The silly season has come early in the world of media regulation. On its own website, the Australian Communications and Media Authority trumpets the news that Harbour Radio Pty Ltd, licensee of Sydney radio station 2GB, has “agreed to overhaul its processes to ensure reasonable efforts are made to verify facts and present significant viewpoints in its current affairs programs”.

Not “compelled” or “required” mind you, just “agreed to”. This breakthrough — in effect an admission by the top-rating talk radio station in Sydney that it doesn’t make reasonable efforts to verify facts or present balancing viewpoints — comes in response to seven recent complaints lodged with ACMA about its main money-spinner, breakfast host Alan Jones. (The complaints were about how Jones had wildly understated the human contribution to climate change, had been unfairly critical of the Department of Environment and had made comments about various political figures that incited and advocated violence against them).

2GB, like all commercial radio stations, is run by cowboys who will do or say anything to keep the cash rolling in. The gist of their response to the Jones findings is to assure ACMA his program’s executive producer will now do some pre-broadcast “fact-checking”, and that Jones himself will undergo training on matters of “factual accuracy” and the presentation of “significant viewpoints”.

Any industry veteran will recognise this for the token window-dressing it is (“tell those dickheads anything they want to hear, just get back to selling air time”), but Miranda Devine saw a Stalinist plot against Jones and freedom of speech. In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph she railed against “a ruling” by ACMA which might “impinge on its editorial independence”.

Devine could do with a fact-checker of her own. ACMA has made no such “ruling”. That’s not how they operate. Remember its authority in these matters is largely restricted to requiring compliance with the industry’s own feeble standards, the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice. No doubt earnest and well-meaning ACMA officers toiled for countless hours helping to frame the “measures” 2GB now says it will adopt but, like all systems of self-regulation, it will achieve very little.

Most of the Jones program is off-the-cuff or improvised around dot points and speaking notes. There are few scripted pieces that a fact-checking system could moderate. And if a talkback caller asserts something as fact, and Jones agrees with them, there are just seven seconds in which to “check” that statement. Impossible.

A parallel nonsense is that ACMA has apparently accepted a proposal from 2GB that, in the event that Jones presents an opinionated and unbalanced viewpoint, then the station can discharge its obligations under the code by getting another 2GB show to present an “alternative” viewpoint. In other words, Jones can spew out his bile to 170,000 listeners about anyone he dislikes, or utterly misrepresent an issue, as long as the poor jock broadcasting the midnight-to-dawn shift to 120 insomniacs manages to squeeze in some “alternative” words. That’s balance, ACMA/2GB style.

Equally nonsensical is the proposal that Jones will now have to accept some training in the basics of journalism. He’s an opinion-monger, not a member of the fourth estate. Indeed, during the “cash for comment” inquiry by ACMA’s forebears, Jones ran a specific defence that he isn’t a journalist and therefore could not be expected to abide by the ethics of journalism. And that argument is damn difficult to dislodge within the legislative framework of the Australian media where many program genres are so poorly defined.

In any case, even our peak media regulator thinks the Jones audience isn’t easily fooled. In its investigation report on a recent complaint against Jones, it stated: “ACMA considers that on the basis of the demographic data provided by the licensee, regular listeners of The Alan Jones Breakfast Show are mature adults who would be likely to understand and be familiar with the controversial and aggressive style of the presenter”. So that’s all right then.

And what will come of all this? Nothing. Jones will keep on peddling whatever prejudices they think will boost their ratings. Media Watch, in turn, will keep picking them up on their errors and excesses, giving Aunty’s viewers a smug sense of righteousness. There’s no significant net effect because the crossover audience between Jones on 2GB and Media Watch on the ABC is miniscule. Each will keep believing in their own versions of the world.

Phillip Adams summed up this sad situation very well in his column for Saturday’s Weekend Australian Magazine. Writing in the form of a lecture to would-be shock jocks, Adams tells them:

“Any criticism against us can be turned into martyrdom, so the more we are insulted over our insults the better. The broadcasting authorities are impotent. The sponsors who boycott us will come crawling back. And the sad and sorry dills who listen and believe that we give a stuff about them will cheer us to the rafters.”

Peter Fray

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