L-R: Rick Neville, chair of the NZ Press Council executive committee; Professor Julian Disney, chair of the APC; Sir John Hansen, chair of the NZ Press Council; Mary Major, executive director of the NZ Press Council; Dr Derek Wilding, executive director of the APC.
Senior members of the New Zealand Press Council have met with the Australian Press Council for the first time in recent years to discuss the challenges of maintaining media standards in a digital environment.
The NZPC’s independent chairman, Sir John Hansen, executive director Mary Major and chairman of the council’s executive committee, Rick Neville, joined APC chair Professor Julian Disney, executive director Derek Wilding and director of research and communications, Michael Rose, in a series of meetings in Sydney.
The meeting had two aims, according to Professor Disney. This was to exchange information about current policies and practices and “to discuss the future – what challenges and opportunities we see coming.”
The New Zealand Press Council gave the APC an insight into recent changes to its membership criteria and new powers, following a report by the New Zealand Law Reform Commission.
“It really was an ideas exchange,” NZPC’s Rick Neville said.
“Those of us in New Zealand had noticed that the APC had undergone quite significant change in recent times following the Finkelstein report, and we were quite interested to find out more about [the APC’s] response and the measures they were putting in place.”
He said that in New Zealand publishers have been facing [the possibility of] more government intervention and media regulation.”
A report last year by the New Zealand Law Commission prompted changes in the NZPC, including allowing bloggers to apply for Press Council membership, and stronger powers for the press council to deal with complaints in newspapers.
Of particular interest to the APC was the NZPC’s move to open up membership to bloggers. In recent years the APC has admitted large digital-only publishers including ninemsn, Crikey publisher Private Media, and Mumbrella publisher Encore, but has not yet extended the privilege to blogs.
Professor Disney said it was crucial that press councils became actively involved in the online area and particularly with digital-only publishers. “I think we both had that view,” he said.
“We’ll be interested to see how (NZPC) goes [with blogger membership]. I think they’ll probably find that the main value in the immediate term is the kind of [large] digital publishers we’ve already taken in, but it will be useful to see how they go if they push that area.
“There’s no real justification for drawing a rigid line between digital only publishers and bloggers because apart from anything else, what’s the definition? When do you become a blogger and when do you become a digital-only publisher?
“We now have five or six digital-only publishers, and that was of interest to the New Zealanders because among other things, we resolved questions of what membership fees that kind of publisher might pay and their voting rights within the organisation.”
Mr Neville said the catalyst for the New Zealand Law Commission report was the explosion of digital media and the fact the existing self-regulatory bodies didn’t sufficiently cover that realm. The report also recommended merging the three media regulatory bodies – for broadcast, print and online – a proposal rejected by many publishers.
“The overwhelming view from NZ publications was: there’s really no problem, so why come up with a solution?” Mr Neville said.
“We thought the best way of avoiding [government interference] was to act in good faith and act on the recommendations and requests of the government to improve our own self-regulation of print media, and open up membership to digital media.”
The NZPC will have the power to require certain material to be taken down from websites where the damage or danger to an individual or an organisation outweighs the freedom of expression principle, and even evict blogs which consistently breach press council principles.
“It’s a balancing act,” Mr Neville said.
The NZPC was interested in the work the APC does to educate people about the organisation, Mr Neville said. “They have roundtable meetings on standards and they’re trying to get the message out about what the press council is all about and media standards.
“We’re looking at the work they’re doing on defining media standards in light of the digital age. Ours is very much cast in the pre-digital age, so we’ll borrow some of their material.”
The move to include bloggers was “quite contentious, because a lot of blogs are extreme; they polarise people,” Mr Neville said. “We’ll do a trial period for a year and see how it goes.
“At the end of the year, we’ll either be covered in bruises and tears or it will be working.”
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