NZ publishers respond to Press Council changes

New Zealand newspaper publishers have largely accepted the New Zealand Press Council’s move to extend its powers, but they continue to resist a merger with broadcast industry regulators.

The Press Council changes, which followed a review by the council’s main funder, the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, enable it to offer membership to digital media and gain additional powers to deal with complaints against traditional print media.

These powers include the ability to order where corrections be run and, in exceptional circumstances, the ability to censure publications.

Editor of The Dominion Post, Bernadette Courtney, said she supported the changes which now cover bloggers and other digital entities, as it levels the playing field for mastheads.

“The changes have been well flagged with NZ media and we have been involved in the discussion,” she said.

“Media is changing as an industry, and that won’t stop, so we need to ensure all forms of media are covered by the same rules.

“The move to now include digital and bloggers has been long overdue. It needs to be a fair playing field.”

The move will see bloggers able to voluntarily pay a fee to the Press Council to abide by its principles and complaints processes.

“The response has been quite strong,” chairman of the Press Council’s executive committee and editorial director of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, Rick Neville, said of the digital expansion. “Some of them [bloggers] crave legitimisation.”

The new complaints powers for print will have “minimal impact on newspapers”, Mr Neville said, but the council “needs them to be effective.”

As part of the new powers, a compulsory notice published at the front of a newspaper every two weeks will increase public awareness of their rights to take complaints to the Press Council, while papers must now publish corrections within the first three pages if the offending article was published in the same region. The Press Council also will have the ability to censure publications in exceptional circumstances, if a unanimous vote is reached.

Editor-in-chief of New Zealand Herald titles Tim Murphy said that while he believed such situations would be rare in New Zealand media, “we as editors accept that in exceptional circumstances in which a news organisation has acted in bad faith with the complainant and the council itself, the council should have the option of upgrading a finding against that title with a censure.”

“We believe we should be upfront with readers and if there is a finding of fault we should not disguise or downplay it,” he said.

Both editors believed the changes would have little impact on the day-to-day operations of their newspapers.

However, a recommendation made last year by the Law Commission, in a report titled The News Media Meets “New Media”, that the Press Council merge with the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Online Media Standards Authority into a new, self-regulatory body was not as welcome among publishers.

Mr Neville said it would pave the way for unwanted state involvement. “The Law Commission’s argument is more logical, to an extent, but the current broadcast model is like a miniature government department. We didn’t want to get dragged into that.”

Mr Murphy said the Press Council was well set to extend its jurisdiction, at a low-cost and with ease of access to the public and with a clear independence with its majority of public/reader members. “We submitted that if one new body was advocated that it should be one of self-regulation not state-funded or state mandated,” he said.

Ms Courtney said the idea of a single regulator was “worth considering”.

“Technological developments have rendered the old distinctions between the different types of media irrelevant.” However, all moves toward state regulation should be resisted, she said.

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