The ABC and SBS

5.94 The Classification of Media Content Act is intended to cover content broadcast on free-to-air and subscription television. This raises questions about the application of the new Act to content provided by the ABC and SBS.

5.95 The ABC and SBS are national public broadcasters subject to special governance and accountability arrangements under the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act and the Special Broadcasting Service Act.[53] The ABC and SBS are subject to obligations under the ABS and SBS statutory charters,[54] and codes of practice developed by their boards, rather than codes approved by ACMA under the Broadcasting Services Act.

5.96 The Broadcasting Services Act ‘essentially applies to the ABC and SBS only in relation to complaints escalation and spectrum and technical matters’.[55] Notably, the ABC and SBS are not subject to the requirement, imposed on commercial and community television broadcasters, that codes apply the film classification system provided by the Classification Act.[56]

5.97 The ABC and SBS stated that a ‘strong implication in the Discussion Paper is that it is the ALRC’s intention that the new classification regime apply to the national broadcasters in the same way as it would apply to any other media content provider’.[57]

5.98 The ABC and SBS submitted that such an approach would run counter to established public policy and that ‘the benefits of consolidating and harmonising Australia’s classification laws can be achieved without adversely affecting their independence if the established regulatory approach continues to be applied’.[58] That is, the ABC and SBS should be excluded from the Classification of Media Content Act and a ‘harmonised approach’ achieved by requiring the ABC and SBS, in developing their own classification standards, to have regard to the standards set for other content providers.[59]

5.99 In formulating its proposals, the ALRC did not intend to imply that changes should be made to the existing governance and accountability arrangements applying to the ABC and SBS. The special position of ABC and SBS as national public broadcasters is not under review in the context of this Inquiry, and the ALRC does not make specific recommendations in this regard.[60] For the sake of simplicity, however, the text of the Report does not generally differentiate between content provided by the ABC, SBS and other television broadcasters.

[53] For example, the ABC and SBS are primarily accountable to their respective statutory boards, which are required to ‘maintain the independence and integrity’ of the corporations. The ABC and SBS are accountable to the Parliament as a whole through regular appearances at Senate estimates hearings, questions on notice and detailed reporting on a range of specified matters in their annual reports: see Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cth) ss 8(1)(b), 80; Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 (Cth) ss 10(1)(a), 73.

[54]Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cth) s 6; Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 (Cth) s 10.

[55] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and SBS, Submission CI 2521. Where a person has made a complaint to the ABC or SBS under a code of practice, and considers the response to be inadequate, a complaint may be made to the ACMA: Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) s 150.

[56]Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) s 123.

[57] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and SBS, Submission CI 2521.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] The interim report of the Convergence Review recommended that the charters of the ABC and SBS should be updated to ‘assist the public broadcasters by confirming current operations’ and to provide certainty about the ‘remit of public broadcasters’: Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Convergence Review: Interim Report (2011), 15.