The Law Commission's final suggestions for media regulation were tabled in Parliament yesterday and they are a good deal better than its proposal of 15 months ago. Crucially, there is now no suggestion that a new adjudication panel for public complaints will be a created by statute. The commission recommends legislative amendments only, dangling a carrot in the form of legal privileges for newspapers and other media that accept regulation by an independent body to be set up in some way by the Ombudsman.
Clearly the commission has taken note of the Leveson inquiry in Britain and Finkelstein and Convergence Review reports in Australia, though the New Zealand inquiry was not prompted by concerns about press behaviour. It was a response to "new media", especially bloggers who were not covered by an ethics or standards body. It soon decided there was no longer a distinction between printed, broadcast and internet media since all now have websites offering video and text.
In its design of a single regulator for all of them, the commission had contrasting models in the Press Council, set up by newspapers of their own free will, and the Broadcasting Standards Authority, imposed by Parliament on radio and television. Sensibly, the commission's proposal is closer to the Press Council, with slightly greater sanctions than the industry so far has imposed on itself.
The proposed News Media Standards Authority would have a voluntary membership open to any person or organisation that regularly disseminates news, information and opinion to a public audience. It would assess complaints against a code of practice agreed with the industry and members would agree to fund it and abide by its rulings on complaints. None of that differs from current practice for newspapers and their websites.
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Only those who submitted to the new authority would enjoy the "privileges" of recording proceedings of Parliament and the courts, and be exempt from the Privacy Act and any laws that expressly reserve rights for news media. Other benefits the commission suggests could include an alternative procedure for defamation actions that might be quicker and less costly than the courts.
State funding of filmed programmes might become available only to those that sign up to the regulator and the commission believes all media which accept the proposed regulation would strengthen their reputation and public credibility.
It is under no illusions, however, that this will entice many websites unattached to a newspaper or a broadcaster. Many of them might remain answerable to no authority except the common law - if it can find them.
Nor is the commission totally confident that established media would find its proposal acceptable in practice. It proposes a review after a year in operation and says that if the incentives have not been sufficient to entice major media companies, or its sanctions have proved too harsh for them, "another form of regulation may have to be considered."
Those receiving the commission's report might need reminding that no serious problem exists. Press freedom is not abused in this country, New Zealanders do not pay for unreliable news. The only gap in the complaints procedures of reputable providers was for broadcasters' websites and those now have a self-regulating body. Self-regulation is essential to news media independence and the commission's voluntary regime could preserve it. Beyond that, we should not go.