The relevance of the Leveson media inquiry to New Zealand

The report of the Leveson inquiry into the ethics, culture and practice of the UK press has now been released. With our own Law Commission also looking further at media regulation, a number of local commentators have asked what relevancy the Leveson findings can hold for New Zealand.

Alan Ringwood, legal adviser to the NZ Herald, handily summarises the findings:

The key recommendation is that a new regulatory body be established, which would be independent of the press and the Government, and which would promote high standards of journalism and protect the public interest and the rights of individuals. In order to ensure the independence of this body it would not include any serving editor or politician.

Such a body would be self-regulatory, and would be empowered to set and enforce standards, hear complaints, and provide a quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with civil law claims. Newspapers would have the option of becoming members.

He goes on to defend the freedom of the press to publish what it sees fit (and profitable) against the interfering hand of government. He notes that many of the actions that led to the Leveson inquiry are illegal under current law and that some of the people involved have already been punished. He says that NZ needs no further press regulation and that press freedom is already under threat from a number of sources:

We had state interference in media coverage of the last general election when police officers entered newsrooms in the closing stages of the campaign to seize copies of the "teapot tapes". … We had New Zealand Herald journalists banned from Parliament for 10 days… We have expansionist privacy laws elbowing freedom of expression aside. Our defamation law has not kept up with developments in other common law jurisdictions, with the result that it has a chilling effect beyond that which is inappropriate in the modern age. Suppression orders are regularly being made by courts and tribunals in circumstances which do not satisfy the proper criteria for such orders. … We have controversial restrictions on what can be reported about suicides. We even still – in the 21st century – have a blasphemy crime on our statute books…

The NZ Herald editorial also criticises the proposals:

It needs to be remembered that newspapers operate under the general law. The breaches that prompted the Leveson inquiry were illegal and they are being punished. What is proposed now is an extension of the law to the ethics and standards that newspapers have set for themselves, individually and collectively.

Media Lawyer Steven Price thinks that Alan Ringwood and the NZ Herald are being a bit precious and that the high standards they claim to stand up for aren't in much evidence:

…like the press to be more accurate and balanced, focus seriously on issues a little more often, and do a bit of investigative journalism once in a while. If Ringwood is lauding the press’s freedom to “say what needs to be said on any subject”, then why doesn’t it do it?

He then goes on to ask whether determinedly independent regulation is that bad, comparing the Broadcasting Standards Authority to the voluntary Press Council:

Anyway, why are we supposed to think that any form of statutory regulation will be the death of free speech? The Broadcasting Standards Authority has been “regulating” our broadcast media for 20 years now (as has Ofcom in the UK). Has it killed news reporting? I’ve read a lot of BSA decisions, and I think they are plainly more respectful of free speech considerations than the Press Council is. Partly as a result, they are currently upholding a smaller proportion of complaints than the Press Council. Their decisions are more rigorous. They use their penalties judiciously. Their decisions are challengeable in the courts. They do not require you to sign away your right to sue, as the Press Council does.

Toby Manhire, writing (on this occasion) for the NZ Herald says that Leveson has failed to tackle the elephant in the room – the internet:

Leveson has clunked his learned tome squarely on the lid of Pandora's box. An elephant-shaped Pandora's box, if you must. And while the reflex is easy to understand – he has 2000 pages already, without lumping in the unwieldy questions of digital disruption – he has done more than just bury the matter. His report is erudite and engaging. But already it is out of date.

Because the extraordinary shift implied by digital technologies, chief among them the internet, changes almost everything. What nerds call convergence means that the old divisions of TV, radio, print, etc, are melting away. The television people produce screeds of printed words on their sites; newspapers' sites, meanwhile, are full of video and audio content. On top of and intertwined with all that is the rise of web journalism, or the blog, amorphous term though that is.

He compares that unfavourably to the work done by the NZ Law Commission where the internet is central to their review of press regulation.

As the Law Commission review recognises, convergence of media is likely to require a convergence of regulation. It recognises, too, that online journalism, including bloggers, should fall under its purview, envisaging a system whereby individual bloggers can be afforded the privileges of the press (such as privacy act exemptions) if they opt in to the regulatory framework.

My belief is that freedom of speech and freedom of the press is important, and that we shouldn't get too carried away with the idea that only a press that lives up to our high standards should be protected. 

A more worrying trend, ignored by Leveson and the Law Commission so far, is the dominance of the media by a few large companies. What use is freedom when only one set of views are ever reported?

Of course, the antidote to this is the democratising influence of the internet, where anyone can set themselves up to publish and can find their own audience if what they publish is interesting enough.

One wonders whether freedom of expression will be better served by Leveson's ignoring the ramifications of internet publishing or our own Law Commission's desire to see it further regulated.