30 March 2013

NZ Media Regulation

The New Zealand Law Commission - counterpart of the ALRC - has today released a 394 page report [PDF] on The News Media Meets New Media: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age, building on the 2012 survey highlighted in a separate year's Public Perception of News Media Standards and Accountability in NZ report [PDF].

The report resembles those by Finkelstein and Leveson for Australia and the UK, highlighted in past posts in this blog. The Commission recommends establishment of a News Media Standards Authority (NMSA) to replace the New Zealand Press Council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Online Media Standards Authority with a single independent standards body. The NMSA would serve as a one-stop shop for adjudicating complaints against all "news media" - broadcasters, newspapers, and online providers. Membership would be voluntary but would bring "significant benefits".

The Authority would be independent of both the state and the media industry in both its adjudication and governance structures, with no government or industry involvement in appointments. Membership of the NMSA would be voluntary. It would not be established by statute but would be indirectly recognised in statutory provisions that create news media privileges for publishers who chose to be accountable to the NMSA -
  • current legal exemptions and privileges regarding the Privacy Act 1993, provisions of the Electoral Act 1993 (NZ), the Human Rights Act 1993 (NZ), the Fair Trading Act 1986 (NZ) and other statutes, eg benefits relating to court reporting. (Available only to those publishers who belong to the standards body .)
  • Complaints resolution and mediation: the standards body would provide members with a quick and effective mechanism for dealing with privacy and defamation complaints that might otherwise end up in litigation;
  • Public funding: only publishers that join the NMSA would be eligible for public funding for the production of news and current affairs and other factual programming;
  • Reputational advantage: membership of the NMSA would provide a form of quality assurance and "brand advantage", with membership acting as the benchmark for determining other non-legal media privileges such as access to embargoed releases, access to the Parliamentary Press Gallery and admission to press conferences.
The Report addresses two questions:
  • Who should be eligible to access the news media’s legal privileges and exemptions in an era when anyone can break and disseminate news and opinion?
  • How should news media be held accountable for compliance with basic journalistic standards in the era of converged media?
The Commission identifies policy objectives as to -
  • recognise and protect the special status of the news media, ensuring all entities carrying out the legitimate functions of the fourth estate, regardless of their size or commercial status, are able to access the legal privileges and exemptions available to these publishers;
  • ensure that those entities accessing the news media’s special legal status are held accountable for exercising their power ethically and responsibly;
  • provide citizens with an effective and meaningful means of redress when those standards are breached;
  • signal to the public which publishers they can rely on as sources of news and information.
The Report concludes that -
we conclude that there is a strong public interest in adopting a broad-church definition of “news media” reflecting the need to nurture a diverse and robust fourth estate during a time of unprecedented commercial and technological disruption. This conclusion is based on an acknowledgment that the commercial model which has funded primary news gathering is under threat and that the institutional news media may not survive the paradigm shift brought about by the internet. At the same time the virtual elimination of barriers to publishing now makes it possible for any individual or organisation to undertake the core democratic functions assigned to the news media. This has the potential to strengthen democracy and increase the accountability of Parliament and the courts, and other powerful public and private institutions.
For this reason we conclude it is important to extend the news media’s special legal status to other publishers who are engaged in generating and disseminating news and commentary and in performing the other functions of the fourth estate – provided these entities are willing to be accountable to an independent standards body to ensure these privileges are exercised responsibly.
Second, from a consumer’s point of view we see no justification for retaining the current format-based news media complaints bodies which are largely based on outmoded distinctions between print and broadcast media. Within the next decade it is conceivable that there will be few if any printed daily newspapers. Over the same time period there is likely to be an exponential increase in the amount of audio-visual content accessed on-demand via mobile and other devices. In this converged environment consumers must be confident that consistent standards apply to similar types of content irrespective of the format or platform by which it is accessed.
It is significant in our view that many of New Zealand’s mainstream media, including Television New Zealand, Radio New Zealand and the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, accept that a single standards body for all news media is the logical consequence of convergence. As Fairfax Media stated in its submission to this review: “[n]ew technologies and convergence mean all major companies have multi-media operations and adjudicating complaints separately would be a nonsense”.
Independent research commissioned for this review also indicates that the New Zealand public sees merit in a single media complaints body: 52% of respondents to an online survey said they would “definitely support” the establishment of such a body and a further 36% said they were open to the idea.
The final question we address is whether this new converged standards body should have statutory jurisdiction over all New Zealand news media, as the Broadcasting Standards Authority currently has over broadcasters, or whether instead it should be a non-statutory body, like the Press Council, OMSA and the Advertising Standards Authority, whose members choose to be subject to their authority.
Our review has not found any evidence to challenge the mainstream media’s own assertion that New Zealand has an ethical and trustworthy news media. Although the Big Picture Research indicates some concern over the accuracy of the New Zealand media, it did not reveal a wholesale loss of confidence.
For this and for other reasons we discuss in chapter 7, we conclude that it is not in the public interest to impose statutory regulation on the New Zealand news media. Instead, in line with the principles outlined above, we believe accountability to an external standards body should be entirely voluntary.
However, as we outline in the following section, membership of our proposed new body will bring with it advantages which in our view will be of considerable value to those willing to be subject to its jurisdiction.