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burning issue


one size fits all? classifying media in the digital age

tina kaufman: the australian law reform commission classification report



AFTER AN EXHAUSTIVE REVIEW PROCESS, WHICH INVOLVED SEVERAL ROUNDS OF CONSULTATIONS, AN ISSUES PAPER AND A DISCUSSION PAPER AND HUNDREDS OF SUBMISSIONS TO BOTH, THE AUSTRALIAN LAW REFORM COMMISSION HAS SEEN ITS FINAL REPORT ON THE ENQUIRY INTO AUSTRALIA’S CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM, THE FIRST FOR 20 YEARS, TABLED IN FEDERAL PARLIAMENT LAST MONTH.

While the ALRC’s recommendations do not automatically become law, and while the government will probably take several other reviews (including the important Convergence Review) into account when it decides whether and when to take action on classification, the ALRC has certainly made some brave and eminently sensible recommendations which would dramatically haul an outmoded and cumbersome system into the digital age.

“Australia needs a new classification scheme that applies consistent rules to media content on all platforms—in cinemas, on television, on DVDs and on the internet,” said Professor Terry Flew, Commissioner in charge of the ALRC review, “but the scheme also needs to be flexible, so it can adapt to new technologies and the challenges of media convergence.”

The report, Classification—Content Regulation and Convergent Media, contains 57 recommendations which would see the current complex array of classification guidelines for films, TV programs, computer games, publications and online content replaced by a streamlined, single classification system, run by the Commonwealth Government. There would be a common set of markings and criteria, using the same categories and guidelines, for all content, whether it is viewed on television, at the cinema, on DVD or online. A much greater role for industry in both the classification of content and in the development of co-regulatory codes is also proposed, informed by the fact that self-regulation has worked well for television for some years. Measures would also be introduced to remove the need to reclassify films and TV programs when they are re-released on DVD. While film festivals would remain exempt from classification, they would still be required to exclude people under 18 from unclassified films.

Recognising that media convergence, digital delivery and online distribution have irrevocably altered the landscape, as has the exponential increase in available content, the ALRC commenced the enquiry taking into account a number of issues. They range from the rapid pace of technological change in media available to, and consumed by, the Australian community, and the needs of the community in this evolving technological environment, to ways to improve available classification information and enhance public understanding of regulated content. This would be balanced by the need to minimise the regulatory burden and by the desirability of a strong content and distribution industry in Australia. Most important, of course, were the impact of media on children and their increased exposure to a wider variety of media, from television, music and advertising to films and computer games.

The ALRC also identified guiding principles in the provision of an effective framework for the classification and regulation of media content. They are: that Australians should be able to read, hear, see and participate in media of their choice; that communications and media services available to Australians should broadly reflect community standards, while recognising a diversity of views, cultures and ideas in the community; that children should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them; that consumers should be provided with information about media content in a timely and clear manner, and with a responsive and effective means of addressing any concerns; that the classification regulatory framework should be responsive to technological change and adaptive to new technologies, platforms and services, should not impede competition and innovation, and not disadvantage Australian media content and service providers in international markets; that classification regulation should be kept to the minimum needed to achieve a clear public purpose; and that classification regulation should be focused upon content rather than platform or means of delivery.

Out of all this came the key features in the report: platform-neutral regulation with one set of laws across all media platforms; clear identification of what must be classified (feature films, television programs, and computer games likely to be MA 15+ or higher, made and distributed on a commercial basis, and likely to have a significant Australian audience); a shift in regulatory focus to restricting access to adult content, by imposing new obligations on content providers to take reasonable steps to restrict access to adult content and to promote cyber-safety; and co-regulation and industry classification, subject to regulatory oversight There is also Classification Board benchmarking, with a clear role for the Board in making independent classification decisions that reflect community standards, and the important proposal for a federal government scheme to replace the current co-operative scheme (between federal, state and territory governments) with enforcement coming under Commonwealth law, and a single regulator with primary responsibility for over-seeing the new scheme.

“Classification criteria should also be reviewed periodically, to ensure they reflect community standards,” said Professor Flew. “One category that may no longer align with community standards is “Refused Classification” or RC. The scope of this category should be narrowed, and the ALRC suggests changes for government to consider.”

ALRC President, Professor Rosalind Croucher has pointed out that Australians value classification information about films, computer games and television programs, and that “the new scheme will continue to deliver this important advice. The ALRC has recommended a balanced approach, recognising that it is not practically possible in a digital age to classify everything. An effective scheme of content regulation must address this context...(while expecting) content providers to take reasonable steps to restrict access to adult content, so that children are better protected from material that might harm or disturb them.”

While the submissions received during the enquiry offered a huge range of opinions, ranging from no need for classification at all, and the impossibility of classifying or containing internet content, to the need for more control and more stringent regulation, the ALRC has come up with substantial recommendations which, if adopted, will provide a sensible, flexible and more streamlined framework for the classification and regulation of media content. We now must wait and see what actually eventuates.


Australian Law Reform Commission, www.alrc.gov.au

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 23

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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