MPs seem to agree the rules governing the use of Parliament TV footage need liberalisation – but what should and shouldn’t be in bounds was up for debate in an occasionally fiery meeting.

The Labour Party has come under fire for a “dangerously undemocratic” approach to the use of parliamentary footage, but there is an emerging consensus that the rules as they currently stand must be changed.

Parliament’s standing orders committee met on Thursday, after a truce between the National Party and Speaker Trevor Mallard over the party’s use of parliamentary proceedings in social media advertising which have been alleged to breach the current rules.

The current conditions prohibit the use of excerpts for political advertising or election campaigning, without the consent of the MPs shown. Political parties who made their own submissions on the matter appear to be in agreement that the status quo can no longer hold – but exactly how it should be loosened up is less clear.

Supporting the National Party’s submission was former attorney-general Chris Finlayson, who warned Parliament in his valedictory speech last year: “If anyone needs a lawyer in the future, don’t bother me.”

“That injunction’s lasted about 10 months,” Finlayson quipped, before arguing the current rules made MPs “second-class citizens”.

Freedom of expression was the main principle underpinning National’s approach to the issue, he said, with MPs having “zealously guard[ed]” that right over the years.

Former National MP Chris Finlayson says politicians should not have fewer rights than the media and bloggers when it comes to using footage of parliamentary proceedings. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“It’s not a cliche, it’s not something we lightly gloss over, the ability to stand in this place and say what one believes is one of those cherished freedoms when the lights are going out in other jurisdictions that have been democracies.”

Finlayson said there was also a problem with inequality of treatment, given MPs would be held to a more rigid standard than others who wanted to use the same footage.

“It is anomalous that an outside blogger or a journalist would have greater rights of access to this material than members of Parliament.”

It was also wrong to limit the ability of MPs to use Parliament TV footage to poke fun, he said, given restrictions on satire and ridicule had been abolished in 2015.

“Laughing at people who hold privileged positions is in my opinion is a good thing, satire is healthy and that is why Parliament decided not to go too far some years ago…and relaxed the rules.”

However, Finlayson said the use of footage for commercial advertising should still be prohibited, along with unauthorised editing “which totally alters the meaning of a sentence”.

Making his own submission, ACT leader David Seymour took issue with Finlayson’s characterisation of the principles at stake, saying it was not freedom of expression but a question of property rights.

While there was a strong case for Parliament to be quite conservative and restrictive about how TV footage was used, given the desire to protect democracy at a time when “highly targeted videos [are] being highly successful and often spreading absolute sophistries”, such regulations were unlikely to succeed given the ability of content to spread quickly online.

“We are in an environment in which a distorted display of information online poses a risk to people’s confidence in democracy, and that’s something we want to see avoided.”

“You end up with a futile situation where you haven’t changed use of parliamentary videos, you’ve simply ensured the campaigning will be done by third parties rather than MPs this Parliament has influence over.”

Given that, Seymour argued all restrictions on the use of footage should be removed, including a prohibition on commercial advertising: “It’s their taxes that pay for it,” he remarked.

Labour has taken a less laissez-faire approach: in its written submission, the party has argued for restrictions on the editing of footage, such as linking together extracts from one or more speeches “to give the appearance that all of the extracts were delivered consecutively in one speech”, along with a ban on the use of music or “additional commentary” over the top of a clip.

Labour MP Michael Wood told the committee the prohibition on political advertising should be removed, with MPs “freely and widely accountable for the things they say” in the debating chamber.

However, Wood said there needed to be safeguards against “doctored” or misleading use of content which could create disorder within Parliament and mislead the public if it was not kept in check.

“We are in an environment in which a distorted display of information online poses a risk to people’s confidence in democracy, and that’s something we want to see avoided.”

Massey University professor Claire Robinson delivered a scathing critique of Labour’s proposed reforms. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

That was a position given short shrift by Massey University communications professor and political advertising expert Claire Robinson, who argued the party’s stance “actually singles Labour out as a dinosaur when it comes to the latest forms of political communication”.

“In the case of social media…the new forms of communication in popular usage today have to be short, funny, catchy, attention-grabbing, they have to use still and cut moving images or memes designed for sharing widely quickly and virally.

“This is the nature of social media, and these forms of communication are particularly popular with young people who are your voters.”

Labour was being “dangerously undemocratic in seeking to censor the ways that political parties can critique each other’s statements and ideas and communicate with their voters,” she said.

“I have to admit to being slightly embarrassed for New Zealand politics that we’re even having this conversation in 2019.”

It was a closing remark which attracted the ire of Mallard, who held little back in a response.

“I am exceptionally unhappy with your characterisation of this inquiry which was done at my behest and not the Labour Party’s request, and your frankly offensive description of me…

“Your mischaracterisation ill-behoves someone who claims such a title.”

Robinson apologised to the Speaker but was unrepentant in her view of the rules themselves.

“These are clearly ads – no-one reads them as an accurate representation of what goes on in Parliament.”

* In addition to his role at Newsroom, Sam Sachdeva is the chairman of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, which has made its own submission to the committee (the written version can be found here).

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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