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September 7, 2014 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

Watching over the (watch)dogs

I feel I’m warranted in saying that New Zealanders take our news media system for granted. Easy access to up-to-the-minute news stories is a given in our country and we forget that our independent press hold a freedom that some foreign nations can only dream about. However, I fear that this taken-for-granted nature means the industry, in particular its ethical and functional standards, are often overlooked. In fact, only in recent times have I become aware of an apparent gap in the regulatory system that leaves New Zealanders, one and all, vulnerable in the face of media influence. Too rarely do we consider what might happen should we feature in a particularly derogatory, unfair news article. We assume there’s someone to go to, that there’s someone to fight for ethical integrity, for our good name. We assume that perpetrators will be held to account and that our image will be restored. It is somewhat concerning then that this potentially isn’t the case…

Forgive me while I leave you at that cliffhanger to provide some background knowledge on New Zealand’s media sector. Since the age of Rogernomics, the New Zealand media sector has become increasingly commercialised, privatised and unregulated. Once a government-owned entity, now even the TVNZ channels are only partially funded and our newspapers entirely privately owned. As mentioned, this freedom of the sector is a good thing. The independent press and their right to freedom of expression are said to be central to a democratic society. It is a nation’s right to have an information source, free of political bias or hidden agendas, to keep us informed of the actions of our leaders and all wrongdoers in society. They are a watchdog of sorts, keeping an eye out where we cannot.

However, there have to be some limitations. We all have a good name to uphold (or maybe just a name) and if having your bits and bobs splashed on the cover of the Dom Post (damn that last tequila shot) isn’t your cup of tea there are regulatory bodies you can turn to. For any written wrongdoings, your port of call is the New Zealand Press Council – a private, self-regulating body that deals with all ethical matters, from privacy breaches to subterfuge. For broadcasters (television or radio) you’re looking at the Broadcasting Standards Authority – a Government body that is supported by the Broadcasting Act 1989.

“Sweet, we’re covered,” you might think.  Well, think again because you may or may not have noticed that the aforementioned piece of legislation dates back to the late 80s. This doesn’t seem too long ago until you consider how things have changed since then. I’m talking about dawn of the Planet of the Internet. The Internet has become all encompassing. That little device we carry in our pocket grants us unlimited access to more information than you could ever need and the evolution of such technologies has vastly changed the media landscape. Media sources have become increasingly fragmented as technological developments allow the production of media in ways no one could have imagined. Websites, blogs, chat forums, even Facebook are all new sites of news production. Consider your own media consumption. Excluding of course the glorious print Salient, I’m guessing your media intake is predominantly (if not completely) done online.

If we jump back to the relative age of our regulatory bodies, we can see that the Internet has opened up a gap in our regulatory system. The rules and jurisdiction of our watchdogs’ watchdogs wasn’t designed to deal with these new mediums. It appears our regulators had not foreseen this rapid onslaught of technology. These result? These online bodies are effectively answerable to no one. The jurisdiction of our regulators only covers the traditional mediums, which means that in practise, online publishers are free to post whatever they like. And considering these publishers have become our primary news source, this is somewhat concerning.

While the Press Council has recently extended jurisdiction to cover members’ online content, and the establishment of the Online Media Standards Authority has gone some ways to cover the gap, there are still providers that lie beyond our regulatory scope. You see, in New Zealand, publishers must sign up (at a small fee) in what is a voluntary admission to regulatory jurisdiction. This wasn’t a problem pre-dawn of the Internet as large, mainstream institutions were effectively the sole providers of media content. This meant that it was in their best interest to sign up, for in return they gained the stamp of credibility that bought them readers. It also reduced the pressure to conform to dirty news practices. By introducing a universal ethical standard, competition couldn’t drive practices to new lows in the effort to ‘get the story first’.

The issue is that by being excluded, online providers are pressuring mainstream providers to push these ethical boundaries. Blogs, for example, are specifically sought out for their politically incorrect, say-it-as-it-is opinion pieces. They are renowned for their ability to give you the answers when high and mighty mainstream producers won’t. They are hunted for the specifics, for the censored information, for the hard, cold underlying truth. It’s almost as if their lack of standards is part of their brand. So why would they willingly sign up to a body that directly opposes this? Moreover, the new online producers are predominantly independent, individual parties. Therefore, what is a ‘small’ administration fee to a grand institution is a decent splash out for a lone blogger, especially when that blogger knows that its users don’t care for ethical integrity so much as they do for getting the juice.

Why don’t we make it compulsory then? Because it’s not so simple as that. Internet mediums have a shiftable, fluid nature that traditional mediums do not. The easy entry, exit and relocation of the online sector makes it near impossible to regulate them. We are all familiar with the copy and paste function, we know how easy it is to simply shut down a blog or facebook page and relocate to another site. Online producers are slippery buggers that can’t be regulated so easily as traditional institutions. And the fact that they don’t want to be makes the job that much harder.

You may be asking why, if this is such a problem, no one has mentioned it before? Surely the professionals would be showing some concern? The thing is, they are. In 2013 the Law Commission released a report outlining their concerns. They suggested a single regulatory body be established, with the jurisdiction to cover all media producers, old and new. The Government however, decided not to adopt the proposal. Instead they opted to ‘wait and see’, preferring not to get involved. This effectively isn’t even an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s a phone out ready to make the call at best. It may even be a phone out ready to take the video and publish on Facebook, depending on how you look at it.

So what happens in the time being? Enter Nicky Hager and his Dirty Politics book (sorry it had to happen). Dirty Politics reveals what happens when the gap in the system is abused. You see, politicians are catching on fast to the fact that we want the dirt and that the bloggers will provide it. Bloggers don’t care where the leak came from. They don’t care about shady sources and questionable sourcing strategies (*cough cough hacking*). They want the story and they’ll do what it takes to get it. And because they aren’t answerable to regulators, they can.

Blogger Cameron Slater allegedly used an ex-prostitute and her co-workers to get some brothel-using politician names. Jason Ede, John Key’s former press secretary, claims he was just ‘doing his job’ by feeding Slater with stories and information. This claim is undermined somewhat when you consider his relationship with the mainstream media. Ede and Slater appear comparatively chummy with seemingly only Slater getting the luxury of immediate returns on OIA requests, or so his fiercest opponents claim. What we’re looking at here is the rise of bloggers and the shady relationship they share with our politicians. And because of the gap in our regulatory system, they can go unchallenged in their questionable practices.

With little signal from the Government of any impending regulatory changes, I fear that we may have to rely on questionable characters like Nicky Hager (whose own book almost ironically is sourced by the shady hacking of emails) to expose unethical practises. Is it too unrealistic to ask that the Government find a way to regulate the ‘unregulatable’?

At this stage it’s hard to tell, but it appears the Government will only act if the public demands it. The question is, do we even want to? “It’s just politics,” they say, “It’s the way of the world”. And if we find a way to regulate, what will happen to our own freedom of expression and our own ability to produce online content?

Citizens from all walks of life are constantly producing material online. There is a continuum of media producers on which bloggers sit and their position lies somewhere between the commercial, mainstream providers on one end and public on the other. If we were to find a way to regulate these intermediate online providers, would members of the public find themselves also answerable to these regulations? Where does one draw the line between a ‘professional’ blogger and your casual user? Is your Average Joe going to have to fork out a couple of hundred in order to keep a casual blog? And what of Facebook? God forbid they realise that Facebook is another site of media production, with every status representing a publicly asserted opinion on some current affair (even if that affair was merely your morning meal).

It is all quite the conundrum. On one hand, the news is the news and we want this information, so who cares about who provided it. There is the need for freedom of expression and free press and the argument that public interest outweighs any ethical requirements. On the other hand, we cannot allow these dirty, unethical practices to go on. We need to have a safety net just in case we end up being the unfortunate victims of an unfair story. And just to make the matter even more confusing, we’ll throw in another hand (because this issue is one stuffed up, multi-limbed bugger). If we managed to find a way to regulate, what implication will this have for casual producers, for you and I? Will we be able to post our own material? Will we be answerable to the same universal, regulatory hand?

I guess the moral of the story, boys and girls, is that the Internet is a bitch and the regulators are to be pitied, for they face a very problematic situation. The fact is: there is no silver bullet. There’s not even a bronze one. Our mediascape has become so fragmented and our morals apparently so corrupt, that a sound regulatory system is an unachievable ideal and a dream we should all wake up from and fast.

Perhaps we should get rid of regulation. At least then it’s a level playing field. I can only imagine the frustration of mainstream media as they try to compete for stories and viewers, while the free-to-roam blogosphere is unconstrained in its ability to get the entire story, uncensored and fast. In such an unregulated world we would rely on the mercy of media producers and the hope that our desperate pleas would see them grudgingly remove content that could potentially ruin our lives. If that mercy doesn’t exist, perhaps we should just accept that “big brother is always watching” and that in the media world your stuff ups are fair game.

Finally, in terms of politics, I guess we’ll just have to hope that the likes of Nicky Hager will continue exposing our leaders’ (and their media buddies’) dirty practises because apparently, for the time being at least, our regulators can’t. *Sigh* and they wonder why students don’t vote.


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