Curtailing press freedoms no way forward for democracy

21:47, Nov 30 2012

British Prime Minister David Cameron is copping a mountain of flak for his refusal to implement the major recommendations of the Leveson inquiry into the phone hacking and skulduggery practised by many members of the British media.

Justice Leveson wants a new statutory body to oversee a new independent press regulator which would supposedly be an independent check against the unethical and in many cases illegal activities undertaken by British hacks and sanctioned by their bosses.

A group called "Hacked Off" which represents many of the "victims" of phone hacking and journalistic malfeasance claims Mr Cameron's refusal to implement the recommendations is a massive moral and political failure and has launched a petition to push for a cross party consensus to implement Lord Leveson's ideas.

Here in New Zealand there were calls this week for more rules regarding election coverage when Massey University marketing expert Associate Professor Claire Robinson claimed her analysis of newspaper coverage of the election campaign showed a pro National Party bias.

The stories both concern a desire to somehow control the way the fourth estate might operate in a Westminster style democracy.

I'll deal with Claire Robinson's bias claims first. It was hardly cutting edge stuff - she simply counted and measured the column centimetres Phil Goff and John Key received in the four weeks of the election campaign and whether or not the respective leaders were smiling.


Seems there were more photos of Mr Key and he was smiling more often. Add to that the fact that National won the election and, bingo, you have an inherent bias among the mainstream media so obvious that Mr Goff has considered complaining to the Press Council.

If he does I don't imagine he'll get that far. The narrow focus of the Robinson study and her somewhat simplistic notions of what constitutes unbiased coverage make her research virtually worthless.

Media coverage doesn't necessarily equate to positive electoral outcomes. John Key himself noted much of the latter coverage in the campaign involved pictures of him smiling at John Banks, blissfully unaware that a radio microphone on the table between them was recording every golden word.

This isn't to say there is no bias in New Zealand media. There most certainly is at an individual and institutional level. Most often, it is unconscious or unwitting, incredibly hard to positively identify and virtually impossible to eradicate.

To attempt to do so by writing a new set of rules and regulations would be a waste of time. It would hamstring the majority of genuine journalists doing their best to inform their readers/viewers/listeners of the opinions and activities of our politicians.

Impartiality has always, and ever will be, an aspirational goal for the media but kidding ourselves that some code of conduct can ever actually achieve it is a vain hope.

Events in Britain, where media bias is generally accepted, are far more concerning. The issues there are not about how the fourth estate presents the news but how it gathers it. In the case of Rupert Murdoch's empire it would seem the catch cry was "by any means necessary".

I'm happy to say that in my 25 plus years in New Zealand media it is not the prevalent attitude here. I don't know any Kiwi colleague who has bribed, hacked or blackmailed to get a story. The teapot tapes suggest some of us aren't above a bit of covert surveillance but it is most certainly the exception rather than the rule.

The Leveson inquiry showed us that attitudes were different among a large sector of British media but despite the fact that I find that abhorrent, I think Mr Cameron is doing the right thing.

After all, it was the media as a whole which exposed this story in the first place; British law clearly has plenty of devices to bring the perpetrators of these foul deeds to justice as the plethora of criminal and civil cases under way shows. A new statutory body to monitor British media won't mean better news coverage, just less.

Good journalism often requires determination to persevere in the belief that the story you are seeking to uncover is of real and genuine interest to the public, even when your colleagues, bosses and those in power say you are wrong. Brave journalism needs to be given the freedom to thrive rather than frightened into submission by any code or law that mistakenly tries to control it.

The Dominion Post