Multiple media reviews and the lefthand-righthand rule

When I look at my hands, I’m sure the left one knows what the right is doing. I hope the same can be said of the various New Zealand Government enquiries into a broad range of issues that impact on the media.

Each has its own course and involves different government agencies, with a total of four ministers at the helm.

Each enquiry is working diligently to address areas that have long needed overhaul. The Ministry of Justice’s proposed changes to laws relating to hate speech and discrimination arose out of the Christchurch Mosque attacks but the need predated those atrocities. The Department of Internal Affairs’ review of content regulation had a similar genesis and it, too, has long needed revision (not least over the issue of multiple mainstream media regulators). And work has been progressing on a new public service media entity and, separately, the reshaping of Māori media.

Justice and Communications minister Kris Faafoi has oversight of the hate speech and public media entity initiative. Minister of Internal Affairs Jan Tinetti oversees the content regulation review. The rescoping of Māori media falls to Willie Jackson and his associate Māori Development minister Nanaia Mahuta.

All of these endeavours embrace issues that have both direct and indirect impact on New Zealand’s mainstream, indigenous, ethnic, and digital start-up media. Social media is also in the frame.

There has been – and will continue to be – significant public and industry participation at various stages of these reviews. (I have participated in or made submissions to three of them). It is vital that journalists, media organisations and the public take advantage of such opportunities.

Each initiative is worthwhile, and some are long overdue, but I harbour fears over the potential outcomes for two reasons.

The first is the lack of an over-arching structure to ensure that all the intersections – and there are as many as on the Automobile Association map in your car’s glovebox – are charted to avoid conflicting solutions. The second is the need to avoid unintended consequences in sweeping measures that have effect across a broad spectrum and even outside the intended remit.

Consider a few of the less complex possibilities.

Will the separation of Māori broadcasting’s future from the restructuring awaiting Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand put shared back-office and technical services into the folder marked ‘Missed Opportunities’?

Will hate speech changes to the Crimes Act make media criminally liable for reporting what was said at a public meeting that subsequently led to charges?

Will concepts of ‘harm’ applied to hate speech laws be replicated in content regulation and, if so, will social media be differentiated from professional mainstream media?

I’m not suggesting for one moment that mainstream media deserve some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card in any or all of these reviews. However, I harbour real concerns that their legitimate public-interest activities could be adversely impacted if the focus is too narrow and there is no holistic oversight.

Much of my disquiet comes down to definitions. When I made a submission on the proposed hate speech law changes, I noted the consultation document stipulated that the exact wording of the proposal to criminalise hate speech would “be determined following consultation”.  It went on speculate whether the term ‘incite’, ‘stir up’ or “some other term with the same meaning” should be used. This prompted me to make the following submission:

The need goes far beyond the choice of words “with the same meaning”. I submit there is a far more basic need: To submit to etymological scrutiny every word that contributes to the definition of hate and its derivatives.

If the proposed legislation does not interpret words (individually and collectively) in terms that carefully proscribe the limits of their meaning, this piece of intended law has the potential to realise many of the fears that have been publicly expressed. Such calamity is, of course, avoidable. There are a number of ways in which intended meaning can be articulated and unintended interpretations avoided.

My disquiet over definitions is multiplied by the number of reviews that are underway.

There is substantial common ground that requires the same definitional approach and an overarching rationale that is consistent throughout all of the enquiries. There is also a clear need for exclusions – based on public interest and (to draw on section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act) demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society – that should be applied to avoid unintended consequences.

There is, of course, a common meeting point for this unprecedented mass of simultaneous reviews – the Cabinet table. Each of the responsible ministers will be reporting progress and will present final recommendations. What is less certain – or for that matter remotely possible – is that all of the reviews will hit the Cabinet table at the same time so they can be cross-referenced.

The reviews promise changes to our media landscape that are far reaching and positive. That will not happen if each enquiry is carried out in isolation and decisions made on that basis.

The need is clear: The Government must create an audit group which would be responsible for cross-collating and assessing all aspects of the completed reviews, testing them for consistency and fitness for purpose, and recommend any necessary legislative or regulatory links. None of the reviews should be acted on until that audit is complete.

All of a’Twitter

Last week’s Tuesday Commentary noted research that showed only 12 people had been the primary sources of Covid disinformation on Facebook. Now I have come across research that has revealed further insight into the magnifying effect of social media.

The Pew Research Centre conducted an in-depth survey of the 25 per cent of United States adults who use Twitter and monitored a representatives sample of tweets over a three month period.

It found that the most active quarter of users produced 97 percent of the total tweets. However, little of it is original. Almost half of their activity is retweeting while a further third is in reply to other users. And they are less likely to view the overall tone or civility of discussions as a major problem.

The Pew research asked whether Twitter was good for American democracy. Almost equal numbers thought it was mostly good (37%) or mostly bad (38%).

The findings are also a slap in the face for social media platforms’ much-vaunted efforts to protect users’ privacy. Fifty three per cent of respondents told Pew their profiles were set to ‘public’. When the research centre checked profiles it found that, in fact, 89 per cent were visible to anyone.

Bouquet

A bouquet to RNZ Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan for a series of penetrating and persistent interviews on a UK company’s plans to site a data centre at Clyde in Central Otago where the power-hungry computers would take advantage of Contact Energy’s electricity generation. It dealt in detail with the wisdom of effectively exporting our renewable energy and with one of the centre’s proposed activities – cryptocurrency mining.

There has been an ‘arms race’ since bitcoin was introduced in 2009 to find cheaper and more efficient ways to validate transactions in the murky world of virtual currencies. Cryptocurrency mining has been banned in some jurisdictions.

The interviews, broadcast last Friday, are well worth a listen: https://www.rnz.co.nz/audio/player?audio_id=2018821203

 

 

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