Nudity, ponytails, coronavirus and climate change; for half a century, the New Zealand Media Council took care of everything.
Balancing freedom of information with protecting the public from the offensive or incorrect, the group addresses complaints about print and digital media – including audio and video streams and online content posted by broadcasters.
When viewers or readers think something is wrong, unfair, or just plain out of place, it’s the board that investigates and ultimately makes the decision.
But as the number of complaints skyrockets; misinformation is rampant and public distrust is growing, some say the council can do more and lacks both bark and bite. Others say it’s the only way to regulate a free press.
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Originally called the Press Council, the organization was established in 1972 by newspaper editors and journalists who wanted an independent body to both resolve public complaints and promote press freedom. .
Since then, its authority has expanded to include magazines, news websites and digital platforms. It is made up of 11 permanent members consisting of an independent president who is still a retired judge; five people representing the public and five representing industry.
Financially backed by members of the industry who opt in to its governance, the council’s statement of principles under which people can complain includes accuracy, fairness and balance; privacy; discrimination and diversity, and photographs.
It has no legally enforceable punitive powers, unlike the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), a statutory body, but in 2007 took on the ability to direct where a judgment should appear in a publication.
Unsurprisingly, the board responds to a wide range of complaints. One, in 1994, was from a councilor who allegedly “stormed out” of a council meeting, when in fact he said he had “quietly retired”.
This complaint was not accepted, nor was that of 1994 from a man whose letter to the editor was not published. Among the successful complaints was a 2013 cartoon apparently linking Irish workers with an increase in chlamydia cases in Canterbury.
Many of the earlier complaints were about public decency and offended sensibilities, stemming from things like the 1982 photo of a topless woman at cricket. From the corner of the picture, a hand can be seen grabbing his chest.
“Young blood cheers welcomed her into her bare breasts, but a couple weren’t above giving her a thumbs up,” the caption read.
Sex and nudity were such a frequent subject of complaint, particularly in the 1970s, that the then Press Council published a pamphlet about it.
High-profile issues also found their way past the council, which became embroiled in the infamous ponytail shooting incident of then Prime Minister John Key.
Key described his hair-pulling pranks as “a bit of a joke” and apologized when it became clear it was unwelcome. The board upheld nine complaints that the article was obtained under false pretences and printed without the waitress’s consent.
Another high-profile decision was that of a cartoon about the measles crisis in Samoa in 2019. Although it has rarely upheld complaints about the cartoons, the council has upheld an “unprecedented” number on this one- ci, calling it “hurtful and discriminatory”.
Current Media Council member Jo Cribb said it was essential that an independent watchdog handle complaints about the media.
Decisions are taken seriously by the industry and are intensely debated by board members, she says.
“Dissents are not uncommon, which we consider a good thing, demonstrating a solid process.”
Despite this, she believes more could be done to ensure New Zealanders are aware they can complain, particularly given the environment of mistrust, misinformation and anger.
Public trust in the media is crucial, she says, and because the council’s media complaints process is trustworthy, it helps with that.
“But we must also confront and seek to resolve the growing mistrust that many New Zealanders have of existing institutions, including ourselves.”
But just as distrust grew, so did the number of complaints; more than doubled in the last five years.
Climate change and the pandemic have become hotbeds of attacks on the accuracy and balance of reporting.
Media law expert Professor John Burrows says arguments about what is true and what is not are increasing in the information age, so oversight by the council and the BSA is essential.
“There’s an awful lot of misinformation out there right now and it affects a lot of things like elections and referendums where you get all these disparate opinions.”
It leaves people confused, he says, and it’s essential to have the council that can both decide which is the correct version of the truth and call on people to spread false information.
Burrows thinks social media, the internet and the life-disrupting pandemic have led to an increase in misinformation.
“You get all kinds of funny stuff floating around and people are very careful what they read, they have to check their facts for themselves, if they can.
“There have always been lies…lies have been taught since men have existed. Now it’s just more ways to spread it and more ways to convince people you’re right.
While the council was put together by industry, Burrows says its good mix of public representatives increased the likelihood of a sensible conclusion with a wide range of views being questioned.
Members of Parliament take their responsibilities very seriously because the consequences are far-reaching.
“If it’s really contentious things, their decisions tend to be read abroad as well. And I think for that reason they need to be as independent as possible. And I think they’re doing pretty well in that regard.
Ursula Cheer is a professor at the University of Canterbury Law School and says there will always be a level of cynicism about self-regulation that is completely understandable.
She says the council serves the public by placing considerable weight on free speech, which is reflected in its decisions.
“But some might equate this with media bias, believe it undermines the council-run complaints process and view it as not serving the public interest in our media behaving ethically.”
Cheer says the system could be improved by withholding more complaints and adopting tougher penalties, although this is risky as the council relies on voluntary membership.
“Media that did not like such changes could simply drop their membership in the council and cease to be bound by its ethical principles. The advice is a bit stuck here.
In a recent column, she noted that 2021 marked 199 complaints for the council, significantly more than any other year. However, 127 were found to have insufficient grounds to prosecute. Eight have been confirmed in full; two were supported by a majority; five were partially confirmed; one was not retained by a majority; and 56 were not retained. Twelve other complaints were resolved informally.
Just as misinformation makes high standards of media accuracy more important than ever, some form of regulation is needed.
“But whether the council is the best body to do the job in the current environment must remain under scrutiny. We need effective regulation for the New Zealand media in general.
The Law Commission’s 2013 recommendation of a single body with regulatory oversight of all news media is the path taken by other countries with similar news outlets and something Cheer thinks has legs.
“New Zealand’s multifaceted system has been described as an uneven playing field, with some media not even subject to any regulation.”
James Hollings, associate professor of journalism at Massey University, says the news media should be free from government regulation and believes the council is both a good model and does good work.
“Ultimately, his responsibility lies with the court of public opinion, and he tries to distinguish between protecting the role of the news media and being an independent critic.”
Hollings says the board member balance is about right; something that can often be seen in his decisions.
“You can see a clear separation between lay members and journalist members. Journalists often see it as a journalist would, while others have a different perception.
As to whether a correction ordered by the Board; is apologizing or disguising enough to punish wrongdoing members of the media?
“The proof of the pudding is if they do it again.”