Media relaxed with state moves to police "harm" in broadcasts

By John Drinnan

There is reason to be nervous about a new strategy for the Broadcasting Standards Authority to focus on “harm” when administering the codes. The new strategy is being developed in tandem with a government review of the legal approach to “hate”. “Hate” is like “harm” - a word that people will seek to define for their own purposes.

Radio New Zealand Mediawatch producer Colin Peacock interviewed BSA chairman Judge Bill Hastings (chief film censor from 1998 to 2010) and chief executive Belinda Moffatt about the change. 

Of course, this is not happening in a vacuum. Free speech is being hammered around the world, powered by cultural turmoil and censorious politicians. The BSA insists it is taking a neutral stance, however the timing of this change to the code is worrying.

Further limits of what the news media can say or repeat is dangerous in a time of rapid change. And so far, the media that were once the champions of free speech have been remarkably silent on this clear danger. 

The New Zealand media have been replete with comments that seeks to “unify” themselves by identifying views that are beyond the pale. Some, like RNZ and Newshub, imagine a burgeoning white supremacist movement here after the March 15 terrorist attack. The media collective known as the “Media Freedom Committee” volunteered restricted coverage of the Brenton Tarrant trial. 

This does not serve these news companies in the way they think it will. Soon more people will turn to local publications or overseas that remain independent from the state. 

Equally as worrying are the powers of purportedly independent bodies like the BSA.

The BSA chief executive Belinda Moffatt says that the standards watchdog is “always concerned about freedom of speech” with a high threshold to warrant intervention, yet she defends this dangerous adoption of a test for harm. There are a number of other members of the BSA are position there by politicians. This is hardly independent.

While the BSA decisions are subject to judicial review in the High Court, this is only useful or those that can be bothered, or that can afford them. There is an obvious cost barrier for free speech so far as BSA appeals are concerned. The number cases too expensive to appeal will only increase with the importation of the subjective “harm” factor the BSA is proposing.

The BSA insists it “consults with ‘the community’” on changes in strategy, and subsequently any review of the codes. That means talking to interest groups including ethnic, religious and LGBT groups. “For a specific complaint that may arise where there is a cultural issue, we might look to how it affects the Samoan or Thai or Maori community, Moffatt says.

“We would talk to anyone who wanted to talk to us. We receive communications from Family First and Better Public Media,” says Moffatt, “We look across a range of articles in the media.”

It is not just in the BSA that there are concern about the political independence of those that hold the levers of power so far as speech arises. Another former chief film censor and chief executive of NZ on Air, Jane Wrightson, allocates public money toward media. Broadcasters have a representative who has traditionally acted as a brake to restrictions. Nowadays it is former Mediaworks radio CEO Wendy Palmer.

Journalists and the wider media might have acted on supposedly self-interested support of free speech in the past. But they are no longer reliable.

The BSA needs to seek out views that promote freedom – not academics who promote ways to trim, censor and control.