Fear of the media

Evans cartoonThere’s not much doubt that politicians are rather afraid of the news media.

I judge that not from the extraordinary expense and lengths they go to in attempting to manipulate journalists and media outlets.

My opinion is based on what political parties have to say about the media in their policy platforms.

Nothing. Or very little.

A search of party websites during the last election campaign showed only NZ First made any attempt to roll out an official view on the very arena that has most influence on the way politics are conducted.

Even then, it confined itself to broadcasting, which was also mentioned by Labour. Most parties that win an election will mess around with broadcasting, especially television, after they take over, but they never engage in public debate beforehand.

Most of them fiddled at the edges of the new media, the internet and the digital age, but not the online news arm.

So, if any party was ever brave enough to adopt a strategy for how this vital part of our democracy should be governed, what would it look like?

After consulting with some former journalism colleagues, I’ve come up with the following News Media Policy, which I challenge political parties to debate in public.

Global shifts driven by new media economics, the world financial crisis and associated political changes have begun to de-stabilise the role of public service journalism in our democratic society, at a time when a capable and independent news media is needed more than ever.

While paying due deference to traditional separations between the State and the Fourth Estate, adjustments are needed to the environment in which public service journalism is expected to survive.

Economic disincentives inhibit many public service journalism services from adapting to the new media landscape, so there is a need for public funding and a framework for 21st century public service journalism.

What’s needed:

•  A framework for development of a New Media Public Broadcasting Unit, whose mandate would be to develop both journalism and open source tools for wider journalistic use, and support journalism based on government open data.

•  Changes to legislation governing tax, company law and trusts to encourage the creation of an independent online news agency to report public affairs and pursue public service investigative journalism.

•  Re-allocation of the broadcasting vote to fund a national network of regional multi-media news centres based around publicly funded newsrooms that would provide regional news to the proposed independent news agency, the New Media Public Broadcasting Unit, and the country’s publicly funded television channels.

• Another look at the Law Commission’s recommendation of a single news media regulatory body to adjudicate on public complaints about all forms of news media and advertising. Journalists and news media organisations that voluntarily register with the new body would enjoy a new media privilege to apply to relevant media law, and full legal protection for the confidentiality of sources.

New media provide an innovative opportunity for communication and public service journalism in New Zealand.

Using international models, brands and internet culture as examples, the New Media Public Service Broadcast Unit would utilise resources already available, as well as developing open source tools that would be released to all journalists.

Its charter would specify that it must make every effort to be reactive to the public using social media and user feedback.

Social media and wi-fi combined with conventional broadcasting could create the infrastructure for up to 14 regional multi-media news centres, which would provide national coverage to an independent national online news agency, the proposed New Media Public Service Broadcast Unit, and the publicly owned television channels.

The 14 centres (eight in the North Island, six in the South Island) would receive a combined total of $70 million per annum (on average, $5 million a year each) from the $250 million currently appropriated for broadcasting (including Radio NZ and Maori TV).

Re-allocation of the broadcasting vote would shift priority from subsidising programme production costs for commercial networks to fully funding local news and current affairs. News production would be publicly funded, but the centres could get funding for other programmes from other sources.

TVNZ’s Channel Two would be offered for sale, with management having first option but foreign buyers excluded. New Zealand on Air would be folded into the NZ Film Commission with responsibility limited to funding drama and documentaries.

The establishment of a trust-owned online news agency would reinstate the integrity of news coverage of public bodies such as Parliament, the courts, local government, and government ministries and departments.

It would be a response to the gap left by the closure of the New Zealand Press Association in 2010, whose loss resulted in a decline in media scrutiny of public bodies generally, the creation of geographic gaps in coverage, and the absence of fair and routine coverage for the policy proposals of smaller political parties contesting an MMP election.

News media are currently monitored and sanctioned by four separate bodies, which the Law Commission said should be amalgamated into one in response to rapid changes in the news media landscape generated by the internet.

The present government dismissed the Commission’s 2013 proposals. In association with re-examining the Law Commission recommendation, there in a need for a public commission on the role of journalists and journalism in a democratic society, whose findings would influence the formulation of a new, single regulatory organisation.

The Law Commission proposed a mandatory form of journalist registration in return for access to report public institutions like court and Parliament, an idea seen as an attempt to clarify the status of those working for online websites that claim to be news organisations.

Any form of mandatory registration should be opposed – since it is a threat to media freedom – but there is a place for some form of voluntary registration that required the journalist to abide by codes of practice and findings formulated by the proposed new regulatory body.

Journalists who registered with the proposed body would gain a “media privilege” sanction to media-related law, a move that – in the absence of US-like First Amendment protection and given the limitations of the Bill of Rights – would help nullify legal attempts to deter in-depth news media investigation.

First recommended by the 1977 McKay Committee review of defamation law, it would be a statutory defence to properly hold the balance between the news media’s need for freedom of expression and the right of the individual to protect his or her reputation.

Journalists who agreed to voluntary registration would also be offered absolute legal protection for their confidential sources.

This would be achieved by an amendment to the Evidence Act extending existing legal protection in the lower courts (District Court and those at the same level) to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

There is also a need to reform the Official Information Act, which is used by many government bodies as a means of delaying rather than facilitating media inquiries.

The OIA would be reviewed. Possible changes would include shortening the statutory response time from 20 working days to 10, with no facility for an extension. There is also a need for penalties to apply to government departments and officials who fail to follow the Act’s requirements.

Intended impacts of new laws to support public service journalism include:

•  Ensuring appointments to public service media boards of governance cannot be dominated by political interests, by using an electoral college or similar approach that ensures the full range of Parliament’s voices is involved. This is aimed particularly at protecting the government-appointed boards for Radio NZ and TVNZ.

•  Unfreezing Government funding for Radio New Zealand and ensuring adequate long-term support by introducing a requirement that 75 percent of Parliament must approve any attempt to freeze or cut funding. RNZ government funding has been frozen indefinitely by the current government since 2010, despite warnings that ability to meet the demands of its public charter is being seriously eroded.

•  Using a similar approach to give long-term stability to the public ownership of Television New Zealand, and reinstating a public service charter for Television One that ensures support for high quality journalism and removes the requirement that an annual dividend be paid to the government.

This media policy supports the creation of a Pasifica television channel funded and operated along the lines of Maori Television, with particular emphasis on high quality local news and in-depth journalism.

There would also be an investigation into the re-establishment of a Maori and Pacific Island journalism school along the lines of that originally founded at Waiariki Institute of Technology in the 1980s.

Given the power of the news media and its need for highly capable news-workers, there is an urgent need to review the amount of funding devoted to journalism education, whose funding levels have traditionally been at the bottom of the scale.

The review would also consider an imbalance between journalism programmes offered by universities – whose funding mechanisms have driven journalism education to more theoretical levels – and polytechnics, whose programmes lack theory and are largely practical.

IMAGE: Cartoon by Evans


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