NZ moves towards “one-stop shop” news media super-regulator

By Toby Manhire In Politics

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With media regulation a hot potato in the politics of Britain and Australia – these tabloid front pages are a good starting place – New Zealand is moving closer to an overhaul of its own system, with the publication today of the Law Commission report The New Media Meets ‘New Media’: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age.

The most important recommendation in the report is for the existing media regulatory bodies (insofar as they apply to news, at least) to be scrapped and replaced with an umbrella body to be known as the “News Media Standards Authority” – described in a media briefing as “a one-stop-shop for adjudicating complaints across all news media, irrespective of the format or delivery channel”.

It would be a non-state body, with membership voluntary and available to all including bloggers, but privileges accorded to media, including many by law, would only be available to those who signed up. And if you’re not a member, no NZ on Air funding for you.

Unlike the Leveson report in Britain –which is mentioned politely in the Law Com report – the New Zealand effort is expressly concerned with the impact of digital innovation and media convergence.

The report is online here.

Below are some of the most important passages from the report (emphases are mine).

 

We recommend that the New Zealand Press Council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Online Media Standards Authority be replaced with a single independent standards body with jurisdiction over all news media broadcasters, newspapers, and online providers.

This body would not be established by statute but it would be indirectly recognised in statutory provisions that create the various news media privileges.It should have a separate legal existence independent of the industry. It should preferably be an incorporated society.

The new body would be independent of both the state and the media industry in both its adjudication and governance structures. There should be no government or industry involvement in appointments to the new body. We suggest this body could be called the News Media Standards Authority (NMSA).

The NMSA would be responsible for enforcing standards across all types of news publishers, irrespective of the format or distribution channel. It would adjudicate complaints relating to news, current affairs, news commentary and content such as documentaries and factual programming which purports to provide the public with a factual account of real events involving real people.

 
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… 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.

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We recommend amending the various statutes which currently confer privileges or exemptions specifically on the news media to ensure that in each instance the term “news media” is consistently defined as meaning entities which meet the following statutory criteria:

• a significant element of their publishing activities involves the generation and/or aggregation of news, information and opinion of current value;

• they disseminate this information to a public audience;

• publication is regular and not occasional; and

• the publisher must be accountable to a code of ethics and to the NMSA.

 
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… 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.

 
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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.

 
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… 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 … 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.

 
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… membership of the NMSA would be entirely voluntary. However, the following advantages would be available to those publishers who were willing to be subject to the accountability of this independent standards body: Legal exemptions and privileges; … Complaints resolution and mediation; … Public funding; … Brand advantage.

 
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It is intended that the NMSA would be able to provide speedy and effective remedies when standards have been breached. We recommend a wider range of powers for the new standards body. They would be spelled out in membership contracts between the standards body and the media agencies, and should include:

• a requirement, as at present, to publish an adverse decision in the medium concerned, the regulator having power to direct the prominence and positioning of this publication;

• a requirement to take-down specified material from the website;

• a requirement that incorrect material be corrected;

• a requirement that a right of reply be granted to a person;

• a requirement to publish an apology; and

• a censure.

We do not recommend, however, any monetary sanctions, either fines or compensation.

 
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We think it is preferable in the first instance for an independent standards body to be set up without any form of state coercion. However, we do consider it to be in the public interest for there to be an independent person appointed by the Chief Ombudsman to facilitate the formation of the new body and to oversee its establishment.
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We also recognise though that the majority of individuals using digital communication technologies, including many bloggers, will choose to sit outside our proposed new complaints body and will not be covered by its standards.

However, they will be subject to the law of New Zealand and also the various measures we have recommended in our earlier Ministerial Briefing Paper to combat communication harms.

 

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The cross-fertilisation of ideas between these various international reviews [in UK and Australia] has been invaluable to us and it will be evident that we have drawn on many of the principles and proposals put forward in these various reports.

However, it is important to note that our proposals are a response to the specific problems we were asked to address and reflect our own unique context: they draw on research and analysis of New Zealand’s media environment, the views of submitters, and our own assessment of how best to balance New Zealanders’ interest

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In line with the Australian reviews we recognise the need for any new system of accountability to take into account the profound changes in the media environment brought about by the internet. These include a recognition that the internet and web 2.0 technologies have empowered media consumers to make active choices, lessening the case for “protectionist” regulation.

Like the Leveson and Finkelstein Inquiries, we recognise that in this dynamic new publishing environment there remains an overriding public interest in ensuring the survival of a robust news media, unfettered by political interference.

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