Alan Jones did not breach the radio industry’s code of conduct or his broadcaster’s licence conditions when he said five times that Julia Gillard should be “put in a chaff bag” and dumped at sea, the broadcasting regulator has found. But it does say Jones made no effort to check his claims about the human carbon contribution to the atmosphere, and his broadcaster, 2GB, must improve its processes for fact-checking or face a licence condition.

ACMA this morning announced that it had found that Jones’ “chaff bag” comments in June and July 2011, also directed at Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore and then-Greens leader Bob Brown, did not incite violence or hatred based on age, gender, race or other characteristics.

“It was clear that the comments were not genuine invitations to violent behaviour but were figures of speech intended to cursorily dismiss the political policies of the Prime Minister … Whilst disparaging and disrespectful, they were not strong, intense or inflammatory enough to be capable of being construed as urging violence or brutality.”

ACMA also found that the Prime Minister’s gender (or that of other figures attacked by Jones, such as Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young) had not formed the basis for Jones’ abuse, merely their policies. ACMA did, however, find that 2GB had (by its own admission) failed to satisfy complaints-handling requirements with its cursory treatment of complaints about Jones’ comments.

But in a decision with broader ramifications for the industry, ACMA found that Jones had failed to meet the radio industry code of practice requirements that broadcasters undertake “reasonable efforts” to ensure that factual material was “supportable as being accurate” in a current affairs program. In comments that were later savaged by Jonathan Holmes on Media Watch, Jones said on air in March 2011, during one of his many rants about carbon pricing, that “human beings produce 0.001% of the carbon dioxide in the air”. The correct figure is 3%.

Embarrassingly for Jones, a climate denialist who insists climate change is “witchcraft” unsupported by science, ACMA’s investigation states that 2GB admitted that Jones himself had devised the figure and not bothered having it checked:

“The licensee submitted to the ACMA that it discharges the ‘reasonable efforts’ obligation by providing production resources and researchers and writers to its presenters in the preparation of programming content. However, the licensee advised that no research was conducted by staff and that Mr Jones researched the figures himself. The ACMA sought additional clarification and supporting documentation in relation to the type of research conducted by Mr Jones, and the outcome of his research; however, the licensee did not respond to this query.”

As a result, ACMA found that reasonable efforts had not been made as required under the code of practice. 2GB must now report back on how it will improve its compliance with the “reasonable efforts” requirement.

Separately, ACMA found that the code of practice requirement for current affairs programs that “reasonable efforts” are made to present “significant viewpoints” when dealing with controversial issues had not been breached, on the basis that while there was no effort made to provide alternative viewpoints on Jones’ program, opportunities were given or offered for the airing of other views on other 2GB programs, and specifically the Chris Smith afternoons program — i.e. 2GB had met the “significant requirements” viewpoint across the schedule, if not in Jones’ program.

The outcome is likely to see further criticism of ACMA’s complaints-handling process given the length of time taken to resolve the complaints about Jones, although much of the delay was the result of foot-dragging by 2GB, which was still submitting material as late as April, almost a year after some of the broadcasts.

The regulator is also likely to come under fire for failing to impose a licence condition on the broadcaster as a result of the “reasonable efforts” breach, but ACMA’s view is that there is no evidence of a systemic problem at the broadcaster. This partly reflects the fact that the “reasonable efforts” requirement is relatively new, having only been introduced in 2010 when the industry’s code of practice was overhauled.

As for Alan Jones’ prime ministerial chaff bag, ACMA is again likely to wear the opprobrium of people who see its job as policing the airwaves for offensiveness alone, rather than the altogether more serious issue of incitement to violence or hatred.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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