The Senate Committee inquiry report into broadcasting standards, triggered by Gordon Ramsay’s swearing, gave 20 recommendations — or one for every five submissions.

Predictably, the Canberra press gallery focused on proposals for some blocks on digital TV to give parents more control over what their children might watch. Predictably because it was the soft recommendation: the one with the ‘sex’ appeal I suppose, but totally impractical given that around 40% of the market now has some sort of digital TV and or tuner device, and these would be very hard to retrofit.

The reports missed the one set of genuine changes that would make complaints far easier to make; it would also make the lives of the TV (and radio) networks far more onerous, but allow for much of the current frustration with the complaints process to be alleviated. But you can bet on the commercial TV networks (and radio) lobbying the Government hard to prevent this change from happening.

Of approximately 100 submissions, many were from religious and standards-based groups from the conservative side of politics and society, including this lulu from the Catholic Church:

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference provides a solution to the confusion surrounding appropriate complaints body: We recommend that government have a greater and easier process for feedback from the Australian public. We recommend a national hotline number be established for people to call and leave a verbal report on any audiovisual material about which they wish to complain or commend.

So does that mean we now have to be ‘alert and alarmed’ at what we see on TV?

Potentially the most important recommendations could force the TV and radio Networks to take complaints from viewers and listeners far more seriously: a more formal and more transparent process would have to be established and it would also place pressure on the sluggish media regulator, ACMA, to bring difficult complaints to a speedier conclusion.

The Committee’s most interest recommendations echo a submission from Sydney University of Technology Law professor, Lesley Hitchens. The main recommendations for improving the handling of complaints are:

The Committee recommends that all free-to-air commercial television stations should maintain a log of all telephone complaints received, including a short summary of the complaint, and provide that log to Free TV Australia and ACMA.

All broadcasters should amend their codes of practice and website capabilities to allow viewers to make complaints about the code by email or electronically. Email and electronic complaints about code-related issues should receive the same response as a written complaint.

Similarly worded complaints received by email, electronically or in writing may receive a standard written response from the broadcaster following notification to, and approval by, ACMA.

Codes of practice should contain a formal undertaking by broadcasters that they will direct complainants as appropriate. Industry bodies and ACMA should ensure that their staff are aware of how to re-direct complaints received in error and inform complainants where this occurs.

The Committee recommends that, by the time of the next triennial review of free-to-air television codes of practice, broadcasters should seek to respond to all complaints received within 15 working days.

Each broadcaster should have a nominated complaints officer within the organisation whose sole role it is to respond to complaints. The officer should be separate from the program production and scheduling sections and from the area responsible for classifying or rating programs. Officers should receive relevant training in the appropriate code of conduct and complaint management.

The contact details of the complaints officer should be published on the website of the broadcaster, industry body and ACMA. Broadcasters should ensure that responses to complaints are comprehensive, deal with the substantive issue and are courteous in tone.

If these were forced on the commercial networks (the ABC and SBS already have formal complaints handling processes), life would never be the same. There might be quite a few niggling complaints from religious and morality nutters, but the networks would get feedback that was quick, timely and fairly honest. And that would be a good thing.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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