Chapter 5 - Regulating news media: strengths and weaknesses of the current approaches

Convergence: the elephant in the room

A common thread in all of the research and reviews into media regulation undertaken in New Zealand over the past decade is the recognition that the silos which traditionally defined different sectors of the news media are rapidly dissolving. Digitisation, the internet and the web have combined to create a plethora of new ways of producing and delivering content to consumers. In the process the boundaries between broadcasters, print media and telecommunication operators have become increasing blurred.

This reality was acknowledged by stakeholders and individuals who gave feedback on the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s 2008 consultation paper Broadcasting and New Digital Media: Future of Content Regulation. The Press Council in its submission to the Ministry had this to say about media convergence:155

The Council notes that there is now considerable overlap or genuine convergence between what were formerly separate media interests. Websites of television stations, radio stations and newspapers contain video clips, radio broadcast clips and written word. A journalist may not only write for a newspaper, but may present via audio or video on radio, television or on-line. The different types of media are intertwined and the Council believes that the convergence will become greater, rather than smaller.

In a similar vein, Television New Zealand noted the current regulatory environment was creating an uneven playing field for traditional broadcasters and could no longer be justified in practical or policy terms:156

The traditional reasons for regulating broadcasting in the traditional ways are fast disappearing. Distinctions between broadcasting, telecommunications, print and other forms of media are becoming increasingly blurred. This calls into question the logic of maintaining separate regulatory frameworks – BSA, ASA, Press Council.

In the course of our preliminary consultation with news media executives we were left in no doubt that those at the head of traditional print and broadcast companies regard themselves increasingly as “content producers” rather than the more narrowly defined broadcasters and newspaper publishers. A number outlined scenarios where they would in future produce packaged content for third party distribution. A number already have contracts to do so.

The advent of ultrafast broadband will no doubt have a very significant impact on the use of audio-visual content on media websites and on the development of internet protocol television services. Internet capable television is already making a significant impact on the market along with technologies such as the iPad. The importance of online video for the economic survival of traditional newspaper and television companies as they compete for audiences and online advertising revenue was underscored in a Pricewaterhouse Coopers report on media companies’ response to the gravitation of audiences to the internet.157

The digital revolution has profound implications for every aspect of media regulation. The breadth of issues was outlined in the terms of reference for the 2006 joint Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Ministry of Economic Development Review of Regulation for Digital Broadcasting. Alongside content regulation, this review also considered the much broader issues of competition and diversity; distribution channels; intellectual property rights; content acquisition; accessibility to publicly funded and public service content; networks and access to spectrum.

Our focus is far more tightly drawn and is concerned primarily with considering options for regulating new and traditional news media in this converged environment.

In this area too there appears to be a growing recognition of the inappropriateness of retaining different regulatory models for print and broadcast media when the two are becoming increasingly entwined.

Former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief, Gavin Ellis, confronted these issues in a 2005 critique of the orthodox justifications for state involvement in broadcasting and concluded that the digital revolution had rendered many of them obsolete.158

In its 2008 Annual Report the Press Council acknowledged the logic of a single code to govern all news media:159

What had once been separate media interests now overlapped between newspapers and broadcasters and the Council could see the logic in the proposition that there be one code to govern all media so that consumers knew the same standards applied to all media.

In addition to the phenomenon of convergence, some of the traditional justifications for tougher statute-backed regulation of broadcasters no longer pertain. Digital broadcasting technologies and the advent of ultrafast broadband have transformed the competitive environment for broadcasters and removed the barriers to entry that existed when broadcasters were reliant on access to scarce radio spectrum.

Some would also argue that the fragmentation of the media market and consequent loss of market share by the once dominant state broadcasters has further eroded the case for tougher broadcasting standards as consumers now have significantly more choice. We explore these arguments further in the next chapter.

However, while the old assumptions which have underpinned the parallel approaches to news media regulation appear to have been seriously undermined in the digital era, the prospect of a single regulator raises a raft of important questions which will require widespread consultation with the public and media stakeholders.

Critically, in the new media environment, these questions must be focused not on the medium but rather on the content producers and the consumers.

It requires us to return to the fundamental question of media standards and ask how the objectives underpinning the BSA and the Press Council can best be delivered in the internet age.

Among the questions we might need to address include:

  • Do the current broadcasting standards still reflect the public’s expectations of what they value and expect from broadcast and print media?
  • Does the public have different expectations and standards for content they access on-demand as opposed to content that is live streamed to them?
  • Does the public expect the same journalistic standards to apply to news content accessed from websites and television or newspapers?
  • Does the public expect fairness and balance in news media reporting and if so how do they think this can reasonably be achieved in the age of instant and continuous news reporting online?

We hope to receive feedback from the public on these issues during the consultation period following the release of this paper.

In the following chapter we offer some preliminary ideas about how a single regulator might function.

New Zealand Press Council “Annual Report 2008”  at 23.

TVNZ “Separating Roles: A proposed approach to the “Future of Content Regulation” consultation paper” (2008). 

IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report: An industry survey conducted by PwC and sponsored by the Interactive Advertising Bureau IAB 2011. First Six Months Results September 2011< www.pwc.com >.

Gavin Ellis “Different strokes for different folk: Regulatory distinctions in New Zealand media” (2005) 11(2) Pacific Journalism Review at 63.

New Zealand Press Council “Annual Report 2008”  at 17.