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What’s to complain about? Ex Sunday Star Times editor Cate Brett on press accountability in the digital era

In an essay first published in the non-fiction anthology Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, former SST editor Cate Brett looks at the relationship between newspapers and their readers in the age of digital disruption.

Editors were once sufficiently important to sack. I survived five years as editor of the Sunday Star Times (2003–2008) but had my feet held to the fire more or less deservedly on a number of occasions. Early on in the piece I was hauled before the New Zealand Press Council – a voluntary complaints body formed in 1972 to ward off threats of government regulation of the newspaper industry – after breaking an embargo on a sensitive Civil Aviation Authority crash report. A much vaunted revamp of the paper was nearly torpedoed by my naïve decision to ‘fill a hole’ in the news section with a photograph of naked Otago University students taking their annual mid-winter swim. A couple of limp male members were vaguely discernible. I spent the following week on my knees apologising to readers who were threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Management wrote advising me of my gross lapse of editorial judgment and of the fact that ‘full front male nudity’ had no place in a Fairfax Sunday newspaper (interestingly NZ Truth’s tradition of page-three girls survived Fairfax ownership, only disappearing once the paper passed into private ownership in 2009).1

Far more significant and humiliating was the front-page apology (carefully crafted by Fairfax Australia’s public relations impresarios) that followed the publication of an exhaustive but flawed investigation into allegations of politically motivated spying by New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service. We had thrown serious resources at the story – trips to China to interview sources, forensic computer experts engaged, external advisers and lawyers – but the story went to print with too many holes. The then Labour-led government asked the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to hold an inquiry. After issuing two reports (one of them confidential) I found myself in the ignominious position of having to back down: to say we got it wrong – or at best, only half right. The New Zealand Herald, my nemesis, published a jubilant editorial demanding my head on a plate. A painstaking internal review picked over the entrails and concluded we had been unlucky – and probably set up – but had ultimately failed to triangulate the story. Greater scepticism and less competitive haste could also have kept me out of trouble.

A decade on and meticulously documented stories about illicit or state-sanctioned espionage regularly feature as part of a sometimes overwhelmingly rich diet of international news, thanks to a torrent of data leaks/hackings and an increasingly sophisticated coalition of mainstream and new media that is able to make some sense of it all for global audiences. Indeed one of the many paradoxes evident today is that even as the internet and digitisation gobbles the revenue streams that have financed traditional news publishers, it is also hugely augmenting the influence and reach of the surviving big brand mastheads and a new breed of ‘celebrity’ investigative journalists and news makers.

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Here in our own little corner of the world the media landscape is virtually unrecognisable from that which I left in 2008. As I write, the two trans-Tasman media companies who were engaged in a phoney war over the New Zealand Sunday newspaper market are instead now engaged to be married. If approved by the Commerce Commission, the merger of APN News and Media’s New Zealand assets (which include the New Zealand Herald and a suite of commercial radio stations and community newspapers) and Fairfax New Zealand’s assets (which include the Sunday Star Times, the Press, the Dominion Post, the Waikato Times and Stuff) will lead to a level of media convergence and contraction that would have been unimaginable even a short time ago. Indeed there is every indication the commercial re-configuration of ‘content creators’, communications and IT companies will continue apace with a merger between Vodafone and SKY TV also under discussion. All of which raises questions about the future viability of the publicly owned broadcasters – RNZ, Māori TV and Television New Zealand – as stand-alone entities.

At the same time once startling (and hotly resisted) proposals to pool editorial resources across weekend newspaper titles have become de rigueur as media companies fall over themselves to create ‘cross-media news hubs’. Almost overnight the much vaunted notion of ‘platform agnostic content creation’ has become a reality as commercial media companies look to rationalise their dwindling editorial resources and maximise the leverage to be obtained across print, online, broadcast, mobile and on-demand media.

The human cost of this decade of disruption has been high but largely undocumented, thanks to our media’s reluctance to apply the same level of scrutiny to its own dealings as it does to other large companies or employers. However there has been no hiding the exit of a handful of high profile media executives, editors and journalists in response to the continued tightening of the screws on news and current affairs production.

But it’s not all bad news. Out of this rolling scrum all manner of new and exciting experiments are popping up. Soon after his unceremonious departure from MediaWorks John Campbell was headhunted by Radio New Zealand’s CEO Paul Thompson (formerly Fairfax NZ’s editor-in-chief) to pioneer its first multi-platform show dubbed ‘radio with pictures’; meanwhile Campbell’s long serving boss at MediaWorks Mark Jennings may be teaming up with former Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy to launch an online news site. And while Stuff and the Herald’s home pages increasingly resemble celebrity magazine covers, those willing to seek it out have never been better served for intelligent, satirical, sophisticated and savvy commentary on what’s going on in this country thanks to websites like Pundit, The Spinoff, Metro, RNZ, Scoop and Public Address, in addition to numerous bloggers.

And to my great satisfaction (as an editor who went out on a limb on a number of occasions to collaborate with him), after spending decades in the wilderness, Nicky Hager has finally been accepted into the mainstream media’s fold. Most recently he collaborated with RNZ and Television New Zealand journalists mining the Panama Papers for evidence of New Zealand’s place in the murky inner workings of the off-shore finance industry. In a country where it is possible to count the number of journalists capable of this sort of analysis on two hands, it is an embarrassment it took so long to recognise Hager’s journalistic talent and achievements.

So what are the implications of this chaotic and constantly evolving media landscape for journalistic standards and media accountability? To begin with, the role of the editor as the place where the buck stops has largely disappeared. Indeed as anyone who has tried will know, to find any named individual willing to be held accountable for the quality and reliability of the random spray of ‘content’ being generated by commercial news media is well-nigh impossible. In most cases the only route in is via the backdoor – i.e. the ‘contact us’ tab, a generic portal for all manner of ‘customer’ inquiries of which a complaint about content is just one.

Of course internet utopians who still cling to the myth of the ‘democratisation of news’ would argue editors and standards bodies are obsolete because the web and social media have given citizens an unprecedented ability to talk back. Blunt methods such as cancelling a newspaper subscription or penning irate letters to the editor have been replaced by the rapier cut and thrust of online comments and Twitter. What more efficient means of monitoring the news media than via such instantaneous (and potentially punitive) corrective feedback loops available to everyone with an internet connection?

The trouble with this pat response is that no amount of feedback or user-generated news can exert the type of power available to those media still capable of aggregating mass audiences, which allows those media to set the news agenda and control the narrative. Moreover, while the new communications technologies have augmented an individual’s ability to ‘speak truth to power’, they have also provided unprecedented opportunities for exploitation, manipulation, distortion, hate speech and propaganda.

The fact this opportunity has arisen at precisely the same moment in time as the mainstream media is gagging for cheap, professionally produced, ‘likeable’ content has created a highly suggestible environment wherein PR experts and propagandists of all persuasions can run amok – whether these be Islamic State seeding videos of beheadings on social media in sync with the international news cycles or professional pundits tweeting the latest carefully calibrated sound bite from US presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Although inconsequential by comparison, this trend is apparent even here in New Zealand. Nicky Hager’s book on the 2014 elections, Dirty Politics, provided some disturbing insights into the way in which a small group of commentators were able to exert disproportionate influence over the political and news agenda through the deliberate use of their mainstream and social media networks.2

All of which gives rise to the question: how do ordinary citizens know if the information they rely on is a reasonably accurate and reasonably dispassionate account of what is happening in the world? And who is holding the news decision makers’ feet to the fire when they get it wrong or use their power irresponsibly or recklessly? And what remedies can possibly be used to rectify the enormous damage to personal, political and business reputations as a consequence? Over the past decade these questions, and the broader issue of content regulation, have been the focus of numerous inquiries and reviews in liberal democracies like our own as governments and publishers grapple with the implications of convergence and the disruption of new technology on the existing commercial and legal frameworks.3

Here in New Zealand in 2011 the National-led government gave the independent public law reform body, the Law Commission, a reference to assess whether the regulatory environment in which this country’s news media and other communicators were operating remained fit for purpose in the digital era.

Having joined the Law Commission as a senior researcher and policy adviser in 2008, I found myself in the at times uncomfortable position of poacher turned gamekeeper engaging in wide-ranging and fascinating conversation with both new and traditional media about whether it was necessary, desirable or indeed practical to attempt to impose any sort of external standards or formal accountability mechanisms given the paradigm shift in human communication brought about by the internet.

The fact that New Zealand’s mainstream media is so highly concentrated – and the number of influential new media actors also relatively small – enabled us to engage directly with the key players, including representatives of Google and Facebook, as well as many of the influential New Zealand bloggers and media commentators. We also commissioned independent research into the public perception of media standards in New Zealand and the level of awareness of and confidence in the existing standards bodies, the New Zealand Press Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA).4

‎The Law Commission ultimately concluded that despite attempts to adapt to the new publishing environment the existing standards bodies were broken:

from a consumer’s point of view we see no justification for retaining the current format-based news media complaints bodies which are largely based on outmoded distinctions between print and broadcast media. Within the next decade it is conceivable that there will be few if any printed daily newspapers. Over the same time period there is likely to be an exponential increase in the amount of audio-visual accessed on-demand via mobile and other devices. In this converged environment consumers must be confident that consistent standards apply to similar types of content irrespective of the format or platform by which it is accessed.5

Interestingly, very few media organisations – traditional or new – argued with this conclusion. Fairfax Media stated in its submission: ‘[n]ew technologies and convergence mean all major companies have multi-media operations and adjudicating complaints separately would be a nonsense.’6

But in the absence of political courage on the government’s part or a burning platform for change, the Law Commission’s recommendation to replace the Press Council and BSA with a single independent entity responsible for enforcing standards across all publishers ‘of news, including linear and non-linear broadcasters, web-based publishers and the print media’,7 has been quietly shelved.

Instead, three years on, despite an accelerating rate of convergence, the public continues to depend on a fragmented and incoherent complaints system. But instead of two, there are now three complaints bodies.

In a classic response to the shadow of regulatory intervention cast by the Law Commission report, broadcasters moved to set up a new complaints body to plaster over the cracks identified by the commission. The move was spear-headed by Sky Television’s then supreme political lobbyist, Tony O’Brien, who was anxious to protect its critical on-demand entertainment business from being caught up in a potentially costly and cumbersome state regulatory system. The Online Media Standards Authority (OMSA) was set up in July 2013, four months after the release of the Law Commission’s report. Like the Press Council, it is headed by a retired judge and backed by a heavy-weight complaints committee whose purpose is to help ‘to maintain proper and generally acceptable standards in online news and current affairs’.8

Dwindling Newspaper Sales Echo Through Economy

Initially OMSA positioned itself to fill the ‘regulatory gap’ identified by the Law Commission, limiting itself to online and on-demand content that was not covered by either of the two existing complaints bodies. However in 2014 it announced it had decided to extend its jurisdiction to ‘any media proprietor who publishes news and current affairs online’. At the time of writing, OMSA’s complaints committee had considered approximately 40 complaints, the majority of which were not upheld – either because the content fell outside its jurisdiction or had been resolved in some way.

Interestingly the two news publishers to have dominated OMSA’s very light adjudication list to date have sat at opposite ends of the media spectrum: the state-funded public broadcaster Radio New Zealand and Cameron Slater, publisher of the sometimes incendiary blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked. I asked David Farrar, Slater’s centre-right colleague and publisher of Kiwi Blog, and Radio New Zealand’s CEO Paul Thompson – formerly my boss at Fairfax – for their assessment of OMSA’s performance to date.

Farrar, who supported the Law Commission’s proposal for a one-stop-shop complaints body, is for the moment happy enough to treat OMSA’s $500 annual membership fee as a an investment in his brand (he toyed with joining the Press Council but after a bit of ‘regulatory arbitrage’ decided the council’s $1000 joining fee was too steep). He enjoys being able to point out to readers that if they feel he got something ‘really wrong’ there is a clear and independent process for dealing with it: ‘I’m pleased there have been no complaints against me because it can take quite a toll emotionally and in terms of the time it takes to resolve.’

By and large he thinks OMSA is doing a reasonable job and takes wry comfort from the fact that his mate Cameron Slater has had a better strike rate with OMSA’s complaints committee than the venerable state broadcaster, Radio New Zealand: ‘Who would have predicted that Cameron Slater would win three cases plus an appeal and Radio New Zealand would lose [theirs]! It’s actually a very good thing, because it shows they [OMSA] are taking cases on their merits.’

As for Thompson, he gives OMSA a pass mark: ‘They were pretty under-employed there for a while but they are starting to come into their own: a good chair, good structure, cost effective and pretty efficient.’ His own news organisation has been the first to feel OMSA’s bite after the complaints committee upheld a number of complaints about comments published on the Radio New Zealand Facebook page relating to a John Campbell interview with the Prime Minister about his promotion of the alternative flag prior to the second referendum. The postings included threats of violence and anti-Semitic and highly derogatory remarks against the Prime Minister and his mother.

Radio New Zealand’s explanation as to why the comments were left so long and the challenges they faced moderating their social media sites provide a sobering insight into how challenging it is for resource-stretched newsrooms to provide the level of monitoring required to safeguard their brand and standards across all their distribution platforms 24/7. Interestingly, OMSA was not persuaded that the challenges of moderation should get Radio New Zealand off the hook:

The Committee concluded that comments posted to any page or platform controlled by an OMSA Member were the responsibility of the Publisher when published. It said where news and current affairs material “published online” by any of its Members, using the clear identifiable branding of the Publisher and providing a vehicle for user generated comments, particularly when inviting users to interact, the Committee said it was the responsibility of the Publisher and fell within OMSA’s jurisdiction.9

Given its potentially far-reaching implications, Thompson wonders whether the decision would hold water if appealed, but he also felt that given the importance of RNZ’s brand value the wisest course was to ‘take it on the chin’.

So what’s to complain about? In theory at least, New Zealanders now have not two but three different avenues of redress if they feel a news publisher has been seriously inaccurate, unfair, misleading or grossly offensive.

The problem is that not one of these complaints bodies truly satisfies the requirements of good regulatory practice and none has been designed with their audiences, or the new media environment, in mind. Neither OMSA nor the Press Council is genuinely independent of the industry, both depending on their members for funding and neither having the means to enforce remedies. In terms of accessibility, neither OMSA nor the Press Council has a visible presence on their members’ websites and none actively promotes the standards to which news media are supposedly accountable.

Neither Farrar nor Thompson are optimistic these issues will be addressed any time soon. Farrar says he was disappointed the government didn’t act on the Law Commission’s recommendations but says he isn’t holding his breath for a change of heart: ‘What this Government tends to do with a number of these issues – online voting is the same – they just say “is there a single vote for us if we get this right and how much damage and unpopularity could occur if we get it wrong?” And in the lead up to an election, why would we want to risk having a tense couple of years in our relationship with the media.’

Thompson is similarly pessimistic about change – not because he doesn’t think it makes sense, but rather because the quest for survival is likely to take up all the time and energy available to news executives and proprietors in the foreseeable future.

In this context it is tempting to conclude the reform of media regulation is a secondary issue. But in my view it is not – for the simple reason that it provides the only vehicle for confronting the bigger conversation: what is it about news media we value?

In opting for a purely voluntary regulatory regime the Law Commission referred to the fact that unlike Britain and Australia, New Zealand’s review had not been prompted by a scandal or evidence of any systematic failings or abuse of power by the media. But it also noted that it was clear from submissions that there was a perception among some that:

shrinking journalistic resources and the competitive pressures stemming from the internet and social media risk eroding some of the media’s core capabilities – including the task of primary news gathering and the verification of information. While regulatory oversight cannot directly address these issues it can provide an environment which fosters ethical news media, reinforces standards and supports those engaged in public interest journalism. It must also safeguard the two critical public interests we have identified – genuine independence of the news media and genuine accountability to the public.10

Which brings us to the nub of the problem. A standards body cannot be effective if it operates in the shadows and if it does not have the ability to enforce its decisions and impose meaningful remedies in cases of serious ethical breaches. And at this point it is hard to see any politician asking for more bite from the media regulators – particularly in a village as small as New Zealand where the country’s leading politician is only a text away from the gossip columnist.

 

1. NZPA, “End of Era for Page 3 Girl,” Stuff, March 18, 2009, accessed June 3, 2016, http://www.stuff. co.nz/national/2274104/End-of-era-for-page-3-girl.
2. Nicky Hager, Dirty Politics: How Attack Politics is Poisoning New Zealand’s Political Environment (Nelson: Potton and Burton, 2014).
3. See for example: The Rt Hon. Lord Justice Leveson, An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press (London: The Stationery Office, 2012); Hon. R. Finkelstein QC, Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation, report to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (Canberra: 2012); Australian Law Reform Commission, Classification – Content Regulation and Convergent Media, R 118 (Canberra: ALRC, 2012); Australian Government, Convergence Review: Final Report (Canberra: Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2012); Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Content Regulation in a Converged World (Wellington: Ministry of Culture and Heritage, 2015).
4. Big Picture Marketing Strategy and Research Ltd, “Public Perception of News Media Standards and Accountability in New Zealand,” summary of online survey, April, 2012, accessed June 16, 2016, www.lawcom.govt.nz/project/ review-regulatory-gaps-and-new-media.
5. Law Commission, The News Media Meets ‘New Media’: Rights, Responsibilities and Regulation in the Digital Age (NZLC R128, 2013), 7.
6. Submission of Fairfax Media to Law Commission report, March 9, 2012, at 4.
7. Law Commission, “Chapter 7 Recommendations” in The New Media Meets ‘New’ Media.
8. “What We Do,” Online Media Standards Authority, accessed June 16, 2016, http://www.omsa.co.nz/ how-we-work/what-we-do/.
9. Lawrence and Others vs Radio New Zealand (16/004) February 18, 2016, accessed June 16, 2016, http//www.omsa.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/ OMSA16004.pdf
10. Law Commission, The News Media Meets ‘New Media’, 4.22.

Don’t Dream It’s Over explores the many challenges and opportunities facing journalism in Aotearoa and features contributions from prominent journalists, academics and commentators including Peter Arnett, Brent Edwards, Mihingarangi Forbes, Toby Morris, Paula Penfold, Nicky Hager, Morgan Godfery, Simon Wilson and many more. Find out more about it here; purchase a copy of the book here.

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