Margaret Simons yesterday highlighted the ACMA findings bagging the Nine, Ten and Seven TV news in Melbourne over claims of a Sudanese attack in October 2007, during the election campaign.

She quite rightly highlighted the rather limp punishments handed out by the regulator to the newsrooms and their reporting and producing staffs.

What was missed was the role of Media Watch in its October 8, 2007 edition, which exposed the basic mistake in the reports: that the attacks were made by whites, not Sudanese.

This is how Media Watch summed up its examination of the reports:

It’s a classic case of the commercial networks long-held obsession with so-called ethnic gangs, fitting perfectly with the political interests of those supporting the freeze on African migrants.

When they added dishonesty to that mix, the commercial networks did a serious disservice to African migrants as a whole.

This is what ACMA said:

The breaches occurred in segments of Ten News at Five, National Nine News, and Channel Seven News broadcast throughout Victoria on  October 3, 2007, about incidents concerning Sudanese refugees in Melbourne’s south-east. The segments included closed-circuit television footage of a person being arrested who was not Sudanese.

In each case, the ACMA found that the licensee’s verbal commentary, the footage broadcast and the omission of clarifying information on such an important element of the news story meant that the CCTV footage of violence attributed to Sudanese gangs was not presented accurately as viewers would have inferred they were being shown visual evidence of Sudanese gang activity.

Media Watch was right, the networks were wrong. In fact their reports were inaccurate.

In fact Media Watch report was objected to by the managements of the three newsrooms, especially Seven. They have shown no judgement whatsoever in their reaction to the Media Watch report.

If they had taken Media Watch seriously and corrected their plainly wrong reports, then ACMA would not have been able to move against them. If they had also handled the complaints about the report in an adequate and timely fashion, then the complaint wouldn’t have been made to ACMA. (It was made in late December the same year after the complainant was unhappy with the response from Seven, Nine and Ten).

That such a serious finding was made against Ten and Nine, and a lesser one against Seven, over the same story, means the three network newsrooms in Melbourne, or rather their managements, were pretty contemptuous of the complaints, or thought they could bluff them out.

It again underlines the woefully inadequate way of handling complaints in the TV Code of Practice, which will not change if Free TV Australia, the industry body (and dominated by Nine, Seven and Ten), have their way on the current redrafting of the code. Free TV still wants to make it hard for people to use modern communications methods to complain.

No email complaints, they will have to be written; it is all about making it as hard as possible for viewers to complain and then making it tougher to pursue them. ACMA should force all the networks to bring in a complaints system that  is modern and up to the standard ACMA insists people use when communicating with it, including the networks. That is email is preferred with attachments, but if people can’t use it, snail mail is OK and will receive the same treatment.

ACMA should toughen the proposed code of practice by introducing a series of enforceable undertakings for all TV networks, including Foxtel and Austar. One of those undertakings should allow ACMA to shutdown a TV news or pay-TV channel for a period of time as the ultimate punishment.

Going to black and losing advertising revenues and viewers would make everyone take the code seriously, and give ACMA some real teeth in regulating it.

Peter Fray

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