When Chris Chapman became Chairman of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Australia had 5 Free to Air channels, Foxtel and Austar. There were no multichannels, no catch-up and no streaming.
Over the decade the regulator has seen 6 Prime Ministers, 5 Communications Ministers and 6 Department Secretaries. And as he prepares to stand down from being the longest-serving Agency Head within the Commonwealth’s 194 agencies Chapman is also immensely proud of the regulators achievements and its role in broadcasting.
That’s despite a common perception that the media watchdog takes too long to investigate complaints and is ‘powerless’ to hand out any serious punishment for breaches.
According to Chapman, a great deal has been achieved amid enormous sector change.
“After 10 years I am more convinced than ever about the integrity of the system,” he says.
“There are just under 7 million hours of television and radio broadcasting in Australia each year. We probably do about 150 broadcasting investigations.”
About one third of these result in breaches. But there was a time when investigations were sitting at over 200, with 40% resulting in breaches.
Similarly, the average time to investigate a complaint was once 4.6 months each.
“That 4.6 today sits at 1.8 months average. That is a stunning statistic. People who throw out that there that it takes forever and a day are out of touch with what’s been happening.
“You have to appreciate that we can only start the investigation when the complaint is enlivened. That might be months after the thing has gone to air.”
ACMA can only investigate a complaint once it has been addressed with the complainant by the broadcaster first. Some may also involve a broadcaster appealing a decision in the courts.
“The Royal Prank took 2 years but the ACMA was the one who was taken to court, and the ACMA was vindicated 6-0 in the High Court. So it’s a ludicrous thing to say we’re responsible for a matter taking 2 years.”
“There was a period where the networks were getting ahead of themselves a little.”
As he reflects on some of the more memorable investigations in TV, Chapman’s mind harks back to a colourful period in the late 2000s.
“There was a period where the networks were getting ahead of themselves a little. There was a series of Californication episodes, a few Adults Only movies on SBS and Underbelly –all coming over a two year period. So there was a pinch point there where it was all a bit ‘frothy,'” he recalls.
“The other one of significance was the breaching of the ABC on decency with the Chris Kenny matter. It was the first time the ABC had been breached under their Code for a broadcasting matter that wasn’t considered decent.”
Sam Newman also kept Nine and ACMA so busy that Nine CEO David Gyngell offered an ‘enforceable undertaking’ of $200,000 surety for a charity, if Newman were to fall foul of the Code of Practice in the next 2 years.
“That was creative because there are mid-tier power gaps that the ACMA wrestles with. Apart from coming up with a mutually agreed outcome we have taken to making recommendations to broadcasters in the event of a breach,” he continues.
“That was one where we negotiated an outcome I thought was a useful way of resolving.
“Mistakes get made but it is the way you respond to it and try to harden up your system.
“Sometimes these are very difficult, often-nuanced subjects. Decency, factual accuracy, impartiality, fairness. Just because the ACMA concludes there was a breach often that’s because we think that’s the better view. But like all things in life there is the potential view that it wasn’t in breach. So we’re not black and white, we’re not some omnipotent authority. These are nuanced subjects around which differences of opinion can reasonably occur.”
“I think it’s very healthy for the viewing or listening audience to know a matter has been breached”
Over the years Chapman has publicly noted the watchdog is legally unable to issue monetary fines to broadcasters. So is that a power he would like ACMA to have?
“I think I have consistently said for 10 years there is scope for 1 or 2 mid-tier powers, whether it be through an infringement notice approach, by giving us power to issue directions, or by giving us the power to order the publication of our breach findings,” he suggests.
“I’m particularly attracted to the latter. I think it’s very healthy for the viewing or listening audience to know a matter has been breached, the circumstances and the licensee’s attitude to it. That’s a very healthy check and balance.”
Investigations in broadcasting are just one of the regulator’s duties. Encompassing Broadcasting, Online and Telco it also serves as a “town planner” of broadcasting, a recycler of spectrum, online safety watchdog, and more.
“We cover government, ministers, consumers, citizens, listeners, viewers, the vulnerable, the children and the mums and dads licensees,” Chapman explains.
“We cover the full spectrum and that’s why it’s such a challenge to remain relevant to all of them. In my quiet time, if I have any satisfaction it is that I think our DNA has changed to understand what you have to do to stay relevant to all of those different subsections of Australian society, political and economic systems.”
He cites ACMA’s work on Privacy guidelines, Captioning standards and Investigation concepts as some of their most progressive achievements.
“Each of those ministers was different, each had their own interests”
Then there is dealing with all those government and ministerial changes.
“Each of those ministers was different, each had their own interests, each were different personalities and came into the job with different understandings and knowledge base. Each was interested in adding value.”
After he finishes with ACMA at the end of the month Chapman will take up the Presidency of the London-based International Institute of Communications, an independent, policy forum for the converging telco, comms, media and technology industries.
Based in Australia, he will also be its the first president in its 46 year history to not come from Europe or the Americas.
Chapman, who cites news & current affairs, sport, light entertainment and Australian comedy as his preferred viewing, exits the role with considerable pride, especially with networks statistically found to be making fewer breaches despite a massive increase in broadcasting hours.
“I think the ACMA has made a contribution to that over the decade because of the consistency of its work, because of the quality of its broadcasting investigations and the improved way we’ve sought to communicate those decisions,” he says.
“I think licensees recognise that the ACMA is in the game.”