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a celebratory graphic marking the 35th anniversary of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It includes festive elements like a large "35th" in gold balloons, a colorful party hat, and the text "THE BULLETIN" on the side. The document excerpt in the image indicates the Broadcasting Act was assented to on May 27, 1989, and is administrated by various ministries.

The BulletinMay 28, 2024

The Broadcasting Act turns 35 and critics say an update is long overdue

a celebratory graphic marking the 35th anniversary of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It includes festive elements like a large "35th" in gold balloons, a colorful party hat, and the text "THE BULLETIN" on the side. The document excerpt in the image indicates the Broadcasting Act was assented to on May 27, 1989, and is administrated by various ministries.

Is it time for tougher regulation of what gets shared online? Stewart Sowman-Lund explains in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Happy birthday to the Broadcasting Act

Yesterday marked 35 years since New Zealand’s Broadcasting Act was first implemented. The Act, which designates broadcasting standards, dates back to “the year David Lange resigned as prime minister, Sunday trading began, TV3 began operations, and the Holmes show was first screened”. There has also been a recent and concerted effort for change, which the Broadcasting Standards Authority supports. “The need for reform towards a modern, fit-for-purpose regulatory framework is urgent, and we stand ready to offer our expertise and support for future solutions,” said Stacey Wood, the authority’s chief executive. Broadcast news is governed by the BSA, including TVNZ and the newly named ThreeNews, which begins on July 6. So today we’ll take a look at the call for an upgrade of the Broadcasting Act, and how far away we are from that actually happening.

Moving with the times

Back in March, The Spinoff’s Alex Casey wrote a comprehensive oral history of the iconic Toyota Hilux “Bugger” ad from 1999. It paints a vivid picture of the aging Broadcasting Act. When that ad was released, the law was already a decade old. At the time, the ad sparked national outrage and an influx of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority over foul language (along with some complaints to the BSA). As Casey reported, a 1999 study by the BSA found that 16% of people surveyed found the use of the word “bugger” to be unacceptable on television and radio. Now, “bugger” has well and truly dropped off the BSA’s list of offensive terms. As Wood said yesterday, society has evolved dramatically since 1989, and “audiences are fast migrating from traditional broadcasting to new platforms”. Yet despite this, the law has largely stayed the same. Last November, Wood told RNZ’s Mediawatch that the existing legislation was “incredibly obsolete” and that there could be a case for a joined up mega agency taking on responsibilities from a range of complementary agencies like the Advertising Standards Authority and the Media Council.

What the government has said

The minister tasked with considering all of the above is Paul Goldsmith, who became media minister just last month after the sudden demotion of Melissa Lee. So far, Goldsmith hasn’t had a lot to say about his new portfolio, but has signalled his intention to look at the Broadcasting Act. Before losing the portfolio, Lee had argued for an update to the law. “The Broadcasting Act is from 1989. It was set in place well before the internet was available and there are regulations in there where certain segments of the broadcasting system is not regulated while local New Zealand broadcasters are regulated,” she told Newshub. Lee was referring to the fact that the BSA only has oversight over analogue media, while online broadcasts are largely a free-for-all. As Stuff reported, Lee was unable to say how the law should be updated, only that New Zealand needed a regulation that’s “fit for purpose”. We’re no closer to learning what the government’s plans in this area are. The former government had plans to introduce new hate speech legislation that would have helped regulate online content. Work on that has since been ditched by Goldsmith in his capacity as justice minister. Writing for The Spinoff recently, Gavin Ellis said that Goldsmith’s ministerial positions, which also includes culture and heritage, make him ideally placed to play a “vital coordinating role in legislative reform” for the media.

Where we’re at

The impending launch of ThreeNews also illustrates further complications for our current media watchdogs. Currently, the Media Council has jurisdiction over online and written media, while the BSA keeps an eye on traditional broadcasters. As the Herald’s Shayne Currie noted last month, Stuff’s move into TV will mean it too falls under the jurisdiction of the BSA, while its online website will continue to be overseen by the Media Council. “[That] sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare”, wrote Currie, “perhaps the government might help.” Veteran journalist Richard Harman made a similar point in a recent interview with RNZ’s Mediawatch. He argued for a “one-stop shop” that would allow for regulatory oversight over all types of media. Earlier this month, as The Post reported, proposals to form such a new agency were dumped by the government. On that same Mediawatch programme, Internal Affairs minister Brooke van Velden said it would have been an extension of the proposed hate speech laws. “Regulating harmful content online poses questions of subjective opinion on what is harmful material,” she said. “I think the variety of different information, reaching all the way from media organisations and institutions right down to individual blogs and forums, is so wide that it is actually better for it to be held in individual departments through regulatory services.” The BSA’s Stacey Wood told Mediawatch she was disappointed by this move. Paul Goldsmith did not respond to The Bulletin’s request for an interview on the subject.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story claimed the BSA had received an influx of complaints about the “bugger” ad. It was, of course, the ASA that received the bulk of these – 120 to be precise.

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