Political Matter & Election Coverage

Danny Chifley, 22nd February 2020
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Community broadcasters work to pursue the principles of democracy, access and equity and demonstrate independence in programming as well as in editorial and management decisions. This commitment extends to the broadcasting and communication of political and election matter.

The Broadcasting Services Act (1992) stipulates broadcast law regarding media coverage of local, state and federal elections. It is the responsibility of every community broadcaster to ensure that these laws are observed, as a condition of the station's licence. For the purposes of community broadcasters, please consider any reference to advertising in the Act to include sponsorship broadcast on a community broadcasting licensee.

The following information is taken from the ACMA - Political and election matter guidelines - to assist licensees in identifying political and election matter and increase awareness and understanding of the obligations relating to the broadcast of political matter, election matter and election advertisements. The guidelines include further information as well as case studies.

What is political matter?

‘Political matter' is defined very broadly in the Broadcasting Services Act (clause 1 of Schedule 2) to mean ‘any political matter, including the policy launch of a political party’. Guidance as to the sort of material that may constitute political matter is provided primarily through the ACMA’s decision-making, reflected in reports of political matter investigations. 

What is political matter is an objective test and must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The balance can be a fine one. 

The ACMA determines whether broadcast material is political matter by having regard to:

  • The content of the broadcast - Does the content convey a message about matters that are or could be the subject of public political discussion? It is not necessary for material to explicitly promote a political party, candidate or policy for it to be political matter. The content need only engage with a matter of public contention or discussion, in a meaningful way that objectively seeks to influence the audience’s position with respect to that matter.
  • The overall presentation of the material, including the tone, style and emphasis - Material may be political matter if it seeks to persuade the audience to a political point of view, even if at the time there is no public proposal to change the law about the issue or if the broadcast is likely to influence the audience about a political issue, regardless of the intention of the person requesting the broadcast of the matter. It is also not essential that the approach be express, rather than indirect, for the broadcast to be political matter. 
  • The nature and style of accompanying audio or visual material - Political matter may include individual components that contribute to the communication of a political message. 
  • The context surrounding the broadcast - It is not necessary that there be a high level of current public discourse at a government level about a matter for it to meet the threshold of political matter. The content need only engage with a matter of public contention or discussion in a meaningful way that objectively seeks to influence the audience’s position with respect to that matter.
What is ‘election matter’?

‘Election matter’, in relation to an election, means matter of any of the following kinds:

  1. matter commenting on, or soliciting votes for, a candidate at the election
  2. matter commenting on, or advocating support of, a political party to which a candidate at the election belongs
  3. matter commenting on, stating or indicating any of the matters being submitted to the electors at the election or any part of the policy of a candidate at the election or of the political party to which a candidate at the election belongs
  4. matter referring to a meeting held or to be held in connection with the election.  
What is an ‘election period’?

‘Election period’ means:

  1. in relation to an election to the Legislative Council of Tasmania, or an ordinary election to the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory—the period that starts 33 days before the polling day for the election and ends at the close of the poll on that day
  2. in relation to any other election to a parliament—the period that starts on:
  1. the day on which the proposed polling day for the election is publicly announced
  2. the day on which the writs for the election are issued (whichever happens first and ends at the close of the poll on the polling day for the election).
  1. in relation to an election to a local government authority—the period that starts 33 days before the polling day for the election and ends at the close of the poll on that day
  2. in relation to a referendum whose voting day is the same as the polling day for an election to the Parliament of the Commonwealth—the election period in relation to that election
  3. in relation to any other referendum—the period that starts 33 days before the voting day for the referendum and ends at the close of voting on that day.
Reasonable opportunities to participants in elections

Licensees are not obliged to broadcast election matter at all. However, if they do, certain obligations arise.

If, during an election period a broadcaster broadcasts election matter, the broadcaster must give reasonable opportunities for broadcasting election matter to all political parties contesting the election, being parties which were represented in either House of the Parliament for which the election is to be held at the time of its last meeting before the election period.

There is no obligation for licensees to broadcast any election matter free of charge.

Whether opportunities were considered to be ‘reasonable’ would be established during an investigation if the ACMA were to investigate a matter that required this issue to be considered.

Election ‘blackouts’

Elections blackouts are actually called the ‘relevant period’. This period commences at midnight on the Thursday morning before polling day and concludes at the close of the poll (i.e. voting) on polling day.

Election blackouts only apply to parliamentary elections—that is, federal and state or territory elections. There is no blackout period for local government elections.

For federal elections, the ACMA updates its website information about current election blackouts shortly after election dates have been publicised by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). The website is not updated for state and territory by-elections.

Keeping records
A licensee must keep, for the ‘required period’, a record of the: 
  • name 
  • address 
  • occupation  
of the person (or the name and address of the principal office, if the person is a company) that requests the broadcast of political matter (subclause 4(3) of Schedule 2 to the BSA). 
 
The ‘required period’ is the longer of six weeks from the date of the broadcast or until the day on which the election ends (if the matter relates to an election or referendum and was broadcast during the relevant election period). The ACMA can direct a licensee (in writing) to keep records for a longer period. These records must be given to the ACMA if requested by written notice. 
What is ‘at the request of another person’?

Only political matter that is broadcast at the request of another person is subject to the requirement about broadcasting the required particulars.

A person can include a political party, a corporation and any other association (incorporated or unincorporated).

Licensees are not prevented from advocating on social issues and from time to time may support policy initiatives.

The required particulars do not need to be broadcast if political matter is broadcast on the licensee’s own initiative.

What are the ‘required particulars’?

The required particulars are the authorisation details that must be broadcast following political matter. The provision about broadcasting the required particulars of the person who authorised the broadcast applies at all times. It is not restricted to material broadcast during elections, or in times of significant public debate on certain issues. When advertisements are broadcast outside an election period or are not on behalf of a political party or other ‘disclosure entity’ (defined below), they may still be political matter and be required to be ‘tagged’ with the required particulars. Community broadcasting licensees are also required to include sponsorship tagging in addition to the required particulars. The required particulars must be announced at the end of the communication in the same language used in the communication. 

The BSA defines ‘required particulars’ as the particulars set out in the following table:

Broadcast is authorised by:

Required particulars:

a disclosure entity that is not a natural person

(a) the name of the entity (as included in the most recent return given in relation to the entity under Part XX of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, if a return has been given in relation to the entity under that Part)

(b) the relevant town or city of the entity

(c) the name of the natural person responsible for giving effect to the authorisation.

a disclosure entity that is a natural person

(a) the name of the person

(b) the town or city in which the person lives.

any other entity (that is not a disclosure entity or a natural person)

(a) the name of the entity

(b) the relevant town or city of the entity.

a natural person (who is not a disclosure entity)

(a) the name of the person

(b) the town or city in which the person lives.

 

The required particulars refer to specific terms:

  • Disclosure entity - A registered political party, campaigner or an associated entity.
  • Authorises - A person authorises the broadcasting of political matter only if the person is responsible for approval of the content and the decision to present it for broadcasting 
  • Relevant town or city - The town or city where the entity has a principal office or premises, or the town or city in which the natural person who was responsible for giving effect to the authorisation lives.

 

 

 

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