Editorial: Discomforting scrutiny

Last updated 05:00 25/03/2014

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OPINION: Sometimes the news media need to grab their ankles for a health check.

This being the case, it's a welcome development that bloggers and other digital media are being offered to partake in the process, by means of membership of the Press Council.

It's a body that weighs up complaints against principles including accuracy, fairness, balance, privacy, confidentiality, discrimination, the use of subterfuge, the distinction of comment and fact, and conflicts of interest.

Inviting independent digital media to succumb to such extra scrutiny not only brings more accountability but, equally, credibility.

It doesn't do any news or current affairs media any harm to be found out when they have seriously erred, nor to have their judgments independently endorsed, as occasionally happens too.

Nowhere is it written that those running their own websites must now form an orderly queue and join up. But the absence of a self-regulatory body has become an issue for those bloggers and sites that have become heavy hitters. And those who aspire to be. So they should be willing to join up.

[This is provided the yet-to-be-confirmed costs aren't disproportionately high compared with their income and that they are fairly represented on the complaints panel.]

Press Council membership can now also serve as a useful way to distinguish between legitimate modern-era journalists and commentators . . . and mere blowhards wanting as much attention, but as little answerability, as they can get away with.

The council's decision to expand its membership further highlights the dullardly calibre of the decision from Judge Charles Blackie late last year that Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater isn't a journalist, so isn't entitled to rely on the protections, such as they are, that protect journalists' sources. The judge appeared to have taken a steer from a Law Commission report critical of blogging practice but then to have either overlooked or disregarded the commission's final report which did acknowledge bloggers' media status.

The Law Commission last year recommended - fruitlessly, as it turned out - a more comprehensive oversight body, effectively combining the Press Council (which covers print media and their websites) and the Broadcasting Standards Authority (TV and radio) and the Online Media Standards Authority (the online sites of TV and radio networks) into a single self-regulating body.

Most print media opposed such a hookup in favour of strengthening the Press Council and the Government wasn't so enamoured with the commission's view that it was up for a stoush.

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So now if the newsy or current affairs blog becomes a member, and fails to react to a complainant's satisfaction, that person or organisation will be able to call for a Press Council ruling.

And those rulings, for all members, now come with a little extra steel, including new censure provisions for "exceptional circumstances", better advertising of the complaints process and stiffer rules for ensuring that the council's findings are given sufficient prominence. An offending online article can have elements excised, or be taken down entirely.

Let's not forget, either, that the Press Council is far from the only option for reproachful inquiry. Media are, of course, still susceptible to even more pointy reckonings including defamation cases and contempt of court processes. As, of course, are you guys - all of you, even those who aren't ardent online commentators.

- The Southland Times

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