Hard News by Russell Brown


Members of the Press

Last year, after a lengthy and at times remarkable process of consultation and contemplation, the Law Commission delivered its report The News Media Meets 'New Media': Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age, only to find that the government which had ordered it was not particularly interested in the report's conclusions.

In particular, Justice minister Judith Collins and Broadcasting minister Craig Foss rejected the Commission's central proposal: that existing media standards bodies -- the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the New Zealand Press Council plus the broadcasters' new online standards spawn, OMSA -- should be rolled up into a single, independent cross-media regulator.

This new regulator would have: (a) assumed oversight of online publications which chose to make themselves subject to it (b) removed the statutory authority of the BSA, and (c) if done properly, reduced the influence of the print publication industry over its own regulation. When it was shelved, the question of who might manage the accountability of online news media, and how, was left unanswered.

Now, the Press Council has stepped into the breach, with an announcement that it is to invite membership by non-print pubishers, including blogs, and to assume "additional powers to deal with complaints against traditional print media." It's tempting to suppose the former decision prompted the latter. The council can hardly demand that blogs and websites demonstrate more good faith in enabling and resonding to complaints from readers without demanding the same of its print members.

But it's hard to tell. According to the announcement, the reform comes as a result of a review by the Press Council's main funder, the Newspaper Publishers' Association. If this review has been published, it's not apparent to me. It's not on the Press Council site or, apparently, on News Works, the home of the NPA and the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, which exists primarily to promote the readership and advertising services of newspapers. The contrast with the Law Commission's open and strongly consultative process is striking.

Ironically, in seeking to assume a wider role, the Press Council may have confirmed perceptions that it is an inward-looking and slightly off-the-pace organisation. But its proposed new power to (subject to a unanimous council decision) censure a member is significant. As is this:

Where the council believes the potential harm or damage to an individual or organization outweighs the need to keep the public record straight, it will have the right to direct the excising of elements of a story from an online article, or for an article to be taken down.

This is very much in line with the Law Commission's view that a remedy short of the courts would be useful. Online publishers and bloggers who don't want to be at risk of such a direction should decline to join and surrender the reputational benefits of membership.

One thing the Press Council won't do is seek to curb mere opinion. If it can uphold the right of the Herald to publish Bob Jones's tosh, it's hard to see that other pundits have much to fear. On the other hand, it's encouraging that last year year it demonstrated a willingness to challenge a member newspaper on the bullshit use of statistics.

How the sanctity of opinion will be applied to blog comments is another question. Some "respectable" blogs allow offensive comments that would probably be pre-moderated out or deleted after publication on newspaper websites. Whose responsibility are they?

Both John Drinnan and Peter Aranyi note another important element of the Press Council's Statement of Principles: the section on conflicts of interest:

To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence. Where a story is enabled by sponsorship, gift or financial inducement, that sponsorship, gift or financial inducement should be declared.

Where an author’s link to a subject is deemed to be justified, the relationship of author to subject should be declared.

If some blogs are, as widely rumoured, receiving undeclared inducements or financial support to run any story, they should not be Press Council members.

Personally, I think the Press Council's principles are basically sound and I will consider making Public Address subject to them. But I'd like to know about representation. The council currently includes representatives of the public, newspaper publishers, magazine publishers and the EPMU's media division. Does the internet get a seat?

And that leads to a prosaic and crucial point: what will it cost to belong. A new fee schedule is to be announced in May. Existing members of the Press Council are, if not always profitable, at least in a position where they turn over millions of dollars. The outsiders it's preparing to invite in would likely substantially increase the council's currently modest complaint workload -- but make little if any money. The question of how the brave new world will be paid for may be the most important one of all.

NB: I'll ask Rick Neville, chair of the Press Council’s executive committee if he or anyone else would like to participate in the discussion for this post.

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