Navigating the election rules | radioinfo

Navigating the election rules

Saturday 23 February, 2019

3AW morning presenter Neill Mitchell is reported  to have told Macquarie Media’s lawyer in an email that her advice about complying with election rules was “unworkable.”

Mitchell declined to share his email with radioinfo, saying it was private and confidential, but some details of the legal advice were published in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. The advice reportedly said:
“Any political party that approaches the station for an opportunity to put its position forward should not be denied, but rather, if you do not wish to put them to air in a program, they must be referred to the sales department.”
The advice is also reported to contain “many byzantine rules about how and who to bring on air, and when.”
The issue was raised in the context of the station's preparations for upcoming state and federal elections.
The rules are not new and broadcasters, including 2GB and 3AW, have been successfully navigating the regulations for years.
An ACMA spokesperson has confirmed to radioinfo that the rules, mandating ‘access for all parties’ are contained in the Broadcasting Services Act, which dates back to 1992. An ACMA briefing document  about broadcasters' obligations during election periods explains:

Clause 3 of Schedule 2 to the Broadcasting Services Act requires that if any election matter is broadcast during an election period by a broadcaster, then that broadcaster must give all political parties contesting the election a reasonable opportunity to have election matter broadcast during the election period provided that they were represented in the relevant Parliament at the time it last met before the election period.    

Many stations handle the requirement within their editorial teams by inviting all candidates to be interviewed somewhere on the station at some time during the election campaign and ask them a similar set of questions about their policies.
Some stations choose not to trigger the clause at all and avoid all political interviews during election campaigns. Over the years various music stations have made a virtue of this by “banning” politicians and giving their listeners politician-free programming, then using it as a promotional point of difference.
Other stations, which may have chosen to take a position favouring one party over another, comply with the requirement by inviting everyone on to be interviewed, but giving one side an easy ride while critically or aggressively questioning the other side of politics. There is nothing within the Act that prevents this approach for commercial and community broadcasters. The ABC has different rules.
There are plenty of tried and tested ways of navigating the requirements. It appears that Macquarie Media’s lawyers may have been too legalistic in their interpretation of the Act, which may be why Mitchell responded as he did.
As the election approaches, stations should refresh themselves on the rules, which also cover other issues such as: record keeping, disclosure of ‘required particulars,’ the election blackout period and a range of other requirements. See more info from ACMA’s advice page.

Most of the rules have been unchanged for many years, although there were some recent changes made in March last year about the ‘tagging’ of political advertising (the required particulars). More information here, in the section headed ‘Identifying certain political matter.’
Controversially, these rules cover licenced broadcasters but do not necessarily cover internet broadcasters or social media platforms, an inequitable situation which broadcasters have often raised with government.

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