I suppose congratulations are in order for Southern Cross Broadcasting, the soon-to-be-former owners of 2UE, after it escaped a pasting by the Australian Communications and Media Authority for John Laws’ breaches of broadcasting standards yet again. Despite the egregious nature of the breaches, the company has also escaped criticism in the media this week with very little in the way of public comment following the ACMA ruling.
ACMA handed out a mealy mouthed rebuke late on Tuesday after finding that John Laws had failed to disclose his commercial arrangement with Telstra during a three hour broadcast in August last year in which he mentioned the telco 20 times. To its credit, 2UE dobbed itself in three days after the broadcast, sparking the ACMA inquiry that finally culminated this week. However by doing so, 2UE also exposed the fact that it had failed to tell ACMA about the sponsorship arrangement in the first place.
Under the commercial radio disclosure standards, 2UE was meant to write to ACMA to reveal the Telstra deal within 14 days of it happening. Instead, it cobbled together a statement for ACMA 11 months after the deal, and only because ACMA demanded one. ACMA was not impressed that 2UE had posted a few details of the deal on its website.
ACMA could have used this week’s finding as an opportunity to punish 2UE for failing to learn the lessons of the cash for comment scandal in 1999, when 2UE systemically abused the public’s trust by spruiking banks and phone companies with which it had secret sponsorship deals. But ACMA appears to have been seduced by 2UE’s hand-on-heart assertions that it will do better. Instead it has agreed to an “enforceable undertaking” requiring the station to improve its on-air monitoring.
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ACMA’s investigation has revealed the level of frustration within Southern Cross about John Laws’ failure to comply with the disclosure rules, as a letter from Managing Director Tony Bell to ACMA soon after the breach indicates.
“We are very disappointed at the current failure. Over a long period now we have emphasised the importance of compliance among our staff, particularly presenters and particularly with Mr Laws.”
The investigation also reveals that the entire production team on the John Laws program was read the riot act by management after the breach, as was John Laws himself. Lawsy had to sit through a phone hook-up in Hong Kong while the 2UE General Manager, Simon Ruhfus and the Director of Corporate Affairs, David Olding faxed him copies of his own statements and read through them until he agreed that yes, they were in fact in breach of the rules.
Both Laws and his production team put the breaches down to an “oversight.” However it is a little hard to swallow that the producers and Laws himself could miss twenty references to a sponsor without thinking to include a single disclosure. Anyway what do Lawsy and Southern Cross care? The golden tonsils is retiring in a couple of months and Southern Cross has just off loaded 2UE to Fairfax.