When former Justice Minister Simon Power asked the Law Commission to review the adequacy of regulations surrounding online media, he referred disparagingly to the world of bloggers and other internet publishers as a “Wild West”.
He was concerned at the potential for trials to be prejudiced by information posted on websites, by breaches of suppression orders and by the publication of libellous comments online. Power ordered the review in October 2010, prompted by the flagrant breach of court suppression orders by prominent blogger Cameron Slater.
In an era when anyone with a computer and an internet connection can style themselves as a journalist or commentator, concern has been growing that the new freedom to publish is untrammelled by regulation or any sense of duty to the principles of fairness and accuracy.
The commission has since published an issues paper addressing the challenges Power set down. But instead of confronting the so-called “new media” with a big regulatory stick – as some might have expected – it has produced a thoughtful and important document that addresses the fundamental role of the media in a democracy, and crafted a set of recommendations designed to protect and regulate that role, regardless of whether it is conducted in print, in the broadcast media or online.
Power asked the commission to consider whether either of the two existing media watchdogs – the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Press Council – could be suitable for regulating the currently unregulated new media. It concluded both are inadequate and riddled with gaps, and ought to be replaced with a new fit-for-purpose regulator that recognises that the old boundaries between print, broadcast and online news have collapsed. It sees the new regulator as independent of both the Government and the news industry, dominated by non-industry representatives, recognised in statute and funded by both members and the state.
As important as the proposal itself is the reasoning by which the commission arrived at it. It has developed, perhaps for the first time in New Zealand, a definition of what the “news media” includes: any publisher, in any medium, that devotes a significant proportion of its publishing activities to the generation or aggregation of news, information and opinion of significant value; that disseminates it to a public audience regularly; and that is accountable to a code of ethics and a complaints process.
Those that meet that definition and want to gain access to the various privileges and exemptions accorded to the media would be subject to the new regulator – the commission leaves open for public discussion the question of whether membership of the new body should be compulsory or voluntary.
Underlying the commission’s thinking is a fundamental acknowledgement of the media’s vital role as a representative of the public interest and as a watchdog on private and state power. At times, the mainstream media have lost sight of this profoundly important function as they struggle to adjust to the new environment the internet has unleashed. Their old monopoly on news has gone, and the business model on which they traditionally rested – news gathering funded by advertising – is being sorely tested.
The manifestation of that crisis can be seen at one end of the spectrum in an increasing emphasis on trivia and a reduced commitment to in-depth reporting, and at the most extreme end in the complete collapse of truth and integrity witnessed at the News of the World. At the same time the blogosphere, although an increasingly important part of public discourse, tends to see its job as commenting on the news rather than generating it, and is unhindered by any regulatory oversight.
The core question posed by the commission is how to protect and nurture the generation and dissemination of news and current affairs in this new environment.
The suggested move towards a new form of accountability for all forms of news media, founded on a clear articulation of their role in a democracy, is a welcome step towards answering that question. As the commission points out, news gathering relies on public trust – trust in the reliability and truthfulness of what is published, in the fairness of its presentation and in the responsibility with which it is undertaken. The creation of a genuinely independent regulator capable of “guarding the guardians” in the internet age can only assist in restoring that trust.
The Law Commission’s issues paper Review of Regulatory Gaps and the New Media is available here.