2.1Many people are unaware of the fact that in most western-style democracies, including our own, the law accords the news media a special legal status. As a result the news media have legal privileges and exemptions which are not available to ordinary citizens. As we will discuss in greater depth in the following chapter, these are intended to ensure the news media are able to perform their democratic functions. Some of these legal provisions give the news media privileged access to information or places, enabling them to fulfil their function as the public’s “eyes and ears”; others are designed to protect news gathering and publishing activities to ensure that these processes are not unjustifiably fettered.
2.2Alongside these legal privileges, the news media are also accorded many organisational privileges, again, intended to facilitate their role as a primary gatherer and disseminator of news.
2.3These formal and informal privileges have traditionally been matched by countervailing responsibilities. For example, there is an assumption, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, that the news media will act ethically and exercise their rights in a way that is consistent with the public’s interest in fair and accurate reporting. These requirements are unique to the news media – other citizens exercising their right to freedom of expression are bound only by the law of the land.
2.4The expectation that the news media will act ethically in the way in which they gather and report the news extends beyond the contexts in which they exercise their special legal privileges and exemptions. The news media depend on the public’s trust for their commercial success. With that trust comes power, and a requirement for accountability.
2.5The question we confront in this review is who should be subject to this regime of special privileges and countervailing responsibilities now that anyone can break news and disseminate information to a potentially mass audience. Clearly the privileges and exemptions could not have been intended to extend to anyone who communicates via media of any kind. Nor is it reasonable for all communicators to be held accountable to the news media’s ethical standards.
2.6In the next chapter we examine the rationales for continuing to recognise the news media as a special type of communicator, with special legal status and responsibilities. But first we set out in this chapter the rights and ethical responsibilities and accountabilities which currently apply to the mainstream news media in New Zealand.