A mere 13 years after the riveting cash-for-comment exposés on Media Watch, the government authority that regulates our electronic media has finally managed to close a key loophole in the Broadcasting Services Act. From midnight on May 1, a new set of ACMA standards will require the on-air disclosure not just of “presenter agreements” (i.e. direct payola to shock jocks), but also of “licensee agreements” (where a presenter has a financial interest in the company for which they are broadcasting, and where that company has a commercial agreement with a sponsor).

It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Just think of the new standard as the Parrot Protocol: a provision aimed squarely at the Sydney-based bunyip blowhard Alan Jones. During the Australian Broadcasting Authority inquiry into cash-for-comment Jones — with sanctimonious hand on heart — protested that he, personally, hadn’t taken a cent to spout opinions on his radio program. It was his station that had struck those deals, squawked The Parrot.

(Curiously, during that same inquiry, the management of 2UE — under pressure to distance themselves from the parallel bastardries of John Laws — ran precisely the opposite defence. They told the ABA hearings that their station was only the “facilitator” of its own broadcasts and, as such, was clearly above — and even ignorant of — the undisclosed corruptions of their on-air stars. Commercial talk radio is truly the great ethical wasteland of the Australian media.)

There can be little doubt that the new “licensee agreement” standard is a legislative attempt to catch up with the Jones fiddle. Here’s how it worked. Along with his huge salary at 2GB, Jones has a significant ownership stake in the company itself (Macquarie Radio Network), and takes a slice of profits via a deal linked to his shareholding. A hefty proportion of those profits comes from cash-for-comment deals, which, scandalously, are still quite legal.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that the most lucrative of those little arrangements tend to find their expression on the Alan Jones breakfast program. Exploiting the current loophole, The Parrot hasn’t been required to disclose that payola because — at least on paper — it’s the station that receives the cash-for-comment, not him.

In his rather circumspect statement announcing the new standards, ACMA chairman Chris Chapman didn’t name Jones but took the opportunity to gently remind the industry as a whole that he had the authority to toughen up the rules.

“This reform package strengthens protections for listeners,” he said, and “reflects the ACMA’s recent decision to continue regulating both commercial influence in current affairs programs and advertising on commercial radio”.

The new rules close two other significant loopholes in the act. They refine the Advertising Standard by making it clear that advertising must be distinguishable from other program material “at the time of broadcast, rather than later in a segment or program generally”. This is an attempt to stop broadcasters burying their mandatory disclosure announcements in a jumble of other babble as far away as possible in time from the cash-for-comment material.

The definition of “consideration” has also been broadened to include “other beneficial and indirect benefits to better capture instances of paid advertising and commercial influence”. In other words, if you buy a shock jock’s opinion for a crate of Grange, tickets toWimbledon or a night with Jennifer Lopez, you have to say so.

Will it work? Unlikely. The hucksters, spivs and lurk merchants who’ve run commercial radio in Australia for the past 80 years have made their money by treating governments and their audiences with equal contempt. It will take them no more than a quick conference call and chat with their lawyers to find a way of keeping the old under-the-table wheels nicely greased.

For them, regulation is just a tiresome set of low hurdles they can jump (or crawl under) without their listeners ever knowing.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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