By Steven | March 26, 2013
The NZ Law Commission has recommended that we scrap the Press Council, Broadcasting Standards Authority and nascent Online Media Standards Authority, and replace them with one body setting and policing news standards across the board.
The Commission suggests we call it the “News Media Standards Authority” (NMSA). It would look more like the current Press Council than the BSA. Essentially, it would be a self-regulatory body, set up to be independent of the government and the media industry. It would draw up its own set of standards and a complaints process (though the Commission has made a series of suggestions about how it “should” work).
For consumers, this would mean they could complain to NMSA about news, current affairs or factual programmes or stories pretty much wherever they are published. There wouldn’t be three differents sets of standards and complaints processes depending on the publication platform. The standards can be expected to cover the journalistic staples: accuracy, balance, fairness and privacy. The complaints process is supposed to be speedy, informal and cheap. There’s a mediation process to help resolve complaints in some cases. NMSA’s complaints panel would contain a majority of public members, and its funding and management would also be genuinely independent of the industry and the government. It could order corrections, rights of reply, take-down, and apologies. A disappointed complainant could appeal. A very disappointed complainant could still take a case to court.
On the other hand, I suspect many consumers will be concerned to discover that they will not be able to obtain damages under any circumstances, and that the Commission’s recommendations don’t even contain any mention of costs. Broadcasters and publishers are quick to cry foul when complainants get themselves lawyers, but they quietly neglect to mention that their own editors and lawyers, experienced with the standards and talented with turn of phrase, can often run rings around unrepresented complainants.
Another possible problem: you can only complain against media companies who sign up to NMSA. How many will do so? We don’t know. It’s voluntary.
So what’s in it for the media? Well, for one thing, avoiding a statutory regime. If this proposal doesn’t work out, they must surely expect government will have to move in and regulate more heavily.
But the media get more than this. The law grants various privileges to the news media: access to court in some situations, news exemption from the Privacy Act and Fair Trading Act, protection of the confidentiality of sources, and exclusion from the Commission’s proposed digital harrassment Communications Tribunal. The Commission has suggested throwing in a couple more goodies. Members would be eligible for NZ on Air news funding. There would be a mediation system for complaints otherwise headed for the courts, such as defamation and privacy cases. Perhaps most important, the Commission says, is the brand advantage: membership of NMSA is like a quality mark on their news products.
There are other advantages. They would avoid a proliferation of complaints to different bodies. (For example, pretty much everyone who complains to the BSA ought also to complain to OMSA, once it’s up and running next month. That is, if you’re complaining about a TV broadcast, you should also complain about the publication of the same material on the broadcaster’s website. That’s going to mean more work all round, and, since the standards are slightly different and the complaints personnel are very different, we’re likely to see conflicting decisions emerge.)
Publishers would also get the right of appeal to NMSA’s complaints appeal body, which is better than appeals to court (BSA) or none at all (Press Council). What’s more, the existence of NMSA is likely to head off some complaints that would otherwise go to court.
On the other hand, there will be membership fees. Those are likely to be higher than at present for print members and perhaps lower for broadcasters. It’s questionable whether the statutory privileges are really all that useful to the media, and where they are, it’s questionable whether Parliament will really be prepared to strip them from media organisations who don’t play ball with NMSA. Would they really take away TV3’s right to source protection under the Evidence Act if TV3 didn’t sign up? Would they really force news media organisations to comply with the strictures of the Privacy Act’s principles? (There’s room for argument about how these might apply to news organisations, and those arguments stretch right from “they’ll barely make a difference” to “they’ll cripple any organisation’s ability to gather news effectively”).
If they join, they’ll probably be subjecting their journalists’ every tweet to a possible complaint. (Twitter itself, and Facebook, and Google can’t join NMSA. Freelance journalists who tweet regularly can. And organisations like TVNZ who join will be open to complaints about all their journalists’ professional activities, including tweeting, and including how they go about gathering information).
Interestingly, anyone publishing news or comment or factual material regularly and for a public audience can join. That includes many bloggers. But it also means that authors, one-off documentary makers, and trade publications can’t join. I wonder if some special or associate material might be designed for people like this.
If a few big media organisations don’t sign up, then it’s hard to believe that this system will be viable. I suspect that this will give them quite a lot of leverage when the system is being designed. How sure can we be that big media organisations won’t say, explicitly or implicitly, ”well, we’ll join, but only if you cast that privacy standard more narrowly, or take out the power to order apologies, or reduce the fees…”. If that happens, is that true independence from the media industry?
All in all, this looks like a better deal for broadcasters than the print media, who already enjoy many of the advantages of this system. But it really needs widespread support to work at all.
If it does get up and running, it will be reviewed after a year to see whether it measures up. But the first thing to watch for is the government’s response, since the system needs a few statutory tweaks to make it work at all.
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