Chapter 4
What form of accountability?

What we conclude

Media Standards

4.105Our review has not found any evidence to challenge the mainstream media’s own assertion that New Zealand has an ethical and trustworthy news media. Although our independent research indicates some concern over the accuracy of the New Zealand media, it did not reveal a wholesale loss of confidence. Indeed, most still regarded television news as the most reliable source of news.

4.106Nor do the nature and volume of complaints appealed to the Press Council and the BSA indicate any radical change in levels of public dissatisfaction with the professional standards of mainstream news media in New Zealand.

4.107However, while we have not sought or received any evidence to contradict that assertion, we believe it must be subject to a number of important qualifications:
(a) There is a paucity of robust independent information about the public’s perception of, and trust in, the New Zealand news media and very little scrutiny – either by other media or by independent bodies.180
(b) The number of complainants who approach the Press Council and BSA is a sub-set of those who first complain to the news media. However because there is no transparency around the level of complaints made directly to news media companies we have no way of assessing what percentage of cases go to appeal. Our research also found that 10 per cent of survey participants said they would not complain because they did not trust the complaints process.181
(c) Research indicates there is low public awareness of the Press Council (only 26 per cent of our survey sample had heard of it) and while the BSA’s visibility is much higher, the BSA’s own research suggests that only a small percentage of those complaining directly to a broadcaster were aware that they can appeal to the BSA if unhappy with the broadcaster’s response.182 The research also found that many of those who had considered making a complaint to a broadcaster had not done so because they believed “nothing would change as a result.”183
(d) There is very limited public visibility of the professional ethics, codes and standards to which the news media hold themselves accountable. Unless the public has a strong awareness of what internal standards apply to news gathering and reporting, there is limited opportunity for them to hold the news media to account for ethical breaches.

4.108Alongside these qualifiers, it is arguable that in the medium term the greatest challenge to journalistic standards arises from the intense commercial and competitive pressures mainstream media companies face in the transition to digital delivery.

4.109As our brief overview of the New Zealand news media landscape shows, we are not immune from these impacts. Although consumers have access to a vast array of international news sources, competition in the primary news market in New Zealand has been steadily weakening. This raises questions about the extent to which consumers are able to exercise real choice and about the extent to which the news media are themselves critiqued and challenged by authoritative alternative news sources.

4.110We note that while “new media” are mitigating these effects to some extent, these effects are modest because of the limited capacity of non-commercial media to consistently generate news (as opposed to comment and debate) and because of the public’s ongoing reliance on mainstream media as a default provider. We also note that in New Zealand the provision of public service media is limited.

4.111New Zealanders’ dependence on a limited number of dominant media players – in both the new and mainstream media – presents the same risks as identified in the Finkelstein Report. These include a lack of diversity, the potential for a small number of publishers (mainstream and new media) to exert undue influence on the news agenda and public opinion, and a potential decline in standards.

The need for effective external accountability

4.112We conclude that there continues to be a strong public interest in ensuring there are effective mechanisms for holding the media to account for the exercise of their power and for remedying harms arising from any breaches of ethical and professional standards.

4.113In its submission to our review, Allied Press made the point that their commercial survival depended on remaining on “the ‘right’ side of the ledger” in terms of reader/viewer/advertiser judgement.184

4.114In the digital era these “customers” now have myriad ways to make their views heard, to comment directly and publicly on what they read, see and hear in the news media and to provide instant and sometimes devastating feedback via mechanisms such as Twitter when a news organisation is judged to have tripped up. But market feedback is often a blunt instrument: it can certainly punish blatant breaches of standards once they have been exposed, but it does not necessarily encourage ethical behaviour or provide an effective or proportionate remedy for individuals who are harmed.

4.115As Britain’s tabloid newspapers prove, while the public might condemn the news media for unethical news gathering practices, it has always had a strong appetite for the types of stories these practices produce, often rewarding these papers with mass circulations. The same can be said of new media publishers who push the boundaries with respect to legal and ethical standards and are then rewarded with high internet traffic and rankings in search engines. In other words, the market sometimes rewards unethical or illegal behaviour.

4.116Nor does market feedback provide an effective form of accountability for the individual who has been harmed as a result of a damaging false report or an invasion of privacy. To argue that such an individual has the ability to right the wrong by commenting on the original story or publishing their own account is to ignore the major power imbalance between individuals and corporate media.

4.117In the digital environment, damaging content published by the mass media has unprecedented reach and permanence. The reputational attack or privacy breach is repeated each time the damaging content is retrieved by a search engine. It can persist for years and individuals who have been unjustifiably harmed by damaging and inaccurate reporting are often reliant not just on the original publisher but also on remote parties – such as Google – to remove the damaging content.

4.118And while it is true that citizens have the right to seek redress through the courts when the published content breaches the law, the reality is that the expense of pursuing a civil action for defamation or breach of privacy means this is simply not a meaningful remedy for most private citizens.

4.119The same arguments apply to public and private institutions if they are unjustifiably harmed by biased, misleading or inaccurate media reports. Although these bodies will often have access to much greater resources, including in some cases large public relations and legal departments, the harms cannot always be easily rectified.

4.120In other words, the mainstream media – and, increasingly, some new media – are uniquely powerful mechanisms for shaping public opinion and calling others to account.

4.121In considering how best to achieve this accountability, it is vital to recognise the very real challenges of enforcing standards in an era of merged media, where the boundaries between professional and amateur, moderated and un-moderated content are increasingly blurred, and where the mainstream media face enormous competitive and commercial pressures.

4.122As Leveson noted, at a time when standards can be breached by anyone, and the offending content accessed online with the click of a mouse, there is a need to recognise that “burdensome or insensitive regulation” could further imperil the sustainability of the national and regional news media on which the public still depends.185

4.123In the next three chapters we explore what this analysis means for the type of oversight body which best promotes the fundamental interests in a robust, ethical and accountable news media in this era of convergence.

180Radio New Zealand’s Media Watch, The New Zealand Herald’s weekly media column (John Drinnan) and Russell Brown’s Media 3 (formerly Media 7) are the main source of media critique in the mainstream media. Specialist news and current affairs bloggers, including media experts such as Steven Price (Media Law Journal), are increasingly engaged in critiquing the mainstream media.
181Big Picture Research, above n 161.
182Nielsen Corporation New Zealanders’ Knowledge of Broadcasting Standards (report for the Broadcasting Standards Authority, 2010) at 11–12 <>.
183At 11.
184Allied Press Limited, above n 141, at 4.
185The Rt Hon Lord Justice Leveson Report of An Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press (The Stationery Office, London, 2012) Executive Summary at 6 [17].