John Laws breaches radio code with suicide insult

Former Editor & Content Director

CONTENT WARNING: This post mentions mental ill-health and suicide and may be triggering for some readers. If you need urgent help, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14

Radio stalwart John Laws has fallen foul of the Commercial Radio Code of Practice for comments he made about a listener’s mental state.

During the offending broadcast, Laws was reading a listener’s email on air, and providing his commentary on it. The email in question was critical of Laws.

Laws posited that the listener was “mentally deficient” and suggested that they should instead “say something constructive, like you’re going to kill yourself”. There was audible laughter in the background during some of Laws’ inflammatory comments.

The initial complaint to 2SM’s licensee, 2HD, alleged the comments from Laws encouraged suicide and did not meet community standards. Under the Commercial Radio Code, broadcasters must not depict suicide favourably or present it as a means of achieving a desired result.

2SM accepted the comments were “unfortunate” and “inappropriate”, but suggested they were “non-prescriptive”.

“Mr Laws did make a statement, that in hindsight, could have been more considerably made,” 2SM said.

The broadcaster rejected the idea Laws had painted suicide favourably or breached the code. 

The station also noted Laws’ ongoing frustration with the listener.

An ACMA investigation, totalling 29 pages, found that the comments did not depict suicide favourably, but they did present it as a means of achieving a desired result – that being the listener finally leaving Laws alone.

ACMA also found Laws and 2SM to be in breach of generally accepted standards of decency.

Throughout the complaints process, 2SM suggested that perhaps ACMA did not fully understand the make-up of the station’s audience. They are, 2SM said, familiar with Laws’ demeanour and broadcasting style, and would not be offended by the comments.

“The licensee submitted that the ‘traditional audience’ of the program would not have considered Mr Laws’ comments ‘totally unacceptable and unusual’ and that the ACMA’s definition of the ordinary reasonable listener lacked ‘an appreciation of the actual listener base of the traditional ordinary listener of the program’,” ACMA said in its report.

ACMA, however, disagreed and said ordinary reasonable listeners – including the target audience of Laws’ morning program – would consider using mental illness and suicide as a vehicle to publicly insult an individual “to be both dangerous and highly offensive” as well as “contrary to community expectation of contemporary broadcast material in Australia”.

2SM was also in breach of the Code for not responding to the initial complaint within the required 30 days.

ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin said licensees need to take far more care with the content they broadcast around the very sensitive topic of suicide.

“The comments showed a lack of care about how they would impact the public. They trivialised what is a serious issue for Australians,” she said.

Despite the breadth of the findings against Laws and 2SM, it appears the consequences are minimal.

A statement from ACMA noted since the finding “the licensee has reinforced with John Laws the role the code plays in protecting the community”.

“It has also addressed its complaints-handling system and trained the staff who process complaints,” ACMA said.

Radio Today has contacted ACMA to confirm this is the extent of the penalty.

If you need urgent help, please contact:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

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Recent comments (4)
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5 Mar 2021 - 3:58 pm

Really, is this what journalism has come to? Trigger warnings? The world has gone mad. (No offense intended to people with mental challenges)

Peter Hand
5 Mar 2021 - 10:37 pm

Laws is not and has never been a journalist…which he’s said many many times.

The comments were poor…but by far not the worst stuff ever said on commercial radio.

People who call this ad lib comment, banter of even ‘commentary’ JOURNALISM are entirely wrong.

Read up on what journalism IS and what it us NOT

6 Mar 2021 - 1:30 pm

The headline of the story makes it clear that the story deals with comments about suicide, so I’m not sure why a separate trigger warning is necessary. But worrying about trigger warnings ignores the point of the story – that Laws and 2HD have apparently been slapped on the wrist for an offence which would have severe consequences for a community or public broadcaster. I’m pleased that Radio Today is seeking further clarification from ACMA about the extent of the sanctions.

8 Mar 2021 - 9:03 am

Would you describe someone throwing up uncontrollably as having swallowing challenges?

People with mental ill-health don’t have mental challenges. Glad you have never had to experience it.

Attitudes like yours are the reason people suffer in silence. No offense though, hey.


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