Transcript - ABC Afternoon Briefing - Interview with Greg Jennett

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has responsibility for the powers of the eSafety Commissioner. She is with us here in the studio now. Michelle, welcome back.
I will get to the specific points, or follow-up the specific points Julie Inman Grant just made there with you. But if we just start at the beginning, looking at the events of last night. The decision by the Church of Christ of the Good Shepherd to livestream last night's service - in one sense, that's not an unusual thing for faith-based gatherings. But did the act of live streaming inadvertently, in your assessment, create the circumstances for the unrest that followed? Inadvertently, as I say?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, I would firstly note that Western Sydney and Australia is a multi-faith society, and a very multicultural place. People of all faiths and backgrounds are free to celebrate their religions, and to have this happen in a place of worship is highly distressing, not only for the local communities and that congregation, but for everyone else concerned. I would note that, and I do hope those who are injured will recover shortly.
But I think it also should be recognised that this kind of technology can be used to good effect. And particularly during Covid, we saw a lot of people who weren't able to participate in faith-based activities being able to do that, and that was very important to them. I think the fact that this technology is used in this way is a positive thing. I will leave it to the authorities to determine whether or not this was a factor in this incident, because we know that – and we saw the footage of this – the police will continue to do their jobs, so I am reluctant to draw conclusions there. But I think it does lend itself to the good point: the way in which social media and technology can be used to bring people together and to encourage social cohesion.
JENNETT: Definitely has its advantages. So, let's move on to re-broadcast of elements of that attack, which I think is the subject matter Julie Inman Grant has referred to when she's disclosed publicly today that notices have been issued to X and soon to Meta. What exactly is the content that she's targeting there?
ROWLAND: The reference here is to what we call class one content, and that's particularly violent content that depicts real violence. And does it have what we call ‘high impact’ and that would otherwise have an ‘RC’ or a refused classification rating in Australia. The Commissioner has issued notices, as you said, to X, and is, or has already, issued those to Meta and may issue others. eSafety has a set of graduated powers by which they can direct these platforms to remove them in the first instance. eSafety has positive relationships with the platforms and law enforcement agencies. The key issue here is to get it taken down and to get it taken down swiftly.
JENNETT: Are those positive relationships across the board, though? I mean, it's extremely well documented, the difficulties of compliance and even cooperation with X at present. You wouldn't be holding out much hope for compliance there, would you?
ROWLAND: I would point to the fact that eSafety even said this afternoon that the majority of platforms have complied with those requests. But there have been some instances where this hasn't happened. This is a really important element of eSafety's powers - the relationships that it has with the platforms and other entities.
I certainly, and the Government certainly, backs eSafety to be doing their task. We ensure that they are properly resourced to be able to do that. We are always, of course, looking to other measures that may need to be taken in future to strengthen their powers and the outcomes, such as that we are currently reviewing the Online Safety Act. Although this has only been in operation for just over two years, we know that there are new and emerging harms that have occurred.
We have seen this kind of viral spread of information that people should not be seeing, and, so, we want to make sure that we have the appropriate regulatory settings. This is not a set-and-forget task. The appropriate penalties and processes should be in place, and I've brought forward that review, so it's completed in this term of the Parliament.
JENNETT: Can I take you back to the Christchurch legislation, the legislation that followed those deliberately malevolent streams by that individual of his attacks in Christchurch. Fines and jail terms ensue in the Australian law. Now, did those laws envisage the sort of circumstances, and are they adequately addressing the circumstances of last night?
ROWLAND: In some ways, they are quite separate. What was instituted at that time were certain laws against what's called abhorrent violent material, where a perpetrator or alleged perpetrator was actually performing that task of streaming.
Here we're talking about class one material, often footage taken by by-standers as well. And the speed and scale of that spread is what's particularly concerning for eSafety. And of particular concern within that, is the number of people who are viewing it, but also children and vulnerable people who are viewing it. That's why eSafety is exercising its powers in this regard.
As I said, the Online Safety Act has only been in-force for a couple of years; but we want to make sure that it is fit-for-purpose. And we certainly support eSafety in all their efforts, including with the platforms, with law-enforcement agencies, to do their job.
JENNETT: Okay, so quite separately to the Online Safety Act, which you're telling us you are well into reviewing, you have another project at work which is misinformation. Is there anything about content and messaging that was circulating last night that would be captured or controlled by that forthcoming piece of legislation?
ROWLAND: Well, we continue to consult on this particular aspect of proposed legislation.
But I think what's important to point out here is, misinformation is a term that I think was used even on Saturday in relation to certain reporting that did not meet the standards of accuracy that would otherwise be required, and that included the naming, the false naming of the alleged perpetrator in this respect.
But what is important here is that we have the online safety framework, which eSafety regulates. Also, in terms of broadcasting for the ABC and SBS as well, and for subscription television, there are separate Codes of Practice and editorial policies. People can make complaints initially. Those complaints - just as they will - go to the platform in the first instance, they could also go to the broadcaster, and ultimately the regulator. Either eSafety or the ACMA can take action and get rid of it.
JENNETT: I just wonder if the difference here, though, one is a factual inaccuracy that cannot be excused by a professional broadcast organisation. Messaging, as we understand it, that was circulating last night was kind of a call-to-arms, a rallying call in real-time, that led ultimately to some violence being actioned on police officers. What would control that?
ROWLAND: Well, if you're looking at issues of mis and disinformation, what the proposed Bill seeks to do is look at the systems and processes of the platforms and their adherence with their own policies. So, not individual pieces of content, but how they are policing their own policies, their own systems and processes.
And we know that a lot of this information did go viral overnight and was, in some respects, the call for certain vigilante activity to that end. That is a matter for the police to investigate, and I'll leave them to do their good work.
On the other hand, we are also well aware, and this is the impetus for these mis and disinformation proposed rules, is that we know that it can be harmful. Mis and disinformation does strike at social cohesion, which is precisely what we are seeking to address.
JENNETT: I understand the distinction. And then, of course, there are blurred lines across into criminal law, too. We might stay in touch on all of those projects you've outlined for us today. Michelle Rowland, really appreciate it.
ROWLAND: Pleasure.