Pretty well as soon as our media gets back from the beach, the Finkelstein inquiry into journalism regulation will be reporting, and we can expect a great hullabaloo on the question of whether government should get its sticky fingers into funding and legislating the regulation of journalism.

As we all closed down for summer, it was pretty clear that The Fink had largely bought the idea of a beefed-up Australian Press Council, and was worrying away at the key issues of whether it should be funded by government, whether it should be backed by legal sanctions,  and whether membership should be compulsory — and if so, where to draw the line. For example, should bloggers who sometimes publish news be forced to join up, alongside the mighty News Limited and Fairfax?

Before it all gets heated and navel gazy, (and prepare for maximum self-righteousness on all sides) it might be worth lifting our heads a little and looking overseas, and particularly over the Tasman. Just before Christmas, the New Zealand Law Commission released an issues paper that elegantly deals with the very same issues we are considering in Australia, including how to define “news media” in the internet age, and what a beefed up regulation system might look like.

The result is proposals for a new regulatory body to take in all media, with government funding plus statutory power to force corrections and apologies, and the power to name offending journalists, editors and producers.

The publication News Media Meets “New Media” is only a discussion paper. Submissions are due in March, and a final report will be issued at the end of the year.

So far as mainstream news media are concerned, New Zealand is similar to Australia in that broadcast media are subject to legal regulation, but print media only to self-regulation, through a Press Council — membership of which is voluntary. Nevertheless, the news media has legal and informal privileges, including exemptions from privacy legislation and rights of access to public forums denied to others.

The Law Commission has proposed that the special privileges of traditional news media should be extended widely to bloggers and others — providing they are prepared to sign up to self-regulation, backed by government funding and legal sanctions.

One of the most interesting aspects of the report is its tackling of the fundamental question “who is the news media”? It proposes a new definition, married to the need for ethical regulation. For the purposes of the law, the commission proposes that “news media” should mean:

any publisher, in any medium, who meets the following criteria:

  • a significant proportion of their publishing activities must involve the generation and/or aggregation of news, information and opinion of current value;
  • they disseminate this information to a public audience;
  • publication must be regular;
  • the publisher must be accountable to a code of ethics and a complaints process.

Nothing in this definition would prevent a blogger from publishing freely. But they would not be counted as “news media” with the accreditation and legal privileges that implies unless they signed up to a complaints process and ethical code.

It is worth nothing that under this definition, your very own Crikey would probably not count as “news media” — because it is not a member of the Press Council. Thus under the proposed New Zealand system, Crikey would be denied access to the budget lock up, the parliamentary press gallery and some sittings of courts.

The New Zealand Commission wades bravely in to the whole issue of government involvement of journalism regulation, by proposing a new independent regulator for all news media — print, online and broadcast. This is precisely what many submissions to The Fink have recommended.

In Australia, nearly all the publishers have vehemently opposed any suggestion of such a body having statutory powers, or government funding. The argument goes that any government involvement — any at all — is an intolerable threat to freedom of speech. Meanwhile, it is pretty clear that the commercial broadcasters have largely yet to wake up to the fact that The Fink might have things to say that will affect them, and that his findings might not only be about newspapers.

The New Zealand Law Commission thinks that that country’s new regulatory body should be “recognised by statute” and funded by industry and by government. To quote:

“It is in the public interest that as many news publishers, including small start-ups, belong to such a standards body and a lack of financial resources should not be an impediment to joining. The state and wider public have a strong interest in a robust and ethical news media and we see no reason why this body should not receive state support, provided there are no strings attached to the appropriation. There are precedents for such arrangements in other jurisdictions.”

The precedents quoted include Finland, Quebec and Germany.

So where to draw the line on membership of this new body? Two options are canvassed. First, membership being entirely voluntary, but backed by the carrot of legal privileges for those who sign up. Option two is a tiered system, with mainstream commercial news providers forced to join, and membership being voluntary for others.

And, wading on, the commission suggests that the new regulator should have the power to force publication of adverse findings, force the taking down of offending stories and force the publication of apologies and corrections. It canvasses, but rejects, the idea of monetary penalties and compensation for wronged members of the public, but does suggest that in extreme cases, individual reporters, editors and producers should be named for transgressions:

“Even if that is not done, one would expect the media agency to at least inform the responsible employee of the decision and to take steps to ensure the conduct is not repeated. We understand that this does not always happen at the moment.”

Well, that sounds familiar. The report also includes a scary cataloguing, based on its research with police and other authorities, of the harms of unregulated internet-based publication particularly on social media, and proposes changes to harassment, telecommunications and privacy laws to tackle cyber bullying. Included is a suggestion that the Privacy Act be amended to make it an offence  to publish intimate photographs even when they were taken with the subject’s consent.Along with this is a proposal for a Communications Tribunal, to provide speedy, efficient and cheap justice to those damaged by unlawful communications.

There is more here on media codes, and the correct balance between very general statements of principles and more prescriptive guidelines. This is a current live issue in Australia, with the ABC, for example, adopting very brief editorial guidelines backed by guidance notes, while the Press Council moves in the opposite direction with more direct prescriptions.

The New Zealand Law Commission suggests a survey of the public to establish what is expected of news media, including whether the public has different expectations for the fast and furious rolling news on internet sites, to once-a-day newspapers.

Worth noting is the fact that New Zealand started this process quite a while ago. It was asked to review the adequacy of news media regulation in October 2010. Their equivalent of the convergence review also got under way earlier than our own equivalent — but was halted by the incoming government.

The drivers were similar to those in Australia — a recognition that the internet challenges traditional media law, and that news media are threatened by collapsing business models — but the process predated the Leveson and Finkelstein inquiries, although both are referenced in the report.

Given the longer time span, the New Zealanders have been able to do things that The Fink will be struggling to do adequately in the time he has been given — including talking to cops, human rights bodies and others about the problems of internet publication.

I liked the opening passage of the report  that nicely states the advantages, and impact of the social media world:

“Somewhere in the Egyptian region of Ibrahimya is a child named ‘Facebook Jamal Ibrahim.’ … the child’s young father decided to name his first born after Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site to honour the critical role it played in fomenting and executing the January 2011 popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

“Commenting on this story in a blog post on the website TechCrunch, Alexia Tsotsis noted that ‘the baby girl could just have easily been called ‘Twitter’, ‘Google’ or even ‘Cellphone Camera’. However, for the moment at least, Facebook had become ‘the umbrella symbol for how social media can spread the message of freedom’.”

But on the other hand, there is the nastiness. The report catalogues complaints about a homophobic US site that suggested the Christchurch earthquake was due to the sins of the inhabitants. And there are truly frightening examples given of the impact of cyber bullying in family law cases and among schoolchildren.

All in all, the New Zealand exercise echoes our own, and as we enter our the forthcoming and predictable period of media navel gazing accompanied by self-righteousness on all sides, it will be interesting to watch the progress across the Tasman.