Australia’s main media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, is heading into treacherous areas in its examination of the Kyle and Jackie O lie detector stunt, and an associated inquiry into live-hosted radio programs.

The inquiries are understandable: there are a lot of nosey parkers out there ready to call for ‘something to be done’ when they see or hear something they don’t agree with.

And, in ACMA and its chairman, Chris Chapman, there seems to be a regulator ready “to do something”.

Mr Chapman has been driving an early investigation of TV current affairs programs such as A Current Affair and Today Tonight and the way they and their managements and owners respond to viewer complaints.

Their response to complaints to date has been very poor and research that ACMA has been doing had been handed to Free TV Australia to consider in the coming inquiry into the TV code of practice, the key plank of self regulation governing the TV broadcast industry in this country.

As offensive as some of the reports are on current affairs programs, such as Today Tonight and A Current Affair (the two most singled out) and as odious as Kyle and Jackie O can be with their shock jock car crash radio stunts, they are a necessary part of free speech, which we consumers should police with the off button or by changing channels.

No one compels us to listen, no one insists that we allow ourselves to be insulted, nor do we have to hang around teasing ourselves into outrage by continuing to listen or watch.

But ACMA and the many people who complain should remember one thing: the audience, whether TV or radio, is not wrong for long. In the end if someone offends, they pay the price.

Does anyone remember Big Brother, reviled, rejected and watched by millions until last year? It’s no longer on TV, replaced by the more popular MasterChef Australia. Big Brother’s target audience grew up and the 16 to 24s who replaced it over the 8 years it was on air decided it wasn’t worth watching any more.

Likewise Gordon Ramsay is now reduced to a 9.30 pm or 10.30 pm end of night ratings filler by the Nine Network which did everyone a favour last year by running so many programs of Ramsay that we tired of him and his childish swearing, and he became tiresome and offensive.

A Senate inquiry last examined Ramsay’s and other swearing on TV on programs such as Underbelly, but as an issue it’s gone from the public’s mind.

In radio, it was a race between his audience and John Laws’ retirement to see who would depart first. Laws and age won, although he says he was forced off air by the likes of ACMA over the cash for comment scandals.

In all of these situations, the real issue isn’t with the program, or the talent or performers, it’s with the TV or radio networks and the way they exploit the notoriety of these programs for ratings success and advertising revenues.

Ten, Nine, Seven, Austero, 2UE in the case of Mr Laws, 2GB and Macquarie Radio (and John Singleton) in the case of that other cash for commentator, Alan Jones, are all culpable to some extent. They employee the people, buy and screen the programs and sell the advertising and claim the glory and the profits.

Nine has made money out of exploiting ACA, Underbelly and Ramsay, Ten out of Big Brother (and Californication), Seven out of Today Tonight.

ACMA’s two inquiries into Kyle and Jackie O will be held over the next few months and will finish well before the examination of the TV Code of Practice; the broader inquiry is promised to finish by December.

ACMA can’t ban them, but it can bring down what’s called a program standard where it’s satisfied that the existing code of practice to not provide “appropriate community safeguards.”

But what does that mean? Will the attitudes of a few self proclaimed guardians of community goodness determine the shape and content of a program that is listened to by over 600,000 mostly young people in Sydney each week?

The industry, especially 2DayFM management and owners, Austereo, are part of the problem. It has been inadequate management controls on Mr Sandilands and Ms O that allowed the situation to develop, driven by the desire to maximise revenue and profits, and no doubt the bonuses and other rewards for the broadcast duo, for management and to make sure shareholders (The Village Roadshow Group and the Kirby family) were happy.

Management is part of the problem, not part of the solution: in the cash for comment cases management was found to be woeful and inadequate and part of the problem. The lie detector stunt is no different. 2DayFM management should have simply ensured that it wasn’t aired or allowed to go to air.

ACMA working with the stations won’t change that situation. If ACMA finds that the management has done all that is necessary (and that now ‘standard’ is needed) how will anyone know that that is the right decision?

Peter Fray

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