The New Zealand Law Commission has today released its report “ “The News Media Meets New Media: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age.” The report recommends the establishment of a “News Media Standards Authority” (NMSA) to provide a one-stop shop for adjudicating complaints against all news media. Membership would be voluntary but would bring significant benefits.
The NMSA would replace of the New Zealand Press Council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Online Media Standards Authority with a single independent standards body. This would have jurisdiction over all news media broadcasters, newspapers, and online providers.
The NMSA would not be established by statute but it would be indirectly recognised in statutory provisions that create the various news media privileges. The new body would be independent of both the state and the media industry in both its adjudication and governance structures. There should be no government or industry involvement in appointments to the new body.
Membership of the NMSA would be entirely voluntary but the following advantages would be available to those publishers who were willing to be subject to the accountability of this independent standards body:
- Legal exemptions and privileges: only those publishers who belong to the standards body would be eligible for the legal privileges and exemptions currently available to the news media – these would include benefits relating to court reporting and under the New Zealand equivalent of the Data Protection Act 1998;
- Complaints resolution and mediation: the standards body would provide members with a quick and effective mechanism for dealing with complaints which might otherwise end up in costly court action, this could be of particular benefit in defamation and privacy cases;
- Public funding: a consequence of the recommendations is that only publishers (new and mainstream) who belong to the standards body would be eligible for public funding for the production of news and current affairs and other factual programming;
- Brand advantage: membership of the standards body would provide a form of quality assurance and reputational advantage.
- Membership would become the benchmark used to determine who is to access other non-legal media privileges such as entry to the Parliamentary Press Gallery, admission to press conferences or access to embargoed releases, for example.
In general, the Report addresses two questions:
- Who should be eligible to access the news media’s legal privileges and exemptions in an era when anyone can break and disseminate news and opinion?
- How should the news media be held accountable for compliance with basic journalistic standards in this era of converged media?
The policy objectives of the recommended reforms are to:
- recognise and protect the special status of the news media, ensuring all entities carrying out the legitimate functions of the fourth estate, regardless of their size or commercial status, are able to access the legal privileges and exemptions available to these publishers;
- ensure that those entities accessing the news media’s special legal status are held accountable for exercising their power ethically and responsibly;
- provide citizens with an effective and meaningful means of redress when those standards are breached; and
- signal to the public which publishers they can rely on as sources of news and information
The Report concluded that there is a strong public interest in adopting a broad-church definition of “news media” reflecting the need to nurture a diverse and robust fourth estate during a time of unprecedented commercial and technological disruption.
This conclusion is based on an acknowledgment that the commercial model which has funded primary news gathering is under threat and that the institutional news media may not survive the paradigm shift brought about by the internet. At the same time the virtual elimination of barriers to publishing now makes it possible for any individual or organisation to undertake the core democratic functions assigned to the news media. This has the potential to strengthen democracy and increase the accountability of Parliament and the courts, and other powerful public and private institutions. For this reason it concluded that it is important to extend the news media’s special legal status to other publishers who are engaged in generating and disseminating news and commentary and in performing the other functions of the fourth estate – provided these entities are willing to be accountable to an independent standards body to ensure these privileges are exercised responsibly.
The full report is available online and as an eBook:
Additionally, the Law Commission commissioned independent research into public perceptions of (a) news media standards, accountability and complaints bodies; and (b) the occurrence of online speech harms. A summary of the research is available here