John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan: Press Council embraces the bloggers

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Blogger Cameron Slater. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Blogger Cameron Slater. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Blogs like WhaleOil and Kiwiblog may soon be subject to the same rules as newspapers under expansion at The Press Council.

The move is planned for May 1, but already the Council has set back the start date to late May, while it talks through changes with potential new blogger members.

Adhering to the Councils Principles will add legitimacy to new media - a sector that is currently unregulated.

Newspapers with a forty two year history of self regulation through the Press Council, but it is not clear if they will remain distinct from the Wild West world of Blogland.

The good news is consumers will have a venue to complain about bloggers who join the Press Council - without resorting the costly process of legal action.

Some new media strenuously object to any regulation - even voluntary adherence to an ethical code - saying it is an infringement of their freedom of speech.

But membership will have benefits.

The change comes just in time for the General Election.

It gives blogs - some of them highly politicised - legitimacy at a time when politicians are feeding blogs with bad news about their competition.

Complainants to the Press Council are obliged to rule out legal action so blogs could avoid potentially crippling legal costs for the comparatively low cost of subscription fee.

The question for many is whether treating blogs under the same rules as newspapers will make blogs more careful or diminish the stature of traditional media. Even among bloggers like Peter Aranyi there are concerns,

Some bloggers seeking legitimisation as 'news media' ...through membership of the Press Council - should more properly be applying for membership of the Public Relations Institute, said Aranyi who has written a lot about a culture of attacks in some blogs.

Kiwiblog and Whale Oil have indicated interest but the Press Council wants a sizeable number so that its newspaper members are not subsidising costs.

Press Council executive director Mary Major said the shape of the expanded body should be defined by the end of May after discussion with bloggers.

The Press Council already allowed robust opinion under its freedom of speech, but blogs created special issues. she said,

"How do expect whale Oil to meet requirements for balance?" Major asked .

Discussion has been held several months and moves follow a review of the Press Council by its main funder, the Newspaper Publishers' Association.

The NPA considered recommendations by the Press Council and a report last year by the Law Commission.

The media world is changing and fragmenting, Neville says.

"It's important that a body set up to maintain high standards, and provide an avenue for reader complaints, keeps pace with those changes."

Last year, the Law Commission produced a report entitled "The News Media Meets New Media'. It recommended the merger of the Press Council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the broadcasters' Online Media Standards Authority (OMSA) into a new, self-regulatory body to handle complaints against all media. The majority of print media opposed the recommendation, preferring instead to strengthen the Press Council.

One potential issue will be over the potential for bloggers to take money for opinions for and against individuals or political parties.

Such a practice is covered under existing rules for conflicts of interest , but the question is whether new media members would adhere to the same rules.

According to Press Council statement of principles "To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence. Where a story is enabled by sponsorship, gift or financial inducement, that sponsorship, gift or financial inducement should be declared.

Where an author's link to a subject is deemed to be justified, the relationship of author to subject should be declared, "The Press Council declarations state.

Incorporating blogs will require the creation of a new constitution for the Press Council.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

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