ACCC criticised for use of media

A REVIEW of the Trade Practices Act and its administrator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has provided businesses with a window of opportunity.

The government watchdog has attracted fire in submissions to the Dawson Inquiry, in particular for its use of the media in promoting its activities.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes that ACCC should abide by a code of practice that limits the commission’s use of the media to a specific and constrained set of circumstances.

The ACCI believes the code should incorporate a number of provisions. The first provision should be that: “Prior to any decision by a court, no media statement should be released by the ACCC that states no more than an investigation has commenced or proceedings have been initiated,” The ACCI submission states.

“No details of the specific breach should be discussed nor should a business under investigation be named until it is formally charged with a breach of the act.”

The Australian Institute of Chartered Accountants also criticised the ACCC’s use of the media.

Australian Institute of Company Directors CEO John Hall expressed his concerns at the excessive use of the media.

“Our members believe that an ACCC media release announcing an investigation of a company immediately brings the public perception that the company is ‘guilty as charged’. To counter this, a protocol for the ACCC on making media or public comment should be developed,” Mr Hall said.

However, ACCC chairman Allan Fels defended the role the media must play in the process.

“The ACCC accepts there is strong public interest in the dissemination of information about cases involving breaches of the act and that publicity in itself plays a major role in compliance with the law,” Professor Fels said.

“The media plays a critical role in the ensuring transparency and accountability of the courts and the ACCC and results in a high scrutiny of the ACCC’s own processes.

“The ACCC has in place processes that ensure adequate protection of reputation where appropriate. Its approach has been endorsed in the courts”.

Professor Fels said the basic approach the ACCC used was that a company or individuals would only be publicised once a court had decided a case.

The ACCC also proclaims the allegations once a case is launched.

“If a matter is already being investigated, the ACCC does not disclose this fact, save in exceptional circumstances,” the ACCC says.

“Currently there are more than 200 investigations which have not been made public.

“Thus, allegations of trial by media where the ACCC is investigating a matter, have no basis.”

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