The shock jock antics of The Fairfax Media-controlled Macquarie Radio and its stations 2GB and 3AW in Melbourne, and the attempt to turn 2UE into an advertising-heavy operation, have forced ACMA, the media regulator, to significantly tighten the radio industry’s code of practice to give it better control over news and current affairs content and advertising.

ACMA issued the new four-year code of practice for commercial radio last week for comment. It was struck after bitter fighting between the commercial radio industry and regulator over these provisions and ACMA’s attempts to toughen them to control the likes of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

In the end, ACMA has forced the commercial radio industry to accept a significantly tightened definition of “news and current affairs”, designed to choke off the growth of so-called “lifestyle radio content” (i.e. ads masquerading as news) and to make sure the shock jocks’ listeners can determine what is fact and what is opinion.

Both moves are in response to the policies and strategies of Macquarie Radio, 54% owned by Fairfax Media. In the case of the changes to the news and current affairs rules, it has been the Alan Jones/Ray Hadley-esque mixing of opinion and fact — and passing the former off as the latter — that has forced ACMA to take on the commercial radio industry on this issue, as well as last year’s attempts by Macquarie to introduce more “lifestyle” content into some time slots on 2UE.

ACMA’s moves were not readily apparent or highlighted in last week’s release by the regulator of the new code of practice for the commercial radio sector against the 2013 code of practice. None of the few media reports looked back to the 2013 code to see if there had been any changes. There has and they are significant, none more so than the changes to the definition of news and current affairs.

The 2017 code says: “In broadcasting News programs, A licensee must use reasonable efforts to 3.1.1 ‘present news accurately and impartially”. That is a significant change because the 2013 code did not use the word “impartially”. The 2013 code merely said a licensee must “present news accurately.” And, so far as current affairs programs are concerned, the new code says current affairs must show that “factual material is clearly distinguishable from commentary and analysis”, which is not found anywhere in the 2013 code.

The new code will be out for public comment for six months and radio insiders are watching to see the reaction from Macquarie Radio, Jones, Hadley Russell Tate and others. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jones and Hadley try to criticise ACMA and its strengthening of the code via a “free speech” argument of the sort pushed with little success on 18C by The Australian and News Corp papers. — Glenn Dyer

Peter Fray

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