After 12 years of indecision, government officials have renewed a push for more cohesive controls for the media – including social media.

Internal Affairs has advised that a fresh review of the country’s media content regulatory system is needed.

It would look to draw up greater regulatory powers to control harmful content on media sites, and particularly look to extend regulation over social media platforms.

Such a review has the potential to rewrite the Broadcasting Standards Act, change the functions of media regulators, and capture social media platforms within the same regulations.

“Our existing regulatory system … addresses harm in a shrinking proportion of the media content consumed, and provides little protection at all for digital media types which pose the greatest risk for harmful content.”
– Michael Woodside, Internal Affairs

The Department of Internal Affairs acknowledges New Zealand media industry regulations are from a pre-internet era.

“Our existing regulatory system was designed around a traditional idea of ‘analogue publication’ and does not have the flexibility to respond to many digital media types,” says Internal Affairs director of gambling, racing, and media content Michael Woodside.

“As a result, it addresses harm in a shrinking proportion of the media content consumed and provides little protection at all for digital media types which pose the greatest risk for harmful content,” he adds.

“The increase in the potential for New Zealanders to be exposed to harmful content is compounded by the complexity of the piecemeal regulatory system.

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“The existing regulators in the media sector have fragmented and incomplete coverage, which has resulted in complicated regulatory arrangements for content across media platforms.”

Such a review would be wider than that by the select committee considering a law change to filter violent extremist content online. That amendment bill was introduced in Parliament last year as a discrete fix to the streaming of the Christchurch terror attacks.

While Internal Affairs has advised its minister Jan Tinetti on progressing a review, some aspects have not been determined. These include governance arrangements, including an agency lead. This suggests haggling is underway among government agencies over which agency leads the review and does the heavy lifting.

With ministers demanding a faster pace of reform in areas such as the new public broadcasting entity, some government agencies may already be feeling under the pump.

New Zealand already has a chequered history with media regulation reform. The trend has been for ad hoc updates of existing laws. Past efforts for substantive reform have faltered.

In 2008 the broadcasting minister, Trevor Mallard at the time, ran a Digital Broadcasting Review of Regulations that turned into a decade-long muddle. A subsequent National minister Amy Adams responded with a proposed law change, then another Labour broadcasting minister Clare Curran binned it.

The dithering has continued. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage says ministers actually agreed to a further review of the media content regulation regime in February 2019. It was put on hold after the March 2019 terrorist attack, then further delayed while the response to Covid-19 was prioritised.

A Ministry spokesperson said officials were currently rescoping a review of content regulation. More information would be available in due course.

But other government officials acknowledge that media regulations need a serious look – especially from a consumer’s perspective.

“For example, in order to issue a complaint about harmful content audiences must go to different regulators depending on the platform the content was viewed on,” said Michael Woodside. “This has created confusion for consumers and providers, and has led to different decisions being made about similar content.

“Inconsistent rating and classification information is confusing for consumers (including parents) and risks inappropriate content being experienced by children and vulnerable people.”

No announcements have emerged from Beehive Ministers but based on the officials’ advice, it won’t be long before what is on the drawing board moves to “work in progress.”

Who does what? The short version

Our current media content regulatory system is comprised of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, the Broadcasting Act 1989 and voluntary self-regulation (including the New Zealand Media Council and the Advertising Standards Authority).

The Office of Film and Literature Classification and the Broadcasting Standards Authority are statutory regulators under their respective regimes.

New Zealand’s media content regulatory system seeks to prevent harm from exposure to damaging or illegal media content through a combination of classifications and ratings.

The Classification Act is administered by the DIA and was designed to provide a framework for classifying films, videos, and publications, and to clearly label and in some cases restrict the availability of harmful content. This Act allowed the Christchurch terrorist attack video to be classified as objectionable, making it illegal to hold and distribute.

The Broadcasting Act is administrated by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. It was designed to provide a framework that regulates content traditionally broadcast on radio and free-to-air and pay television. It also covers certain content that is live-streamed through the internet. For example, the legislation covers the 6pm news when viewed as a television broadcast or viewed through the TVNZ website, but not when it is accessed through an on-demand service.

Stephen Parker is a former political editor for TV3. More recently he was the Chief Media Adviser at MFAT, and also worked in the Foreign Minister's office of both National and Labour-led governments.

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