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Nation’s trivial complaints are nosing ahead to create a bureaucratic quagmire

25 October 2014 No Comment

FOR three or four decades Australia has been slipping slowly into a quagmire of idiosyncratic governmental and bureaucratic interference gone mad.

To demonstrate where we are headed, the Advertising Standards Board recently adjudicated a complaint about a television commercial that showed a child picking his nose. The complainant alleged that nose picking was a dangerous activity: “With all the germs and viruses around in this day and age, I would of (sic) thought Hygiene would of (sic) been a high priority.

Surely the ASB should have immediately dismissed this complaint. But incredibly, the case report (#0354/14) examined in minute detail first “The Complaint, then “The Advertiser’s Response and finally (drum roll) “The Determination.

Why spend thousands of dollars and a huge chunk of corporate time giving such a complaint serious consideration?

The ASB, which now sees several of such trivial complaints, has no short cut to deal with them. Many of the advertisements that attract complaint are posters and billboards on busy street corners where thousands of people see them every day. Usually complaints are based on individual moral judgments or religious convictions that have little to do with the public good but everything to do with personal systems of belief.

While in the past such political correctness has infected many government agencies, its more recent appearance in non-government regulatory agencies is alarming. The Australian Press Council has moved from being a regulatory body that usually dismissed anyone’s complaint about a newspaper to one that now makes minute and exacting decisions on the most obscure issues.

The council’s recent handling of a complaint by the Australian Society for Kangaroos in response to a suggestion from a food writer from this newspaper that kangaroos were killed, among other things, according to “world’s best practice was similar to the ASB’s handling of the nose-picking incident. It kicked off a series of notifications, responses, examinations and re-examinations of standards and so-called best practice.

Like many avid watchers of Skippy I have long had an emotional attachment to our iconic marsupial. Hence, I make no judgment on the final decision handed down in respect to this aspect of the kangaroo complaint (it was not upheld), only that it should surely never have come up in the first place and, when it did, the press council should have been able to deal with such a ridiculously trivial complaint in a simple and expeditious way.

The process for reviewing the classification of films is also flawed. Appealing an adverse decision by the Australian Classification Board, then getting it under the nose of the Classification Review Board will cost the film owner or distributor $10,000. It’s actually more than this when one takes into consideration the costs for the appellant to launch an action. Such a large fee means the process is really affordable only by large-scale studios. It’s completely out of reach for independent and amateur filmmakers.

The politically correct imperative behind the review of film classifications is that a handful of people may be offended if the classifiers slip up and make a mistake. So a PG film may get a G rating. Or an MA rated film may get an R rating. Yet on the internet there are thousands of similar films to the ones under formal review. Such films can be downloaded at the push of a button and hardly any of them will be classified in the first place, let alone be subjected to expensive review.

The reason the cost is so high is said to be because Classification Review Board members have to be flown in from around the country to watch the film together.

Why? Surely they can watch it on DVD or even online in their own homes or offices and email their decision to the convener of the board? It is this subservience to the notion of due process, and of correctness in the face of practicality and common sense, that is increasingly frustrating.

It doesn’t end there. The decision-making is itself full of political correctness. Take the recent review board decision to lower the classification of the Roadshow-distributed film Blended from M to PG. While I personally agreed with the decision, the board’s “findings on material questions of fact revolved almost entirely around sex. It cost $10,000 for three people to work out that talking about teenage masturbation and a quick grab of a rhino copulating shouldn’t exclude 13 and 14-year-olds from watching the film.

It is worthy of notice that the Greens are making the advertising and promotion of “unhealthy lifestyles a policy pitch at the coming Victorian election. While many of us may agree with some of their sentiments concerning the crass promotion of alcohol in sport and of junk foods ads near schools, there’s surely something sinister about a supposedly progressive party threatening to introduce laws that set up bur­eaucracies to regulate basic human behaviours such as eating, drinking and communicating.

Surely common sense should prevail?

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 36 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Weekend Australian, October 25-26, 2014, Inquirer p 24

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