John Roughan 's Opinion

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

John Roughan: Press independence under threat

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Time is running out for effective comment on a move afoot in this country to bring newspapers under some form of statutory regulation. You haven't read much about it because newspapers these days are not as self-confident as they once were.

Until a few years ago, the press would have erupted in outrage at a Law Commission discussion document issued just before Christmas. Newspapers in liberal democracies have been fiercely protective of their independence of the state. They exercised every citizen's freedom of speech within its laws and wanted no special rights or even legal recognition.

A former editor of this newspaper, Peter Scherer, is well remembered for telling parliamentarians that if a proposed law needed to provide an exemption for the press they should think again about everybody's rights.

But he is 15 years retired. Today the words "news media" fatally appear in legislation, notably for exemptions to the Privacy Act and in the search and surveillance bill going through Parliament this week.

Over the same period that newspapers succumbed to legal recognition an even more fateful development occurred: the internet. New media have eroded the financial base of newspapers in a way that the arrival of broadcasting last century never did.

Newspaper companies are hedging their bets, investing in websites and no longer calling themselves newspaper companies. They have become "multi-media platforms" and want journalists to be jacks of all digital trades.

The Law Commission seized on this trend when it was asked by previous justice minister Simon Power to look at the accountability of news media, particularly websites operating below the radar of law enforcement.

The commission has failed to come up with a way to stop those sorts of sites breaking court suppression orders and the like. The best it can do is offer them carrots of respectability and recognition as news media in law if they voluntarily submit to a regulatory regime. As they say, good luck with that.

The proposed regime - a single regulator for all media - would be voluntary for those websites but possibly compulsory for newspapers and broadcasters that would be levied to help fund it.

It would have power to hear complaints, order corrections and apologies, and warn against any news gathering practices it considered improper. Those are reasonable checks on what media do, so reasonable that the newspaper industry finances its own complaints adjudication council and all self-respecting publications in New Zealand subscribe to it.

The Law Commission has modelled its proposed regulator on the existing Press Council with one significant difference - the commission's council would be a creature of Parliament, like the ombudsman perhaps.

Its members would be appointed by some sort of electoral college, not politicians, which would be an improvement on broadcasting's present regime. It would have a grant from taxation and be independent, the commission believes, of both the industry and politics.

New Zealand is not alone in this discussion. A similar Australian inquiry made its report this week, proposing a statutory authority, and in Britain the Leveson inquiry into the News of the World is probably going to suggest something stronger.

Freedom is so ingrained in the fabric of countries such as ours we suppose it can only be threatened with jackboots, truncheons or firing squads. In fact, it is more often threatened by nice people with reasonable proposals who let you discuss them and respect your view.

They always have the public interest on their side, though theirs is a state service view of the public good that does not include the social value of allowing some critical institutions to be truly independent.

It is usually fatal to try to counter their proposals with claims of public interest, though I fear this is what the newspaper industry's organised voices will try to do, if they fight statutory regulation at all. I am on the Press Council and it hasn't formed a view yet.

The mistake the commission is making in my view - and press freedom advocates often make it too - is the idea that freedom has to be justified by a public interest. Freedom does not. Freedom from state or public restriction is, or should be, the default setting of a liberal democracy. It should be restricted only for a clear, necessary and important reason.

The Law Commission's nominated reason is the trend it calls "media convergence", meaning the internet is blurring the distinction between print and broadcasting. Newspaper websites carry video these days and television sites carry text. Hence it would make sense to have one regulator for all.

It might be neat and tidy, but is it necessary? Nothing in the Law Commission's report suggests it has given nearly enough thought to the independence it wants newspapers to surrender.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

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

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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