It has taken 18 months, and one of those involved was sacked long ago, but today we finally get the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s pronouncement on the conduct of channels Seven and Ten last year, when they broadcast selective footage of a Muslim man apparently making an unprovoked attack on a television cameraman.

Viewers of Media Watch might remember the incident, broadcast on April 1 last year. Channel Nine cameraman Simon Fuller, who was later sacked, pursued a young man, accused of rioting, and his father down the footpath outside court despite being asked many times to leave them alone. During the altercation, Fuller referred to the father as “you f-cking terrorist”, — and that provoked the conflict seen on channels Seven and Ten news — but not, it should be said, on Channel Nine.

The problem is that  Seven and Ten broadcast only the final stages of the altercation, and none of the context.

Today, ACMA has found that that this amounted to a breach of the Commercial Television Code of Practice requirements that material be presented accurately and fairly.

The ACMA finding is the result of complaints lodged by the Human Rights Commission. Says ACMA:

“It is apparent from the unedited footage that, in fact, [the father] did not suddenly lose his temper and the exchange did not commence at that point but was preceded by a relatively extended exchange during which [the father]  repeatedly and politely requested the third party to stop filming.  Despite [the father’s] requests, the third party followed [the father]  and his son across the road and along the opposite footpath, all the while apparently filming.  It is reasonable to infer from this that the licensee had access to the footage of this extended exchange but chose not to show it during the broadcast under consideration.

“The selective editing of material can change the meaning which is conveyed by the content and the conclusions that an ordinary reasonable viewer may draw from it.”

ACMA rejected allegations that the channels had breached sections of the code relating to negatively portraying people on the basis of their religion and ethnicity. Neither channel made any reference to religion or race in the broadcast.

And the result? Channels Seven and Ten have written to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and posted online statements on their websites acknowledging the findings. (Or so ACMA says. I couldn’t find these statements when I looked this morning.)

A couple of things arise from this. And both, I think are relevant to the present debate about media regulation.

First, this finding has taken nearly 18 months from the time of the broadcast and the complaint. ACMA is hobbled by the niceties of administrative law. In this case, ACMA tells me, there were delays caused by the need to consult not only the channels and the complainant, but also the other people affected.

But there is no doubt that justice delayed can be justice denied.

Second, Channel Nine, which was arguably the worst offender in this imbroglio, is not even named in the reports, with cameraman Simon Fuller being referred to merely as “x”. Why not? Because Channel Nine did not broadcast the offending material, and therefore its conduct does not fall within the ambit of ACMA, which can deal only with what was put to air.

The new media inquiry has among its terms of reference the effectiveness of present media codes. Proposals likely to be considered by the inquiry include the suggestion by the Australian Press Council that it or a similar non-legalistic entity be given remit over all media, including broadcast. And if Channel Nine was a newspaper, it would certainly have been open to the Press Council to make some findings on the conduct of Fuller.

There is plenty of dust still to be shaken out of the Press Council curtains, but it is reasonable to suppose that it might also have managed to deliver a finding in a shorter time than 18 months.

Meanwhile: ACMA chairman Chris Chapman has already highlighted in his recent Broken Concepts research paper the need for reform of statutory powers. As it is, the ABC’s Media Watch treatment of this incident probably had more real world impact than the regulator.

Peter Fray

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