AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING TRIBUNAL
The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) was responsible for broadcast licensing, regulation and information. It was created as an independent tribunal to separate broadcasting from political pressures, through methods including open hearings and access to information. However, it was progressively disempowered during its life by federal departments, politicians and lobbyists. As a by-product of the ABT’s existence between 1977 and 1992, there are more public records of broadcasting in that period than any other.
The Fraser Coalition government created the ABT following a 1976 report on the structure of broadcasting by F.J. (Fred) Green, the secretary of the Postal and Telecommunications Department. He recommended the creation of a tribunal that could air all contesting information. It was to ‘remain aloof from the day-to-day processes of government’. In future, decisions about station licences would be made by the tribunal, not by government ministers. The ABT would be based in Sydney, close to broadcasting organisations and distant from the previous Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) in Melbourne and the federal bureaucracy in Canberra.
The government accepted most of Green’s proposals, changed the law in 1976, and ap- pointed Bruce Gyngell as founding chairman in 1977. As the nation’s best-known television executive, he surprised critics by his rapport with community groups and advocates of better programs. He and his colleagues often stumbled over legal and administrative issues—particularly during hearings. They were reliant on staff transferred from the previous ABCB (contrary to the Green Report’s recommendations) or advisers from the federal Attorney-General’s Department. Neither group sympathised with the public hearings.
Despite early management chaos, and frequent legal actions brought by licensees, the ABT’s public inquiries had television executives discussing the performance and goals of their stations for the first time. After the first shock, they generally accepted the tribunal’s role. Commercial radio leaders were less comfortable. The tribunal also held direction-setting inquiries into broader issues, such as the 1977 inquiry into self-regulation for broadcasters. In 1980, it fell to the next chairman, David Jones, to turn the new ideas and high expectations into a viable regime. Jones, a prominent media lawyer, built an administrative and inquiry system that could survive the continuous legal and bureaucratic challenges faced by the ABT.
The ABT visited the licence area of each station across the country to conduct a public hearing. When the tribunal identified problems, the licensees usually fixed them of their own accord, to avoid embarrassment at a public hearing. They were also very responsive to ABT threats to impose licence conditions or shorter renewal. There was a financial motive to protect the value of the licence, and thus very few occasions when the tribunal needed to actually shorten or revoke a licence.
The ABT had a range of effective sanctions, but the 1981 ‘Murdoch amendments’ to its Act restricted the issues it could consider when making decisions by preventing it from holding a licensee to promises it had made in the past. Thus, the winning applicant for a new licence could be purchased by another company that would do everything differently from the application. The amendments also removed the ABT’s ability to decide what was in the public interest. The 1981 amendments overrode a High Court decision confirming the ABT’s power to block a station takeover by News Limited.
Apart from licensing, the ABT also published an unprecedented range of surveys, reports, statistics and research. It revised all the previous program standards after public input, and converted them into enforceable documents. The amounts of Australian drama and children’s programs on television were increased. Many archaic obligations in the radio Program Standards were deleted. The ABT also oversaw various specific laws, such as the ban on cigarette advertising and election broadcast laws.
Major inquiries focused more on the future of communications, such as introduction of cable and pay television, remote area broad- casting and violence on television. The Satellite Program Services report of 1984 illustrated the perils of independent inquiry. The ABT recommended more programming independence for stations outside Sydney and Melbourne, which was unwelcome to some in the new Hawke Labor government and the Department of Communications, who wanted the opposite result. In response, the department published its own report, favouring the three largest networks, which became law. The department put increasing resources into policy research and publishing during the Hawke period, especially through its Forward Development Unit. It disliked any tribunal output that could reflect on policy or planning.
With hindsight, it can be said that by the time Deirdre O’Connor became chairman in 1986, the ABT’s heyday was over. Federal departments restricted its resources, and the ABT conformed increasingly with ‘day-to-day processes of government’, the opposite of what the Green Report had recommended in 1976. When it was abolished in 1992, the tribunal was still performing a range of necessary regulatory and reporting functions, but there were few public hearings and little public recognition. None of the bodies that came after it had the same independence, capacity for public inquiries or duty to disseminate information.
REF: M. Armstrong, Broadcasting Law and Policy in Australia (1982).