The Press Council celebrated its 40th birthday in Wellington last night by staging a public forum with the theme: Looking Forward, Looking Back and the Constant Immutable Truths. Council chairman Barry Paterson QC, a former High Court judge, explained that the council had decided to make the most of its 40th birthday because there was no guarantee that it would make 50 – a reference to the fact that its days may be numbered, since the Law Commission has proposed a new single media regulator to replace the council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority.Paterson briefly canvassed the council’s origins, recalling that it was set up by newspaper publishers to forestall calls from the Labour Party for statutory control of the press. Its founders took the view (these are my words, not Paterson’s) that the best way of defending the press against political interference was by maintaining high standards through self-regulation – hence the council’s main function of hearing and ruling on complaints against newspapers.
Paterson pointed out that former Justice Minister Simon Power had asked the Law Commission to review the regulatory regime covering New Zealand media not because of the ethical scandals engulfing the British press, but because of the emergence of the unregulated, “new”, digital media. Paterson emphasised that whatever changes were made as a result of the review, it was vital that the press remained free of government regulation.Judge Arthur Tompkins of the District Court presented an idiosyncratic but scholarly history of free speech that encompassed religious reformer Martin Luther, Picasso’s famous painting depicting the bombing of Guernica and the signing by Churchill and Roosevelt of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, which spoke of a world free of want and fear. The linking theme was that ideas matter (Luther), words matter (the Atlantic Charter) and images matter (Picasso). Tompkins told the disappointingly small gathering that the new regulatory framework covering the media must not sweep away the good along with that which had outlived its usefulness.
APN (aka The New Zealand Herald) Digital editor-in-chief Jeremy Rees and former Stuff social media editor Greer McDonald (who confided that she had grown to hate the term “social media”) talked frankly and insightfully about the impact of online media. The overall message was that it was an exciting and satisfying field to be working in, but it was evolving at breakneck speed and sometimes in unexpected directions.Rees said everything he had been told about digital media five years ago turned out to be completely untrue (“we thought citizen journalism would take over – it didn’t”) and he couldn’t hazard a guess as to where things would go from here, although he thought there would be much greater differentiation between the type of content provided on different online platforms.
He reinforced one of my concerns about a possible adverse consequence of the shift away from traditional print media. I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially he said that online providers would increasingly tailor content according to the preferences – including political preferences – of the user. In other words, a consumer with a history of seeking right-wing content (or left-wing, or whatever) will be fed information that complies with that preference.Of course this is happening already as a result of users exercising their own choice, but if Rees is correct the trend will accelerate. This has implications for civil society, because one of the great virtues of “broad church” mainstream print media such as we have in New Zealand is that it exposes readers to a wide range of material. In the process they may come to consider ideas and opinions that are contrary to their own, and possibly even concede that they have some validity – surely no bad thing. This isn’t going to happen if online readers see only content that reinforces their existing prejudices.
Greer McDonald, who has just taken up a new appointment as digital editor of the Manawatu Standard (a fine newspaper – they print my column), talked about the impact of social media during the Christchurch earthquakes but noted that people still turned to the traditional media for reliable information. At one point a rumour spread via Twitter that the Riccarton Mall had collapsed – a furphy* that Fairfax journalists were able to extinguish by using the traditional methods, in other words picking up the phone and asking the people who knew.The sceptical Luddite in me silently cheered at a couple of points McDonald made. She noted that there were only about 70,000 Twitter users and said journalists shouldn’t get excited or distracted by what was being said among such a small minority. And she rightly scorned the “race mentality” – the obsession with being the first to report even trivial information online, which she described as a sideshow. Bravo. (I touched on the same phenomenon here a few months ago.)
The council’s executive director, Mary Major, presented a slide show covering the council’s history and touching on celebrated skirmishes from the past involving such notables as Robert Muldoon and morals crusader Patricia Bartlett. (The former case, which followed Muldoon’s decision to cut off the flow of information to The Dominion, was a rare case of a complaint being brought by journalists against a politician, rather than vice-versa).The evening wound up with a spirited speech by Sir Geoffrey Palmer in which he ranged across Milton’s Areopagitica, John Stuart Mill, the pernicious sedition laws (getting rid of them was the law reform of which he was most proud, although he had to wait until he was president of the Law Commission to achieve it), climate change (Justice Venning’s analysis in his recent finding against climate change sceptics was “devastating”) and the failings of television news (“a disaster”).
Palmer - the son of a newspaper editor - said he was not impressed by arguments that there was a crisis in journalism. The crisis, if it existed, was in the way journalism was delivered, but he was confident the problems would be overcome with creativity, determination and innovation.I hope he’s right.
* Furphy: a false report or rumour. Wagons made by an Australian company called Furphy carted water behind the front lines on the Western Front during World War One. They became synonymous with misleading gossip about what was happening on the battlefield. It's a term widely used by Australian journalists ("I checked it out, but it was a furphy").