The New Zealand Press Council is to offer membership to new digital media and gain additional powers to deal with complaints against traditional print media, including the right to dictate where corrections can be published and the ability to censure mastheads.
The moves follow a review of the Press Council by its main funder, the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, which considered recommendations by the Press Council and a report last year by the Law Commission.
The Press Council was established in 1972 to adjudicate on complaints against member newspapers. Newspaper publishers decided to include magazines in 1998 and the council’s mandate was further expanded in 2002 to include members’ websites. Current chair is former High Court judge Sir John Hansen and the council has a majority of non-media industry members.
Newspaper Publishers’ Association editorial director Rick Neville, who chairs the Press Council’s executive committee, said most publishers felt the time had come to strengthen the Press Council’s authority, and to extend its coverage to handle complaints against digital media, including bloggers.
“The media world is changing and fragmenting. It’s important that a body set up to maintain high standards, and provide an avenue for reader complaints, keeps pace with those changes.”
Sir John welcomed the industry’s initiative in broadening the council’s remit while also providing more tools to deal effectively with complaints.
“It’s important that all consumers of media have an avenue for complaint, and for them to believe their complaint has been handled with fairness and professionalism.”
Under the present structure, newspapers and magazines pay an annual membership fee to the Press Council. They are also required to abide by the council’s statement of principles and accept the council’s complaints processes.
The intention is to offer a new form of membership to other, non-newspaper digital media, conditional on their agreement to the same conditions as those applying to current members. A new fee structure will be set based on the size of the digital entity and its commercial or non-commercial status. The new structure, including changes affecting current members of the Press Council, will take effect from May 1.
Among the new powers of the council is the right, in exceptional circumstances, to censure a newspaper, magazine or website. Such a move would require a unanimous decision from the Press Council.
The council is also assuming greater powers to direct where an adjudication should appear in a publication, and members will be required to regularly publicise the existence of the Press Council and how complaints should be pursued. For instance, where an offending article has been published on one or more of the first three pages of a newspaper, the council will be able to direct an adjudication to be published on page three. Similar placement requirements will cover magazines and websites.
Editors will be required to publicise the council’s complaints processes by way of a fortnightly item at either the foot of a news briefs column, or on the editorial or letters page. Regular notices will also have to be published in member magazines and websites.
Member websites will be required to provide an easy-to-find complaints channel, advising how viewers can make a complaint to the media organization, then onto the Press Council if the complainant remains dissatisfied.
Where the council believes the potential harm or damage to an individual or organisation outweighs the need to keep the public record straight, it will have the right to direct the excising of elements of a story from an online article, or for an article to be taken down.
Last year, the Law Commission produced a report entitled The News Media Meets ‘New Media’. It recommended the merger of the Press Council, the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the broadcasters’ Online Media Standards Authority into a new, self-regulatory body to handle complaints against all media. The majority of print media opposed the recommendation, preferring instead to strengthen the Press Council.
The government opted not to act on the Law Commission’s proposals but ministers gave notice that they wanted to see media self-regulation continue to improve, and to cater for complaints against digital media.
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