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Law Commission’s new media paper

By Steven | December 12, 2011

The Law Commission has issued an issues paper on reform of news media and new media regulation. This isn’t a final report; they’re looking for feedback on their proposals.

I think it’s a thougthful and well-researched paper. It’s very much alive to the problems of online regulation and the importance of free speech and the media. It contains some big ideas, some of which are getting lost in reporting by journalists who don’t seem to have read it.

It’s in two parts. The first is about regulation of – for want of a better phrase – mainstream media. That is, the media whose business it is to regularly deliver news and views. That includes TV and radio, newspapers and magazines. But should it also include Scoop and Voxy? Aren’t they part of the mainstream now? Why should a Scoop reporter not get the privileges (such as exemption from the Privacy Act, journalist source protection and access to courts) that other media outlets get? Correspondingly, why should they be exempt from some sort of complaints process concerning things like accuracy, fairness and privacy?

This part of the paper (it’s the first six chapters) also asks whether our patchwork of media regulation makes any sense. Given that broadcasters are posting text online and newspapers are posting video, why should the standards applying to each be different? Why should one be governed by the (self-regulated) Press Council and the other by the (statutory) Broadcasting Standards Authority? Why should broadcasters’ websites not be regulated at all?

The second part of the paper looks at online harms such as cyber-bullying and harrassment, privacy invasions, defamation, impersonation and inciting suicide. It does not focus particularly on the media. It asks whether the remedies available for such harms – the criminal law, civil law such as defamation, and complaints organisations such as the Privacy Commissioner – are adequate.

Part One

At the heart of Part One is the vexed question of “who is a journalist?” Do you have to work for the NZ Herald or TVNZ? Or might you be a blogger like David Farrar who is regularly providing news, analysis and sometimes original research in ways that make his activities similar? This matters: regular journalists get particular privileges: an exemption from the Privacy Act’s data management requirements; legal rights to protect their sources; access to court proceedings when the public are excluded; the right to attend particular press conferences. The law is a bit of a mess here, but the idea is that the media is (a) performing an important public function and (b) reliably trustworthy in how it uses information. The Law Commission suggests that these attributes are not restricted to old-style media.

The Commission says that if some new media news outlets are performing traditional media functions – informing people on the issues of the day – they should get these privileges too. But with those privileges comes responsibility. They should be subject to a code of ethics and a complaints process.

We already have a couple of those: the Press Council and the BSA. Will they do? The Law Commission doesn’t think so. They are really pre-internet-age beasts, it says. The BSA’s codes are (partly) prescribed by statute and the appointments are political. It doesn’t have jurisdiction of broadcasters’ websites. The Press Council’s “statement of principles” are a bit waffly and the organisation can be seen as stacked toward the media industry, which funds it and provides five out of eleven Press Council members. Neither organisation has code provisions that specifically reflect the online environment, though both contain general requirements (eg fairness) that are capable of applying online.

As newspapers’ and broadcasters’ content looks increasingly similar, these separate regimes are looking increasingly untenable, says the Law Commission. It is surely right. What should we have instead? The Commission recommends a single regulator. It’s hallmark will be independence: the Commission recommends a very robust appointment process to ensure the regulator is insulated from politicians and from the media industry. Like the BSA, it would have a statutory basis, but unlike the BSA, this statutory basis will not be very prescriptive. For example, it won’t set out what is required to be in the codes. These will be prepared by the members of the regulator, in consultation with the public and the industry. The regulator will also develop its own complaints processes, and will decide on the range of penalties that can be imposed. (It seems that this may require buy-in from the industry).

There is a bit of tension here. On the one hand, the Commission is suggesting a lot of independence for this regulator to make decisions about how it will operate. On the other hand, the Commission’s paper contains quite a bit of detail about how it expects the regulator will operate – creating high standards for the media (“setting the bar high”); dealing with ethical principles such as accuracy, privacy and fairness; drawing up a code of ethics that is more detailed than the Press Council one and contains variations according to the particular form of media; and naming the journalists who are subjected to complaints.

How are we to read this? I think the idea is that the regulator essentially gets licence to do what it likes. But it will be operating against the recommendations in the Law Commission’s final report (to be delivered after feedback on this one), so if it ignores those recommendations or otherwise acts contrary to the public interest, it may be replaced by a stricter statutory regime. 

That’s the way I look at the recommendation – not as a statutory super-regulator, but as a slightly refined self-regulatory initiative, in which the industry players are given a first chance to see whether they can do this themselves.

Complaints would still go in the first instance to the publisher or broadcaster, and would only be referred to the regulator in the event they can’t be resolved. 

The Commission doesn’t discuss fast-track resolution, or interim take-down powers, or a possible Ombudsman/mediator to faciliate resolution before complaints are elevated, but all are on the table for the regulator.

Who would join? The Commission assumes that all the current mainstream media organisations would want to: joining provides a brand advantage, it gains them journalistic privileges, it protects them against the possibility of heavier regulation. Maybe joining should be entirely voluntary, it suggests.

I’m not so sure that all the media would want to opt in. They will have to part-fund it; it will carry obligations and the potential for rulings and penalties they disagree with, and the basket of privileges they get in return may not be enticing enough. They can still get almost all court access as members of the public. Not many will turn them away from press conferences. Would the law seriously take away TV3’s source protection rights and subject them to the Privacy Act if they didn’t join?

The Commission’s Plan B is to make membership compulsory for large, mostly traditional media, and optional for others. So the NZ Herald and TVNZ would be required to be members; Farrar could opt in. (I’m inclined to think there should probably be some sort of limit on those who could decide to opt in – after all, this means that they will be granted privileges as journalists, and merely signing up to a code and complaint process doesn’t automatically render someone responsible, I’d have thought).

That’s it in a nutshell. Worthy of serious consideration and debate, I think.

Part Two

This seems to have attracted more attention. In this part of the paper (the final two chapters), the Law Commission assesses the harms that are done by bloggers, tweeters and social media posters. It says it’s a bit hard to tell how much harm is being done, but finds plenty of evidence that there’s a significant amount. What’s to be done? Three things.

First (this recommendation is getting lost in the debate), the courts should be empowered to require ISPs and website hosts to take down material if it has been established that they are unlawful and harmful and that other measures have not worked. The Commission expects that this would be rarely used.

Second, they suggest tweaking the criminal law to ensure that it applies properly online. Mostly, this is just a matter of clarification – the Harrassment Act and Human Rights Act, for example, probably already apply on an online context. But some involve creating new offences: malicious impersonation, and perhaps publication of intimate photographs online where the photos were taken with consent but  the publication of them wasn’t.

Third, and most interesting, a new mechanism for speedy, law-cost and effective remedy for online harms – against anyone, including the media, but also including bloggers, etc. The remedies would include compensation, take-down order, right of reply, and apology. The Commission raises two options here. First, a new Tribunal to hear such claims. It could make orders, but only when it could be shown that the law had been broken. Effectively, it turns the relevant criminal law into statutory torts (along with the civil law such as privacy and defamation – and copyright?) and makes them subject to a more accessible, informal and cheap complaints process.

I’m afraid I can see all sorts of problems with this. How do you quickly and cheaply establish whether or not someone has been defamed? It’s an incredibly complex area of law, and I don’t see how a Tribunal could establish it quickly and cheaply if someone wanted to raise some defences. And how would the Tribunal’s powers dovetail with the rules laid down by the courts for injunctions? For example, the courts are very reluctant to order an injunction removing particular material that’s allegedly defamatory if the defendant points to an arguable defence.

More importantly, what happens to the underlying crimes? If I’m charged with criminal harrassment, or under investigation for it, then if I’m defending myself before the Tribunal, I might be undermining my own criminal defence. What of the protections that are usually provided to someone facing a criminal charge? What if the Tribunal’s ruling has the potential to prejudice my later criminal trial? Is the standard of proof to be lower?

Again, the Commmission has a Plan B – a communications commissioner. This person would have some powers to require information, and an investigatory role, but would not be able to order take-down, compensation, etc. He or she would need to rely on the mana of the office to try to negotiate solutions.

The Law Commission is dealing with a very real problem here. Seriously harmful material can be posted at the drop of a hat, and even if the criminal provisions were extended and clarified as the Commission suggests, the remedies may be cumbersome and expensive. But I have to wonder whether either of these options will do the trick. The first seems fraught with problems and the second, while potentially useful, seems toothless.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that I have any better ideas…

Topics: Defamation, Future of journalism, Harassment Act, Internet issues, Journalism and criminal law, NZ Bill of Rights Act | 20 Comments »

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