The New Zealand Press Council will celebrate its 40th year in operation this year, but instead of chocolate cake and a gold watch the organisation could be in for a shock - sweeping reforms in media laws, and the possible regulation of the standards authority.
To help combat any statutory involvement by the government, and to bring it into the 21st century, the Press Council is developing an online system where bloggers can voluntarily opt into its jurisdiction.
The Press Council says bloggers will be afforded the same privileges as journalists (protection of sources, exemption from the Privacy Act, and access to courts). In return bloggers must agree to abide by the jurisdiction and ethics of mainstream journalists, who are bound by a code of ethics that is generally similar to the Press Council’s own Statement of Principles.
The idea to expand the same media protection to bloggers has gained some support.
David Farrar, the editor of Kiwiblog and a former vice president of InternetNZ, wrote in a submission to the Law Commission that the internet gives anyone the opportunity to comment or investigate important issues, and says journalistic protection should be extended to anyone writing for the public interest, where practical.
“Blogging is just one form of publication on the internet. This should be on an opt-in basis only,” says Farrar.
The threat of regulation
Last year, the Press Council was identified by the government for a review into regulating and consolidating different media authorities into a single entity, along with the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and the Office of Film and Literature Classification.
“Gaps and inconsistencies already exist in how these two bodies [the Press Council and BSA] covering traditional news media and our preliminary conclusion is that neither is well suited to respond to the rapidly evolving converged new media environment,” says the Law Commission report.
Since its inception the Press Council has been an independent industry body, self regulated and financed by New Zealand’s major publishers including APN and Fairfax (owner of Computerworld).
Major in charge
During the last ten years Mary Major has served as the executive director of the Press Council. Her role at the Press Council is a non-voting one. She has no say in the final outcomes of complaints.
Major, who is the Council’s only full time employee, screens initial complaints to ensure they have gone through the official complaints process, and meet the criteria for submission. She is also the official spokesperson for the Press Council, often called upon to make comments on behalf of the industry on freedom-of-press issues.
Major says there are no grounds for regulation of independent standards authorities like the Press Council, and to do so would compromise its role as a watchdog of the fourth estate.
After years of handling complaints about the press, Major says now more than ever New Zealand needs the Press Council to keep objectivity and ethics in media.
Surrounded by journalists asking her intimate questions about her life during a press meet-and-greet, Major appears to be the most composed person in the room.
She hesitates briefly after each question, to think about what she is about to say - an act that is accompanied by her playing with the flowery brooch on her left lapel.
“Are we recording this interview?” she asks. The journalists nod their heads.
“I’ll be forthcoming, but just not as flippant,” she says. “I hope you understand.”
It’s obvious that Major knows how journalists work – including the competitive pressures that can sometimes cause them to push the boundaries.
She is still haunted by the complaints of a Kapiti Coast man who found out his son had died in a car crash online while at a ferry terminal. She says media will only become more brutal as the competition to be the first to post a story online increases with mainstream media competing with bloggers and social media websites.
“These everyday tragedies that are reported aren’t everyday tragedies to the people involved. They’re an absolutely devastating event in these people’s lives,” says Major.
Major says bloggers are only required not to breach criminal or civil law. As long as they do not defame or breach suppression orders, they can generally write what they like. For Major this does not go far enough towards protecting the public from potential misinformation.
She says the blogger opt-in system being developed will give accredited bloggers further credibility and assure the public they are accountable for what they have written.
Major says similar systems have been used successfully overseas.
According to Major there are more than 80 press councils internationally, each doing its part towards maintaining a free and ethical press in their respective countries.
She says sometimes the actions (or inactions) of overseas councils have had repercussions in New Zealand.
“After the News of the World scandal broke, I’d get all these complaints that would say ‘dah dah dah dah, just like News of the World’”, says Major, talking about the incidents in the UK where journalists were found to have tapped into private phone conversations illegally.
Majors says the job of a press council is to maintain ethics, and that maintaining the law is the police’s job.
“How was their press council supposed to stop illegal phone tapping?” asks Major.
“Press councils have no right of investigation, and no ability to seek a subpoena.”
Majors says the media situation in the UK and New Zealand are completely different and not worth comparing. She says matters were further exacerbated when Prime Minister John key compared the Teapot Tape scandal to the News of the World reporters.
“That took it to such an extreme,” says Majors. “We have to take it into the context of an election campaign, but I think he took it too far.”
If the government does decide to regulate the Press Council, and she loses her job, all will not be lost for Major.
The mother of two has been a radiographer, hostel owner, and property manager - the one thing she hasn’t yet found time to do is actual journalism, despite her diploma in the craft.
So what kind of journalist would Mary Major be in this age of internet uncertainty?
“I would be a cautious journalist,” says Major.
* The Law Commission is currently reviewing public submissions to its initial report.