Important ‘note’: Time to play the right reform tune

You know the one. It goes like this:

Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone

Please leave me alone, now leave me alone

Oh leave me alone, please leave me alone, yes leave me

Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone

Please leave me alone, now leave me alone

God leave me along, just leave me alone, oh leave me…

Finkelstein failed to heed the refrain. So, too, did Leveson.

Both enquiries recommended media regulation backed by statute. When the Australian and British governments broadly accepted the recommendations they bought an inevitable fight with the media industries of their respective countries.

It was hardly surprising: The media have been singing the same tune since John Milton wrote his essay against licensing of the press in 1644.

No less surprising was the outcome of the latest enquiries. The Gillard government’s attempts have ended in embarrassing retreat and the British coalition government has faced internal rifts and industry opposition to its novel Royal Charter solution to the Leveson Report’s findings.

Into the spotlight at the end of March stepped the New Zealand Law Commission, clutching under its arm a weighty ditty entitled The News Media Meets New Media: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age.

Many of the sentiments expressed by Finkelstein and Leveson were also to be found in the report tabled in the New Zealand Parliament. However, among its 386 pages one paragraph stood out in marked contrast to the foundational underpinnings of those documents:

Our preference is for the new standards body to come into existence without any statutory underpinning to that body’s creation. We think it is preferable in the first instance for an independent standards body to be set up without any form of state coercion.

In a rehearsal – an initial working paper 15 months earlier – the Law Commission had recommended the sort of statutory underpinning that would characterise the Australian and British reports when they were published. That recommendation elicited a predictable response from media organisations.

To its credit, the commission team led by New Zealand’s pre-eminent media law authority, Professor John Burrows, dropped that proposal from its final report. A new self-regulating body would take over the news oversight functions of the self-regulating New Zealand Press Council and newly formed Online Media Standards Authority and of the statutory Broadcasting Standards Authority.

The only legislation would be an Act of Parliament that would do no more than amend existing laws to recognise the new body. The Broadcasting Act, for example, would be amended to remove news and current affairs programming from the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s oversight.

In so doing it has headed off most of the likely opposition to the reform of media regulation. The loudest discordant notes has come not from media companies, but from bloggers who fear they will be forced to adopt similar levels of responsibility as (God forbid!) the mainstream media.

That fear is generated by the incentive-based nature of the proposals that would see, for example, access to the press benches of the country’s judicial and government institutions reserved for those who sign up to the new body. This could, of course, smack of licensing. That fear will not be realised, however, so long as anyone who meets the commission’s broad definition of news media is free to join.

Fairfax has been more ready to accept the inevitability of a new regulatory body than has APN although both would like to preserve the Press Council.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, would be delighted to be freed, at least in part, from the clutches of the quasi-judicial Broadcasting Standards Authority. For a number of reasons print and broadcast have not been able to sing from the same song sheet on regulatory reform. Existing Press Council coverage of newspaper websites, for example, forced the broadcasters to go it alone in forming the Online Media Standards Authority.

If I have to sing for my supper, I’ll say that the creation of a single body – called the News Media Standards Authority by the commission – is both sensible and inevitable.

How can the industry insist on distinctions between airwaves and newsprint when their increasingly important digital offerings invariably include the written word, video and audio?

None of the existing bodies has a perfect record or all the answers and to co-opt all media into one of them would create resentment and imperfect hybrid solutions.

Of course, much now depends on how the Key government reacts to the Law Commission’s recommendations. It has been non-committal, saying only that it will consult before responding later in the year, and its recent rejection of the commission’s report on open government is no cause for optimism.

If it is smart, it will hear the message that the commission embraced. If it attempts to legislate media ‘reform’ it will hear, loud and clear, a reworked version of another Helen Reddy hit. Its first line is I am Media, hear me roar.

  • Dr Gavin Ellis is an Auckland media researcher and former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald.

Leave a comment