While the well-publicised Leveson investigation into the "culture, practices and ethics of the press" was uncovering widespread phone hacking and other unethical and illegal practices in the UK, the New Zealand Law Commission was conducting its own review of the news media. The Law Commission recognised that having a free press is essential to providing a check on power and a functioning democracy. On the other hand, an unchecked media is also capable of distorting the democratic process through “unfair, selective and misleading reporting”. Maintaining this balance was a key goal of the Law Commission’s recently released review of news media regulation.
A Single Regulatory Body
The main recommendation of the review is the establishment of a single, independent body to oversee all news media. This body would see the end of the current regime where the NZ Press Council oversees print journalism, the Broadcasting Standards Authority regulates TV and radio, and the newly formed Online Media Standards Authority looks at internet publishers. The Commission argues that the distinctions between newspapers, broadcasters and internet publishers no longer make sense. If the Commission’s recommendations are accepted, a News Media Standards Authority (NMSA) would be created. Like the bodies it replaces, the NMSA would be voluntary for media organisations to join and be entirely self-regulated, with no Government involvement.
Defining the News Media
A fundamental recommendation is the creation of the new legally defined term "news media". The idea is to make a distinction between regulated (“news media”) and unregulated media organisations. Those that wish to be considered "news media" must sign up to a code of ethical practice, and in return will receive some major benefits.
Amongst these benefits are special privileges and exemptions such as:
- the right to attend closed court sessions and appeal suppression orders,
- the right to broadcast Parliament and be part of the Parliamentary Press Gallery,
- the ability to apply for public funding through NZ On Air for the production of news programmes,
- access to alternative dispute resolutions for defamation and privacy abuse cases, which would be cheaper and quicker than going through the courts.
The proposed NMSA would have the power to order news media to:
- take down information from a website or correct false information,
- issue a retraction and/or an apology,
- allow a person to be granted a right of reply,
- prominently publicise any adverse decision made against them, such as a breach of the code.
It is envisaged that the major media organisations, such as the TV channels, newspapers and radio networks would find the benefits awarded to the “news media” status too great to ignore. Smaller media players, particularly bloggers, who choose not to join, would still be subject to laws regarding defamation, privacy and decency.
Unlike the Leveson report in the UK, which generated much media outrage over fears of censorship, our Law Commission's review was released with almost no comment. Reactions to the review have been generally positive with the New Zealand Herald, TVNZ former head of News Bill Ralston, and prominent blogger David Farrar all backing the proposed move to a single media watchdog. Justice Minister Hon. Judith Collins said she would examine the report closely and make a report to parliament later this year.
(From our Winter Newsletter 2013)