John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: One regulator for all media

Not long ago the Minister of "Arts, Culture and Heritage" announced a review of some agencies in his field, a list which included the New Zealand Press Council.

That raised many eyebrows in newspaper offices. The Press Council is printed journalism's complaints adjudication panel. The Government doesn't own it, fund it or have any statutory power over it. Clearly the minister and his department thought they did.

It's an easy mistake to make in this country. Most people probably imagine every quasi-judicial body acts under the authority of Parliament and spends their taxes.

We don't have many competing sources of power. Local government does what Parliament permits, statutes govern most professions. We are what is gently called a unitary state.

Fortunately the minister, Chris Finlayson, is a liberal lawyer and quickly assured the press its independence was not at risk. If anything, the review might give broadcasting similar self-regulation.

But that was six months ago and it seems like a different era. In July, the phone-hacking story resurfaced in Britain and hearings are under way there into the culture, conduct and ethics of newspapers.

The reverberations are felt everywhere.

The Australian Government set up a similar inquiry in September. In this country the Prime Minister invoked the British scandal when a conversation was taped during an election stunt. Labour and the Greens went to the election advocating statutory oversight of the press.

More seriously an inquiry by the New Zealand Law Commission, aimed at extending media regulation to the unruly elements of the internet, has just come out with a report challenging the newspaper industry's existing autonomy.

The commission has proposed a single regulator for all news - printed, broadcast and posted on websites. It would operate under a statute and be partially state funded.

The commission believes it possible to establish a body independent of the state and the industry, though it does not explain precisely who would appoint it and how it might be constituted.

I should mention that I'm currently a member of the Press Council, though I don't speak for it here. I'm one of five industry representatives who sits with five members of the public under the chairmanship of a retired High Court judge.

It deals with complaints below the level of illegality that can call into question the conduct of reporters and the accuracy, fairness and balance of something published.

The only penalty is an obligation that newspapers accept to publish rulings against them. That sounds trifling but to editors it is not. Their paper's credibility is everything.

This is the way the council has operated since it was set up nearly 40 years ago by the journalists' union and newspaper proprietors, to forestall regulation by a Labour Government.

Obviously there will always be a perception that those who pay the piper call the tune but that is equally true of Government appointments and I know of only two ways that things get financed in this world: by public money or private enterprise.

Printed news has been predominantly a private enterprise for centuries, broadcast news media have not been so lucky. Radio and television were quickly nationalised after their inception in this country.

Each remained a state monopoly until Radio Hauraki got a licence to come ashore in 1970 and TV3 started in 1989. Even then, they were subject to a Broadcasting Authority appointed by a minister and given powers to uphold a set of standards written into law.

The authority had powers to go well beyond ordering a broadcast apology and could revoke a licence. One or two decisions of the authority appointed by the present Government have made television executives envious of the press.

To its credit, the Law Commission also prefers to design its single regulator on the lines of the Press Council rather than the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Its inquiry has been led by a legal academic highly respected in the industry, Professor John Burrows, who literally wrote the book on law that media need to know.

His report offers a good survey of its primary target, the new media of the internet that can flout court suppression orders and the like. But his proposal looks capable of catching only sites that want respectability - a minority, he admits - or privileged access to Parliament and courts, which he overrates.

He argues that a single regulator is needed because news media are no longer distinct.

Newspapers have websites that publish sound and video, radio and television sites offer printed reports, pure websites offer links to news in all forms.

Maybe, but this report puts a chill in my spine. Next time a minister announces newspapers are in his bailiwick, he might be right.

- NZ Herald

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