Comment affair, in which findings of what amounted to corruption had precious little impact on either the individuals or the radio stations involved.

The truth is the system of broadcast content regulation doesn’t really work as a check on media power. Cases such as that of Alan Jones and the Cronulla riots remind us of why that matters.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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