Australia's top media authority has been criticised for failing to investigate complaints made against Sky News over COVID-19 misinformation. Anthony Klan reports.
AUSTRALIA’S MEDIA REGULATOR has not published its “quarterly” reports on complaints and investigations for almost a year and in October last year stopped publishing the figures in its annual report altogether.
The Klaxon can also exclusively reveal that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has reviewed just one of the 23 complaints that it has received over Sky News Australia’s COVID-19 coverage over the past 18-plus months.
Two weeks ago, on 28 July, U.S. internet giant YouTube issued Sky News with a seven-day ban for spreading COVID-19 disinformation.
Fox News has been widely criticised for spreading disinformation around climate change, COVID-19 and other issues.
The ban has prompted Australia’s ongoing Senate Inquiry into media diversity to call Sky News, YouTube and ACMA to give evidence, with appearances scheduled for this Friday.
Users of YouTube are permanently banned from uploading content to the site if they breach the platform’s content rules three times in a 90-day period.
Media regulator ACMA publishes on its website ‘quarterly reports on the complaints we have assessed and the investigations we have undertaken’.
However, The Klaxon can reveal that ACMA has not published any of the reports since the period of 30 September last year.
The most recent “quarterly” report the regulator has published is for ‘July to September 2020’.
The Klaxon put this to ACMA in writing on Tuesday last week.
We didn’t receive an answer.
We wrote again on Wednesday and then again on Thursday, and called and spoke with the regulator twice.
On Friday, ACMA came back with a response:
‘The October-December 2020 and January-March 2021 reports for actions on content complaints and investigations are scheduled for publication on Monday 8 August.’
ACMA did not say why it would not also be publishing the figures for the March-June quarter (despite 30 June being more than five weeks ago and the documents relating only to what happened up to 30 June), or why it would now be releasing two data sets at once.
The regulator did not respond when asked why its quarterly ‘Action on content complaints and investigations’ reports hadn’t been made public since the period for the three months to September 30 last year — which is almost a year ago.
The Klaxon can further reveal that ACMA has stopped publishing its ‘broadcasting investigation outcomes’ in its annual reports.
On 23 October, in ACMA’s most recent annual report, ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin writes:
‘We have removed previously published appendixes on our programs and content and broadcasting investigation outcomes. This information remains available at acma.gov.au.’
ACMA had previously published this information, in collated format each year.
In the annual report, O’Loughlin writes that ACMA had ‘removed previously published appendixes’ to ‘ensure it continued to meet legislated requirements’, ‘publication principles’ and ‘minimised duplication with information presented on our website’.
The Klaxon can also reveal that, since the start of 2020, just one of the 23 complaints that ACMA has received about Sky News Australia’s coverage of COVID-19 has been reviewed by the regulator.
That’s because, under a so-called “co-regulatory system”, every one of the viewers who has made a complaint has been instead directed to Sky News — the entity alleged to have engaged in the wrongdoing.
ACMA says that whenever it receives a complaint, the person making the complaint is directed to the company they are complaining about.
Only if the viewer, having already written to ACMA, also writes to the broadcasting company that they allege has engaged in wrongdoing – and that viewer again writes back to ACMA – will ACMA “review” the complaint and decide whether it will investigate.
Broadcasters have 60 days to respond to complainants.
That means that if a viewer sees something they are concerned about on a television or radio program, in order to have their concern even considered to be investigated by ACMA, the person has to write to the alleged perpetrator, wait up to 60 days and then write to ACMA a second time.
At this point, ACMA will, for the first time, “review” the complaint.
Last year, up to 30 September, 130 complaints made it to the point of actually being “reviewed” by ACMA.
Of those 130 surviving complaints, ACMA decided to investigate 23 and “declined” to investigate 107.
That means that even after a complainant writes to ACMA, writes to the alleged wrongdoing broadcaster, waits up to 60 days and writes again to ACMA, there was only an 18% chance it would be investigated by the regulator.
No records are published regarding how many complaints proceed to contact allegedly non-compliant broadcasters, what responses complainants are provided with, or whether responses are provided at all.
That ACMA had received 23 complaints regarding the Sky News COVID-19 coverage was only disclosed by ACMA after YouTube implemented the Sky News ban.
The ban started on Thursday 29 July, but only became public knowledge three days later, on Sunday 1 August when it was reported by media.
ACMA disclosed the Sky News COVID-19 complaints information in response to media inquires.
The regulator has long faced criticism for failing to ensure media standards such as ‘accuracy and impartiality in news and current affairs’ are enforced or abided by and has been accused of failing to “regulatory capture”.
Regulatory capture is where regulatory agencies come to be dominated by the industries they are responsible for regulating.
Since news of YouTube’s Sky News ban emerged, ACMA has come under further pressure, with many experts asking why it apparently fell to a foreign internet company to pull Sky News up on spreading COVID-19 disinformation in Australia.
After the Sky News ban became public knowledge, ACMA provided a statement to media (including, on Monday 2 August, The Klaxon).
ACMA said that under ‘Australia’s legislated co-regulatory scheme for commercial broadcasting’, licensees are required to ‘have mechanisms in place’ to comply with industry codes of practice ‘covering matters such as accuracy and impartiality in news and current affairs’.
The statement says:
‘Since the beginning of 2020, the ACMA has received 23 complaints about Sky’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, the ACMA received seven complaints relating to a broadcast on 12 July 2021 of a segment on the Alan Jones program featuring Mr Jones and Craig Kelly MP.
The complainants were referred to Sky in the first instance and the ACMA will consider the matter and take the broadcaster’s actions to correct and remove the segment into account if any of the complainants refer their complaint back to the ACMA.’
Last week, after four days of requests for further information, ACMA told The Klaxon that it had investigated one of the 23 Sky News COVID-19 complaints.
The remaining 22 did not come back to ACMA after lodging complaints with ACMA and being directed to Sky News.
No information is published regarding how many complainants go on to contact the broadcaster after lodging a complaint with ACMA, what responses those complainants received, or whether they even receive responses.
All of the Sky News COVID-19 complaints were redirected to Sky News, which is required to respond to the complainants themselves (and not ACMA) within 60 days.
ACMA received seven complaints relating to the 12 July 2021 Alan Jones program broadcast featuring Jones and MP Craig Kelly.
Should those viewers pursue the matter with Sky News, the broadcaster has 60 days to respond, meaning that Sky News has until mid-September at the earliest.
That timeframe will most likely be longer after accounting for the time between the program being aired and a viewer lodging a complaint with ACMA, ACMA responding to the complainant and Sky News receiving the complaint from the viewer, if one occurs.
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