The ACMA finds against Hawkesbury Radio in long running dispute

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has ruled against community station 2VTR, Hawkesbury Radio and in favour of two complainants who accused the licensee of restrictive practices in granting their applications to become members. 

In their official finding the ACMA states that it has found that “Hawkesbury Radio was preventing the complainants from becoming members of the Co-operative and, by doing so, was not encouraging participation in the operations of the service” which is in breach of licence condition at sub-paragraph 9(2)(c)(i) of Schedule 2 to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (the BSA). 

The ACMA has previously warned the Windsor based station on the outskirts of Sydney that it was not doing enough to encourage community participation in the operations of the station. 

In October 2015 the ACMA issued remedial directions requiring 2VTR, among other things, to:

  • develop a community consultation strategy and structured engagement program with a view to increasing membership and participation;
  • clarify the rules around membership and the way that membership applications are dealt with; and
  • report back to the ACMA on progress.

Clearly this has not occurred to the ACMA’s satisfaction.

In their submission to the ACMA, one complainant stated:

We have been trying to join as members of 2VTR Hawkesbury Radio for the past FIVE YEARS [complainant’s emphasis]. They have currently held our membership application fees for nearly a year.

[…] We have been given the royal run around by the chairman and his directors, receiving multiple letters and emails, none of which have confirmed our membership. […] since we live and listen in the Station’s broadcast area […] simply wanted to support our local community radio station.

Another complainant who waited eight months before being formally rejected said:

The board asked me to attend a meeting, but I explained that I have a disability and would find that too onerous.

After numerous emails back and forth, they formally rejected my application, presumably because I was unable to attend their interview and they failed to refund my application fee, even after my request for them to do so.

In response 2VTR, Hawkesbury Radio sent the ACMA a number of submissions over approximately 18 months, the most recent dated 31 January 2017 in response to the ACMA’s preliminary investigation report. It stated:

(1)    a finding of a breach would be unreasonable, unfair, and would not be supported by the facts;

(2)    further, we believe that your investigation does not adequately address the real situation; and

(3)    we believe that ACMA’s attitude towards what “community involvement” means does not take account of the realities of life running a radio station in a small semi-rural town, as we have for more than 35 years.

The ACMA rejected the submissions put forward by 2VTR, Hawkesbury Radio and ruled that “the licensee is not encouraging participation in the operations of the service and, accordingly, is in breach of sub-paragraph 9(2)(c)(i) of Schedule 2 to the BSA.”

In its reasons for the decision, the ACMA stated:

All community broadcasting licensees are required to comply with the licence condition to encourage community participation in the operations of their service. Compliance with this licence condition is a key characteristic of community broadcasting services.

Membership is one of the primary ways of encouraging community participation in the operations of a service, as members can have a formal say in decision-making of the licensee. Members can propose items of business for consideration at general meetings, nominate members for election to boards and management committees, vote at general meetings, and participate in board and committee meetings.

It is the ACMA’s strong preference for community broadcasting services to have open membership practices to demonstrate that they are encouraging community participation. It is unlikely that a licensee with overly restrictive membership practices would be complying with the community participation requirement in the BSA.

 

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