Planned regulator charms the cowboys

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 09:34 08/04/2013

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OPINION: There's likely to be a new sheriff in town.

I've recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy: books about cowboys caught between the end of the frontier age and the beginning of modern times. Apart from being brilliantly wordsmithed, the books do a great job of exposing the apparently rough-as-guts cowboys as deep thinking and principled.

Two years ago it was rough-as-guts digital cowboys that apparently prompted the Government to review the regulation of the media. Now the Law Commission has just tabled its final version of The News Media Meets New Media, a comprehensive set of recommendations providing direction on how news media should be regulated in a digital age.

The commission has recommended a single body to provide consistent news media standards and a one-stop shop for arbitrating complaints across all news content producers.

The new shop, tentatively called the News Media Standards Authority (NMSA), would be independent of government and replace the Press Council and the Broadcasting Standards Authority, and probably the recently formed Online Media Standards Authority.

Complete independence from the government is the key difference from last year's draft report, and it can only be a good thing. NMSA membership would be voluntary and open to traditional and new media - including web-based publishers such as bloggers and aggregators - provided they agree to be accountable to the new body and meet the proposed definition.

Given the flak the review attracted in its early days, and the lobbying it stimulated over the past two years, the reception it received from the news media is weird. Virtually everyone loved the thing.

The Newspaper Publishers Association (representing heavyweights Fairfax and APN) welcomed the report and complimented the commission on how it proposes to address online gaps and giving the public meaningful redress. The blogosphere - as articulated by Kiwiblog's David Farrar and Whale Oil's Cameron Slater - seems positively stoked, Farrar describing it as a welcome dose of common sense. Even TVNZ and Radio NZ were supportive.

This benign response can be traced to three things. First, unlike the Leveson review in Britain and the Finkelstein investigation in Australia, this review sought to come up with the best solution to a contemporary digital issue, rather than censuring past behaviour. No-one was on trial.

Second, the foundation for the review was weighing up privileges and responsibilities. The press is accorded special privileges around access and legal treatment, and in return has a corresponding responsibility.

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Third, the review had a healthy dose of paranoia around letting the Government get its sticky little fingers on any regulatory levers.

These factors, combined with a crisp eloquence of expression, meant the normally defensive media felt a bit more inclined to sheath their swords.

In fact once they lifted the lid on the NMSA, they saw advantages. Only news producers who belong to the new body will be eligible for the exemptions made available to media around privacy, consumer law and human rights.

In addition those that sign up will get explicit brand advantage around quality assurance. Kind of a happy homemaker seal of approval for the respectable Fourth Estate.

In addition, the NMSA will provide a quick and easy complaints resolution service that is cheaper and less risky than the courts.

With the final review completed and tabled in Parliament, it now all comes down to timing.

The first milestone relates to the Online Media Standards Authority - the alternative regulator created by the big broadcasters and Sky TV. Set up as a countermeasure to sharing a common regulator (and standards), the question is how long will it continue to survive?

This largely political question pivots on the Government's preparedness to ignore the Law Commission's recommendations and instead go with the Sky cartel's proffered solution. This would also ignore the overwhelming evidence of the web corroding traditional media boundaries.

The second relates to how quickly Justice Minister Judith Collins' office pushes go. The urgency around proposals relating to the Privacy Act review and online speech harms doesn't offer much hope, as progress has been glacial. On the other hand, the NMSA is a private sector affair so it may be as simple as identifying an implementation group.

The third timing relates to the online "cowboys" that ostensibly prompted the review in the first place.

Ironically they are likely to be the first to sign up, at least the smart ones. For them it's pretty much all good news - both proactively in aligning with a sensible regulator but also reactively in getting the legal exemptions and some sort of mechanism to mitigate the risks around user-generated content. Having the NMSA badge in the navigation bar on their website will show they are prepared to be accountable.

The cowboys might be first to sign up with the new sheriff.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an eCommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is modsta and he loves early Sergio Leone westerns. MOD peer reviewed a draft of the Law Commission's report.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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