gazetteNew Zealand’s Press Council has grand plans to include bloggers in its membership, and regulatory orbit … But what are its chances of getting them to sign up? And will the same standards apply? Steven Price canvasses the issues

New Zealand’s Press Council wants to spread its wings. It has decided to fly farther afield, casting its eagle eye over new terrains on the internet, including bloggers.

Will the online community welcome the attentions of this defender of speech and guardian of journalistic standards? Or will it resist this as a another new attempt at control?

The Press Council is an industry body that considers complaints against newspapers and magazines and their websites.

It evaluates those complaints using its “Statement of Principles”, a sort of code of ethics containing rules about things like accuracy, balance, fairness, privacy, and maintaining the distinction between fact and opinion.

But it has become increasingly clear that there is a regulatory gap.

Stand-alone digital media, including bloggers, aren’t covered by any form of ethical regulation, even though they are often performing the same functions as mainstream news media in gathering and commenting on news and current events.

So the Press Council is opening its doors to new media members.

image “The media world is changing and fragmenting,” says Rick Neville (pic) who chairs the Press Council’s executive committee. “It’s important that a body set up to maintain high standards, and provide an avenue for reader complaints, keeps pace with those changes.”

Too right. But will this do the trick? Will bloggers, for instance, want to join?

Neville suggested on Radio New Zealand National’s Media Watch that subscription fees will be kept low – merely in the “hundreds” of dollars.

For my part, I doubt there will be many bloggers who will want to pay hundreds of dollars to join.

What’s in it for them? Some may welcome the sense of legitimacy it bestows. They are journalists too, see? No longer the poor relations. Readers and sources may be more inclined to trust them if they know that standards are being enforced.

It may also help bloggers in arguing for source protection, exemption from the Privacy Act, and access to courtrooms and the parliamentary press gallery, for example.

A bigger attraction may be the waiver that many Press Council complainants are required to sign.

Complaining is free, but complainants have to promise not to sue in court. This waiver is of very questionable legality – there’s a serious question about whether forcing complainants to forgo their rights of access to court is void for public policy reasons – but it has never been challenged.

You can see why this waiver system might be bait for bloggers. What’s more, the Press Council cannot award damages or costs.

Big bloggers such as Whale Oil, Public Address and Kiwiblog have indicated willingness to consider signing up.

A prediction: if Whale Oil joins, he will withdraw in rage after the first complaint against him is upheld and make it his mission in life to ridicule and smear everyone associated with the Press Council, their children, neighbours, gardeners and pet labrador Boomer.

How will it work for the others? The obvious first question is: what standards will apply?

Surely bloggers won’t be expected to display the sort of balance that is supposed to be a staple of mainstream journalism. Will the same conflict of interest rules apply?

Others have noted that the Statement of Principles includes a requirement to disclose any financial inducements and avoid obligations to news sources.

Does that describe the political blogosphere? Comment and fact must be distinguished.

Now, New Zealand’s 600 or so bloggers are invariably careless, partisan, malicious or deranged, and are generally incapable of seeing any difference between their views on any particular issue and someone else’s idea of “the facts”.

Let me say at once that the Press Council has a good track record of giving wide latitude to the expression of commentary, especially in op-ed pages.

As it said in its 2012 Annual Report,

“The Council has always upheld the right to publish opinions even when readers have vehemently disagreed with them of considered them abusive, unfair or obnoxious.”

imageThere is nothing in the Statement of Principles outlawing offensiveness. Nevertheless, the Council does insist that any facts on which the opinions are based are accurate, and it outlaws disparaging and gratuitous emphasis on things like race.

These strike me as the makings of a set of principles that can apply to the blogosphere.

That said, I can’t escape the conclusion that there really needs to be a separate Statement of Principles, for blogs.

Balance could be replaced by rights of reply. The disclosure rules may be looser where the ideological leanings of the blogger are obvious.

There probably need to be rules about comments moderation (this applies to the mainstream media’s comments threads too).

Links to source material, and opposing views when they’re being criticised, should be encouraged.

The Press Council is discussing these sorts of issues, and plans to issue its new complaints rules in the near future.

Those rules will include the power for the Press Council to order something to be taken down if “the potential harm or damage to an organisation outweighs the need to keep the public record straight” (this will apply to mainstream media too).

It may also address whether bloggers themselves will have representatives on the Council.

Last year, the NZ Law Commission recommended the creation of a new multi-platform news media regulator to replace the Press Council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority, and the Online Media Standards Authority (which hears complaints about broadcasters’ websites).

Membership would have been open to news bloggers, which would also have solved the increasingly difficult problem of when the law should grant them the same legal rights and privileges as journalists.

But the government, displaying all the vision and judgment of Mister Magoo, rejected it.

That’s left the Press Council to try to pick up some of the pieces.

I wonder how many bloggers will feel it’s worth their while forking out a subscription fee for the privilege of being judged and perhaps criticised and ordered about by the Press Council.

But a word of warning to those who gleefully refuse to sign up: in the past, the Press Council has taken it upon itself to consider complaints against media organisations, like NBR, that hadn’t joined, though of course it couldn’t order them to publish its rulings.

It could do the same to blogs if it liked.

Steven Price is a Wellington barrister specialising in media law. He is the author of Media Minefield, a guide to media regulation in NZ and writes the Media Law Journal blog.

This article was originally published in the Gazette of Law and Journalism, Australia’s leading online media law publication.