On 16 February 2018 the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee (the Committee) delivered its final report on Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Fair and Balanced) Bill 2017 (Cth) (the Bill), recommending that the Bill be passed.
The Bill was introduced into the Senate on 18 October 2017 by the Minister for Communications, Senator Mitch Fifield. It was one of two Bills introduced in relation to the operation of the national broadcaster, the ABC. The other Bill was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Measures) Bill 2017 (Cth) - both these Bills are proposed legislation flowing from the arrangements the government made to negotiate its recently media reform through the Senate.
On 16 November 2017, on the recommendation of the Selection of Bills Committee, the Bill was referred to the the Committee for inquiry and report by 9 February 2018. On 12 February 2018, the Senate extended the reporting date to 16 February 2018.
The Bill requires news and information produced by the ABC to be "fair and balanced" by inserting the phrase into section 8(1)(c) of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932 (Cth) (the ABC Act) which relates to the duties of the Board of the ABC. The phrase is inserted in addition to what the section already provides which is the requirement to be "accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism". The rationale for the additional requirements of "fair" and "balanced" are said to derive from the fact that the ABC is "publicly funded" and therefore, should give equal time to "all" views and opinions. According to the Minister for Communications in a Media Release at the time of introducing the Bill:
Further, the Minister said in his Media Release that the Bill is about "cement[ing] the standards expected by Australian taxpayers".
The Committee in its report agreed with the Minister saying that:
The Committee cited support for the Bill as coming from an expectation "that journalism is 'accurate and impartial, and free of political motivation', particularly where this journalism is publicly funded." In this respect the Committee had regard to and mentioned the submissions of the National Farmers' Federation:
The committee indicated that some submissions expressed concern with the Bill, expressing the view that the Bill was unnecessary given that "existing ABC Editorial Policies already require fair and honest dealing in reporting". There was also a concern that the Bill could have the unintended consequences of creating a "false balance" or "he said/she said journalism". A further issue raised was that the Bill does not establish ".a compliance mechanism to scrutinise whether the news services of the ABC are indeed fair and balanced".
The submission of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) is mentioned in the report as stating that the ABC's current Editorial Policies already "exceed, in scope and length, any other known editorial policies covering Australian media organisations' and recognise all necessary professional journalistic standards".
The ABC's own submission is also noted in the report as questioning the intention of the Bill:
Further the ABC's submission also expressed concern that the Bill "manifestly risk[s] creating expectations or misleading the public into believing that the change to the ABC Act will impose new statutory requirements on the ABC that have not previously existed".
Both the Opposition (Labor) and the Greens submitted dissenting reports.
Labor's Committee members opposed the Bill primarily on the basis that the legislation was viewed as being unnecessary:
Labor's Committee members were of the view that the Bill did not achieve anything of policy value and that the Bill was mostly politically motivated:
The Greens Committee members opposed the Bill because primarily they saw the Bill as undermining the ABC by implying the Bill is correcting a problem which actually does not exist. They also saw the Bill as potentially forcing the ABC to cover or give equal time to clearly unfiltered or discredited views in the interest of balance:
In recommending that the Bill be passed the Committee stated in its report that:
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