The British tabloid press at its worst has never been a pretty thing to contemplate.
Hyper-competitive, unscrupulous, concerned more to get something that might be tricked up as a “scoop” no matter who got trampled on in the process, its unlovely ways have often been deplored. When British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed a Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Leveson, to conduct an inquiry into the operation of newspapers and to suggest how they might be better regulated, it was the seventh inquiry in 70 years to traverse much the same ground. When the inquiry was set up the papers’ reputation could hardly have been lower and nine months of hearings, in which some 337 witnesses were heard and 300 more gave statements, have done nothing to improve it. Despite all that, Leveson’s principal recommendation, for tougher regulation supported by law, is unlikely to be acted upon, and for very good reason.
I think there will be tougher regulation, but I don’t think it will be statutory regulation.
At the end of it all, Leveson found one of the central allegations that had been made – that Cameron had become too cosy with the Murdoch empire and had tailored policy to suit it – was not made out. He further found much of the press excellent. But the judge also found Britain’s system of newspaper self-regulation weak and inadequate and he proposed a new, much stronger one, ostensibly independent and voluntary but in fact coercive, with powers to fine heavily and, most crucially, backed by statute.
In NZ broadcasters can be fined, but not print media.
Direct state control over newspapers has not existed in England for more than 300 years. The idea of putting at risk the hard-won freedoms developed over centuries because of the excesses of a few tabloids is rightly regarded as anathema. To his credit, Cameron immediately spotted the dangers and while accepting Leveson’s findings, he has rejected that part of his report. A strong and effective regulatory body is undoubtedly needed, but not one established by the state, no matter how far removed from the immediate grasp of politicians. The practically inevitable risk of further political meddling is too great.
New Zealand does not have the tabloid rabble that London does. It is also fortunate in having in the Press Council an effective body to deal with complaints. A few months ago, though, the Law Commission, fretting about alleged problems with the web, proposed a new statutory body to regulate all media. It is not a good idea, nor is it necessary, and with luck it will go no further.
I agree there should not be a statutory body. However I do think the idea of one combined industry self-regulator for print, broadcast and online is sensible and the best way to stop state regulation would be for media to proactively start work towards a combined self-regulator with no gaps as currently exists.
UPDATE: Sean Plunket writes in the Dom Post:
This isn’t to say there is no bias in New Zealand media. There most certainly is at an individual and institutional level. Most often, it is unconscious or unwitting, incredibly hard to positively identify and virtually impossible to eradicate.
To attempt to do so by writing a new set of rules and regulations would be a waste of time. It would hamstring the majority of genuine journalists doing their best to inform their readers/viewers/listeners of the opinions and activities of our politicians.
Impartiality has always, and ever will be, an aspirational goal for the media but kidding ourselves that some code of conduct can ever actually achieve it is a vain hope.
Events in Britain, where media bias is generally accepted, are far more concerning. The issues there are not about how the fourth estate presents the news but how it gathers it. In the case of Rupert Murdoch’s empire it would seem the catch cry was “by any means necessary”.
I’m happy to say that in my 25 plus years in New Zealand media it is not the prevalent attitude here. I don’t know any Kiwi colleague who has bribed, hacked or blackmailed to get a story. The teapot tapes suggest some of us aren’t above a bit of covert surveillance but it is most certainly the exception rather than the rule.
The Leveson inquiry showed us that attitudes were different among a large sector of British media but despite the fact that I find that abhorrent, I think Mr Cameron is doing the right thing.
I have not detected any great enthusiasm for Leveson’s recommendation to have a statutory basis for media regulation.