Editorial: Centuries of press freedom under threat

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The United Nations' World Press Freedom Day usually passes without note in places where a free press is taken for granted. Not so today. In New Zealand and similar countries, newspapers are facing a threat to the independence they have preserved for centuries.

The Governments of Britain, Australia and New Zealand are receiving the results of inquiries they have commissioned into the regulation, or lack of it, of news media. These exercises began as a response to concerns about internet transmissions that defy ordinary law enforcement but the solutions now being suggested would make all media answerable to a statutory authority for their ethics and professional standards.

In Britain, the regulatory drive has drawn added fuel from the revelations of phone hacking by private investigators for the News of the World, which broke a law that news media ought to observe like any other citizen in the same jurisdiction. Press freedom does not mean exemptions from the law, it means the right to speak as freely as anyone subject to the same law.

The Law Commission, which is conducting the New Zealand Government's review of media regulation, has proposed a body to hear public complaints that would be appointed at arm's length from politicians. It would comprise representatives of media as well as the public and set ethical and professional standards to be used in adjudications of complaints. Except for its legislated existence and some public funding, it might differ little from the Press Council maintained by New Zealand newspapers for the past 40 years.

It might give broadcasters somewhat more independence than they have had with a politically appointed complaints authority, and it might entice internet bloggers to submit to the rulings of a regulator in return for some respectability and official recognition as news reporters. At least, that is the Law Commission's hope.

But for newspapers, the proposition is disturbing. The freedom we value comes from complete independence of political power. We have been beholden to no public authority for our right to publish. We are answerable only to readers who, as voluntary buyers, hold the ultimate sanction over our performance.

We operate with the freedom of the private sector, which is not the freedom the Law Commission and the other inquiries recognise. Their reports go to some trouble to justify media freedom on political grounds. A free press, they conclude, is essential to an informed democracy, which is true. But the right to speak publicly and publish freely does not depend on serving democracy. Freedom needs no justification. It is the restriction of freedom that should need a good reason.

The present Government gives no sign of interest in establishing a statutory media regulator and funding it, but Labour and the Greens both went to last year's election with a policy of that nature. They argue that independence should be free of private proprietary influence as well as politics, but those parties invariably underrate the power of paying customers.

News media are changing. Newspapers and broadcasters now operate websites as well, and there is less distinction between their output. But if that is an argument for a shared regulator, it need not be one that compromises the independence of any. English newspapers freed themselves from licensing and political control many centuries ago. The digital age allows that freedom to be extended to all media. There is no more need than there ever was to surrender a heritage of independence.

- NZ Herald

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