New definition of media needed

Last updated 05:00 03/12/2013

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OPINION: Until recently, the question of who is a journalist and what is a news medium was relatively straightforward.

Journalists were people who worked for outlets delivering news and commentary within an industry governed by rules to ensure ethical standards, including fairness, accuracy and balance.

The proliferation in the last decade of alternative sources of news and comment has muddled things.

A recent decision by a District Court judge that the well-known, some would say notorious, Whale Oil blog is not a news medium highlights the difficulty.

In a paper on new media published last year, the Law Commission observed that bloggers are often highly partisan, can be offensive and abusive and are not accountable to anybody.

The commission later modified that view to note that some of New Zealand's 200 or more current-affairs bloggers have become a rich alternative source of information and commentary.

The Whale Oil blog run by Cameron Slater certainly fits the commission's first description. His commentary on a wide array of topics is heavily tendentious and often gratuitously rude.

His campaigns can also be wrong-headed, the most notable being a wildly irresponsible campaign a couple of years ago against name suppression that resulted in his incurring convictions and stiff fines.

But he also attracts more than 1 million visitors a month, more than the next five New Zealand bloggers put together and he has broken stories that have been taken up with gusto by other media.

These facts, Slater argued in the District Court recently, were sufficient to make him a journalist and his blog a news medium as defined in the Evidence Act.

He made the plea in order to be able to claim a protection provided by the act so he would not have to reveal his sources in a defamation action that has been brought against him. The judge rejected the submission.

While Slater's blog is miles short of what most people would think of as a responsible medium that should be entitled to the protection of the law, the decision is almost certainly wrong.

The problem lies with the Evidence Act, which was passed when blogs were in their infancy. Journalist and news media are defined in the act simply as those who disseminate news and commentary, with no other qualification.

The Law Commission has proposed a solution: only those news media that are subject to a standards-setting body should be able to claim any privileges under the law.

Under this idea, if Whale Oil wanted the protection he would have to sign up to such a body and adhere to its rules.

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He could, of course, choose to stay outside and play the renegade, but he could not then claim the legal privileges.

The commission also wanted an industry-supported working party to develop a new standards body.*

Neither the media nor the Government thought that was necessary and the idea died.

That was throwing the baby out with the bath water. A new regulatory body is still not necessary. A new definition of news medium, to clarify who is protected by the law, is.

* A previous version of this story incorrected stated the commission had recommended a new standards body be established by statute.

- © Fairfax NZ News


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