The paper lists a number of examples from network news programs including a Nine News Now report on retail chain Big W’s Toy Mania sale featuring products and prices without a disclosure of any commercial relationship (Nine is the owner of this masthead). Seven News ran a segment about a new Samsung television available at Harvey Norman that was followed by an advertisement for the same retailer and TVs.
The discussion paper found 77 per cent of participants in a survey were concerned about the lack of disclosure about commercial arrangements between networks and advertisers. The research also found 58 per cent of respondents believe Australian news is more commercially influenced than it was three years ago, while 85 per cent of respondents were concerned that news is reported from a point of view rather than impartially. Concerns were also raised about media companies using the news to promote businesses they own or have a commercial interest in.
More than 2000 Australians were part of the quantitative research, which took place in July, while 136 were interviewed as part of the qualitative research that took place between August and September.
“Retaining trust in those services is really essential and if you have things like increasing commercialisation … perception of less impartial news, it all adds into that sense of a lessening of trust in those very trusted sources, which is what we are worried about,” Ms O’Loughlin said, adding it was important broadcasters take the findings into consideration.
Ms O’Loughlin accepted that commercial news outlets might be reluctant to further regulation, given the lack of restrictions on content on digital platforms such as Google and Facebook which were found by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to have substantial market power. However, she said it was important traditional media maintained viewers’ trust.
Bridget Fair, chief executive of industry body Free TV, said it was “disappointing” to see “credible and trusted news providers” singled out in an era of fake news but that the industry would actively participate in the ACMA inquiry.
“The Free TV Code of Practice requires commercial television broadcasters to present news fairly and impartially and to clearly distinguish the reporting of factual material from commentary and analysis,” Ms Fair said. “We take those obligations very seriously and think they remain the right measures to ensure our news services remain credible and trusted.”
Prior to the research, the ACMA received 313 separate complaints about impartiality-related matters on television and radio between 2015 and 2019, 20 of which were about potential commercial influence.
The ACMA is seeking public comment on the matter in the hope it will inform whether regulatory change is needed. A separate paper will be issued on diversity and localism.