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Against the tide

Written By: - Date published: 7:45 am, March 27th, 2013 - 30 comments
Categories: Media - Tags:

I’ve been reading the Law Commission report that proposes a News Media Standards Authority to – voluntarily – cover all news agencies, including blogs. It’s a bit sad, really. It’s clearly been written by a group of old white men with no real idea now modern media works.

Let’s start with principles. They want to make you pay to join a ‘voluntary’ privately-owned organisation, which will be the gatekeeper for who gets the news media’s legal rights. It won’t even be a statutory body – it will be completely separate from government and make its own rules, yet it will be the decider on a slew of legal rights.

Don’t have money to pay? You don’t get those legal rights. Don’t want to pay? You don’t get those legal rights. Don’t meet this private, unaccountable organisations’ rules? You don’t get those legal rights.

Of course, there are some old bodies that have those kinds of powers and similar unaccountability – the descendents of guilds like the Law Society, but these are established by statue and their powers and rules are thereby constrained.

This NMSA organisation would be run by people who are not appointed by either government or the new industry – I’m guessing these perfectly impartial experts would descend from heaven riding on unicorns.

The Law Commission’s genius idea is to let some private organisation staffed by God knows who choose which news organisations have news media rights and which don’t. It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve heard this year.

Next, the practical side. They basically want to extend the existing press complaints system, joke that it is, to online media. Bringing a complaints process to the blogs would be an unworkable farce. Here’s what would happen.

There would be a dozen complaints a day against each of the major blogs. Each side would attempt to tie the other in knots, costing it time and money fighting against complaints. Blogs (assuming they can afford to join the authority in the first place, there’s no indication of the cost) would react by disengaging from the complaints process, if only so they wouldn’t exhaust their time and money fighting nuisance actions, meaning nothing would ever get sorted. If anything ever got decided, it would be ignored – blogs could always quit NMSA – not that it could impose any real punishments anyway.

Want a model for what would happen? Look at the Official Information Act. The side out of government tries to trawl through departments and other government bodies looking for information that the party in power wants hidden. The government reacts by delaying replies and refusing to release information (when it admits the information exists at all). The opposition complains to the Ombudsmen, which the government gives ignores and obstructs and generally gives the run around to the point where the OIA complaints backlog extends into the thousands and there’s basically no hope of ever getting any suppression of information over-turned.

That’s how systems get corrupted by the highly politically charged environment – and that’s departments and the Ombudsmen! What’s some tinpot ‘authority’, with no legal authority, going to do? It would be a joke from Day 1.

So, why’s the Law Commission gone down this path? It’s about trying to maintain a media elite in the face of the mass democratising power of the Internet by setting up an expensive gatekeeper that will keep out the rabble and give a quality mark to those inside the tent. The report specifically refers to the ‘brand power’ of being a member of NMSA – so naive, why not just get journos to wear ‘I’m part of the media establishment’ t-shirts? That’ll make people respect ’em.

Like most attempts to swim against the tide of history, NMSA will splutter a bit and then sink beneath the waves. If it ever gets going at all.


30 comments on “Against the tide”

  1. lprent 1

    I read the cyberbullying extract last year.

    After reading it, especially the comment privacy breaches required, I wrote a plugin that hashed email addresses and IP numbers at arrival – which can be deployed at any time. Damn thing would have required us to give the email and IPs to a compliant on accusation. As you say, we’d get several of those a day once the bully “outers” realised how useful it was as a tool.

    And it was a considerable factor in my decision to move the database server offshore and to hide it from idiot level searchs (ie whaleoil equivalent tech).

    Netsafe (the body that was suggested for the controlling body) are nonentities in the net world and despite knowing about them for what must be close to a decade, I have neither never seen them working the net, nor seen them discussed. I suspect that it is simply a talking fest with as much affinity for the net as the Law Commision.

    The ther thing that I disliked about the whole thing was the attempt throughout it, to move the responsibility from the system operators for monitoring and moderating their site. Great for wide open sites like trademe (someone else monitors the site for you). A lot less so when some net illiterates are appointed or self-appoint themselves as Mrs Grundy on deliberately run sites like this one, or Granny Herald online.

    And after all the minister that it went to was Judith Collins, well known for her ineffectual posing with the law – like crushing cars. Sheis exactly the type of fool who’d try to impose this (voluntary my arse)

    I see that the current “media” round looks like the same kind of stupidity. My view is that we avoid the stupidity. I can’t see any point in us paying to expend time educating net nuisances. And I cannot see any benefits to this site or even most net sites.

    • karol 1.1

      Glad you were on the case so early, Lynn. I didn’t understand this bit – a typo?

      Damn thing would have required us to give the email and IPs to a compliant on accusation.

      • lprent 1.1.1

        Typing on the iPad..

        The papers I saw on cyber bullying would have required that when the supervising body received a complaint, then they could demand the site release details about the person making the comment to them, that would then be passed to the complainant.

        The idea being that they might be able to sort it out between them or as part of a mediation process. It took some time for me to determine that there appeared to be no restrictions on that. No determination to that point if the complaint wasn’t just frivolous.

        Reality is that would have been used as a outing mechanism and really looked like an irresponsible idiot rogues like Whaleoil wrote it. After all he has spent the last 5 years accusing just about every author on this site of being various people with no evidence, and usually incorrectly. And Pete George now has a site that seems to do little else apart from speculating who commentators are.

        The proposed bill was being touted as being for kids on facebook and the like. But that wasn’t what showed in the detail. It looked to me to be a rather silly way to legislatively strip psuedonyms from the net.

    • Rogue Trooper 1.2

      “God save television, keep the programmes pure…
      God save William Grundy, from falling in manure
      God save all us sinners, God save your blackest sheep
      God save the good samaritan and God save the worthless creep!” 😉

  2. DH 2

    I’m not going to wade through the 394 page report but I did read the separate summary. I thought it very well written until it fell apart here;

    A statutory definition of “news media”

    “a significant element of their publishing activities involves the generation and/or aggregation of news, information and opinion of current value;”

    further to that here;

    ““News” should be interpreted broadly to include news, current affairs, news commentary and content which purports to provide the public with a factual account and involves real people.”

    It’s the word ‘opinion’ that clangs. Opinion isn’t news. It’s opinion. The authors make this point earlier in the summary;

    “However, as these Inquiries also recognised, the news media continues to be a powerful institution in its own right. As well as facilitating the democratic process it is also potentially capable of distorting it through unfair, selective or misleading reporting. It is capable of derailing the administration of justice, and causing significant financial, emotional and reputational harm. It is therefore in the public’s interest that there is an effective mechanism for holding the news media to account for the exercise of its power.”

    There appears to be no mechanism for stopping media outlets using opinion to exercise their power unfairly. The editorial carries considerable weight, especially so when it’s from an institution seen to be impartial and trusted.

    Incidentally I can’t see blogs like TS or Kiwiblog being counted as ‘news media’ there. They don’t fit the criteria.

    • lprent 2.1

      If it is anything like the one I read last year, the report will be turgid, wandering and just outright repetitive.It will also have quite a few parts that directly contradict itself (like the ones you have picked above out of the summary).

      The problem is that there is little boundary between what we do and what the news media do when you use “…aggregation of news, information and opinion of current value” as the criteria. Because we do all of that all of the time. There is a separation when you use “…content which purports to provide the public with a factual account and involves real people”, but even that tends to be fuzzy. We write on real people all of the time, frequently under our real names, and the facts we are using frequently come from our own observations – which is about as factual as you can get.

      Consider for instance that post by Helen Kelly about the ILO conference, or me attending the Labour party conference. And then you have the Herald. Think on columnists like Damien Grant from the Herald who routinely writes the most awful crap that is purported to be factual but is in fact poorly based opinion. And I’d frequently say the same about Fran O’Sullivan who editorialises poorly backed opinion rather than reporting facts often.

      Most journalists are rather poorly educated outside of journalism and whatever they have picked up on the job. They are generalists by nature. It frequently gets shown up by people with more skill and experience out in the blogs. I suspect that tearing a hole in a real journalist’s facts with reality would be part of the second definition.

      I realise that I’m picking the extremes here, but really this proposal is trying to impose a arbitrary standard on a continuum. That is a guaranteed way to cause issues of definition.

      • DH 2.1.1

        Yes. The people doing the report really haven’t been following the metamorphosis of the media into a creature that’s only part news.

        It’s pretty obvious the media have seen blogs as a bit of threat to their business model, having started their own blogs. Reporters & journalists never used to write opinion pieces in the ‘paper, that’s just not their role. Further to that they’ve changed the old ‘letter to the editor’ into the commentary section which is a format that can be used to cleverly manipulate public opinion by virtue of loading it with authors of a certain persuasion.

        The main point being that blogs and opinion simply aren’t news. Opinions are by definition biased to the person holding the opinion. The TS makes no pretence of being impartial and a fundamental platform for the news media is that they are impartial. This report just doesn’t address that IMO.

        • lprent

          The TS makes no pretence of being impartial…

          We’re definitely more in the earlier broadsheet model rather that the vast capital requirements of large printing presses. We argue a point of view.

          ….and a fundamental platform for the news media is that they are impartial.

          The problem with that was that they never really were. If you go back and read some of the stuff in Papers Past or the like, and then compare with what is now known about the events that they were reporting on… Well you realise that most of what they were expressing was opinion of the writer in the structuring/direction of the story scattered with a few facts. It is the missing information that is the most interesting.

          All “news” is biased and partial. The usual problem is to find out in what way. I prefer the model that the Economist and this site follows of having writers (ours) and/or editorial policies (Economist) with known biases to the hypocrisy of having hidden partiality.

          Let the users decide base don a variety of viewpoints and sources – which is what they are ever increasingly doing.

          • DH

            “all “news” is biased and partial.”

            Can’t agree with you there. Bias in ‘news’ falls under the remit of the Press Council, BSA, and the new system they want to introduce. It’s the non-news part of the media which is more partial and not covered.

            A commentary by someone like John Armstrong of the Herald isn’t news. It’s opinion. He writes news sometimes but his byline is opinion and that wouldn’t typically fall within the purview of the media complaints processes.

            There is scope to complain about bias on the basis they’re an employee of the news organisation concerned but that’s a much more difficult case to argue since the retort would be that the views expressed are honest opinion and not news.

            You couldn’t complain about the likes of Fran O’Sullivan because she’s not an employee of the Herald, she’s probably paid for her articles but again they’re not news.

            • xtasy

              DH – But is that not why we get so damned few news. The media are too scared to be held accountable for “real” news, so engage in endless drivel.

              • DH

                That’s different IMO. Good investigative journalism is labour intensive and costly, media beancounters probably discovered they can make more money playing to the voyeur in people. Threre’s more than one kind of porn. I think we get crap news because it costs them less but still sells copy.

            • lprent

              Not really. The “news” is only as good as the information that is known at the time. It usually has only a passing resemblance to what is known in 20-20 hindsight in later histories.

              Now a lot of the time when you read through the subsequent reports (just been digging my way through some of the material from the Chilcot Inquiry on WMD in Iraq), the journo’s have had a pretty good idea about the line of horseshit they were being fed. However they are often not able to have credible alternate sources that could be made news.

              The classic example of this was the many cover and propaganda stories floating around about the Zimmerman telegram that helped to precipitate the US into the first world war.

              Much of the time what passes for “news” can only be justified on the basis of some kind good faith blindness at the time. Of course this is one of the reasons that journos get so cynical

    • freedom 2.2

      “a significant element of their publishing activities involves the generation and/or aggregation of news, information and opinion of current value;” (bold mine)

      ” generation”
      What is represents is hyper relevant when placed in the Net but that pales when compared to the masterful fabricated vehicles that congest the information highways of traditional media in Television Radio and Print. For me this simple word captures what is an incredibly important and regularly discarded factor in the discussion on modern journalism and its impact on our society. The fact they do generate the news. With proud naivety I will always believe that is meant to be done by the world outside the newsroom.

      p.s. thank you to Lprent, and the cadre of good souls that keep The Standard alive.
      Thank you for the forethought, the care, and for allowing all of us to do whatever it is we do

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    There would be a dozen complaints a day against each of the major blogs.

    Only if they’re bloody lucky. More likely to be a few dozen if not hundreds.

    It would be a joke from Day 1.

    Which sounds to me is the likely desired outcome. It doesn’t sound like anyone who’s been involved with the project is actually out to make the media accountable.

    It’s about trying to maintain a media elite in the face of the mass democratising power of the Internet by setting up an expensive gatekeeper that will keep out the rabble and give a quality mark to those inside the tent.

    And probably that too.

    • Rogue Trooper 3.1

      it was interesting to see Cameron on the tele suggesting he and Farrar are “reputable blogs”; hmmm.

      • tc 3.1.1

        Reputable in their eyes, as most sociopaths are reputable persons is in their own eyes.

        ya gotta love their blatant self promotion that they possess the high ground, what a fun place that must be with the colin craigs FF/SST folks, maybe enough room for a tamaki or 3.

  4. Colonial Viper 4

    A system to out blog commentators? Who have they been talking to, Clare Curren?

  5. Raa 5

    A note to journalists and others trawling this site for ideas.

    “How to cite a blog post”


  6. ghostrider888 6

    What is interesting, is finding articles some ghost, not a million miles away from this keyboard, posted on The Standard being echoed, sometimes weeks, or months, later in the Dailies or another blog-site. hmmm…just saying it could be Imagination 😉

  7. xtasy 7

    I read Farrar’s comments on this (rather favourably), and now I read lprent’s comments. Well, on the balance of experience and trust I will give lprent the benefit of the doubt of being more correct in judgment. Yet I will reserve my right to read up and inform myself further, if I can.

    This seems to be quite important stuff, for real.

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