''It's unclear ... and we are making the assumption that it will replace ACMA but we just don't know'' ... SBS's director of corporate affairs, Bruce Meagher. Photo: Gabriele Charotte
THE ABC and SBS would be answerable only to themselves when it comes to complaints about their journalism, under proposals before Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
Television and radio stations as well as the print and online editions of newspapers would be subject to a new self-regulatory media watchdog that would have the power to order members to publish corrections.
But a panel advising the minister on media reform is recommending that the ABC and SBS not fall under the independent ''news standards body'' but continue to operate independently of any media-wide system.
The ABC and SBS have their own complaints systems.
Under the current system, if someone is unhappy about the handling of their complaint they can refer it to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
Yet both broadcasters are unclear whether ACMA's replacement - a government-funded body that will oversee media policy and content quotas - will be the final arbiter of complaints made about them. ''It's unclear at the moment and we are making the assumption that it will replace ACMA, but we just don't know,'' said SBS's director of corporate affairs, Bruce Meagher.
This would mean that cases such as one last month in which ACMA found ABC radio in Adelaide had breached the corporation's own code of practice on impartiality would go unpunished.
ACMA had found that during an interview with a former South Australian politician, the station displayed ''a fixed prejudgment on the topics discussed, asked loaded questions and used disparaging language''.
It was the first breach of the impartiality provisions of the ABC code of practice since 2004, ACMA said.
Also, the ABC's websites will not be covered by any codes under the proposed rules. That came to light last month when the ABC's own complaints handling system found an ABC News Online report on the coal seam gas industry had made ''errors of judgment''. The complainant, industry body Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, wanted to take the matter further but ACMA told it there was little it could do because the ABC website fell outside its jurisdiction.
Louise McElvogue, a member of the Convergence Review panel, which has proposed the changes to Senator Conroy, said the new regulator's remit had yet to be resolved, but she expected it to ''handle complaints that were not resolved by their internal methods''.
Glenys Stradijot, campaign manager of Friends of the ABC, said as much as the ABC should be applauded for having strong editorial policies and its own complaints mechanism, people should be allowed to take their complaint elsewhere.
''Anyone dissatisfied with the ABC's handling of a serious complaint must be allowed to take their complaint to a level that is independent of the ABC,'' she said.
In a detailed response to the Convergence Review, ABC managing director Mark Scott touched on the issue when he said: ''The Convergence Report, like the Finkelstein Report, acknowledges the trust Australians place in the ABC's news and information services, and that the corporation's separate accountability and governance arrangements have been a part of its success.''