Conference 2000: Ethics
The development of print media codes of ethics
in New Zealand:
A presentation of some MA research findings with
comparisons to the British experience. By Nadia
Paper presented to the Jeanz conference University of
Canterbury 30 November 2000.
1. The nature and scope of the study
- The New Zealand Journalists’ Association
with the British National Union of Journalists
3. The British Press
Council and the development of ethical guidelines
- A frame of
reference for the case of the New Zealand Press Council
- Some related
4. Some concluding
The nature and scope of the
First of all, to offer you some idea of what my research is about
-- my research topic is a comparative study of the evolution of print
media codes of ethics in New Zealand and Britain. I’ve called my thesis
‘The politics of voluntary restraint’, a title which relates to my main
First of all, I thought that I’d give you some
indication of where my research fits in, in terms of some of the previous
research into journalism codes of ethics.
Although the topic of
journalism codes of ethics hasn’t been widely attended to in the past,
there have been some studies conducted more recently that have been
concerned with journalism codes in one way or another, which you’re
probably mostly familiar with. I am aware of two studies firstly that were
conducted in the 1980s – Clement Jones’ 1980 study of journalism codes and
media councils – and Kaarle Nordenstreng’s 1984 work looking at journalism
codes within the scope of the mass media declaration of UNESCO. Both have
provided inventories of the journalism ethics codes existing in a variety
of countries world-wide, as their basis.
Other studies have been
narrower in their focus, looking at the journalism codes of a certain
group of countries, and analysing the codes themselves in terms of their
common themes and functions. A study undertaken in Sweden in 1995 of
European codes by Tiina Laitila for her MA research at the University of
Tampere, is an example of this type of approach that I’m aware of.
There have been studies that are narrower in scope even still,
having looked at one ethics code in particular. In the 1990s, the code of
the Australian Journalists’ Association has received quite a bit of
attention by researchers who have documented the history and development
of the code, as well as analysing the content of the code itself. The work
by Michael Hirst, Paul Chadwick, David Bowman and Lawrence Apps, among
others, has meant that the AJA code is now quite well documented.
research draws on elements of these types of approaches, although there
are some differences in the scope of the study as well as the overall
framework from within which codes are looked at in particular.
study looks specifically at print media codes. The development of
journalism codes is assessed in the broader context of how press
self-regulation has evolved in terms of its ethical structures and
The study takes more of a ‘press policy approach’ in
relation to most of the other studies of journalism codes that I have
sighted. The main aim here was to explore the historical factors and
processes that have led to the development of ethics codes by the print
media in a non-statutory context.
Relatively more has been
documented about the history and development of press self-regulation in
Britain than in New Zealand. As you may be aware, the New Zealand model of
press self-regulation was derived form that of Britain, and so the British
case was used as a point of comparison in exploring the development of
press self-regulation in New Zealand in its ethical guidelines.
what I have aimed to do is to look at the development of print media codes
in terms of quite a broad theoretical framework of social responsibility
theory, theories of professionalism, and more specific arguments and ideas
about the role and value of ethics codes for journalists as
I haven’t utilised a rigid methodological
approach here and given the nature of the study, this has worked out
relatively well. Going through collections of old records, and trying to
track down people who have been involved in the industry has generally
been the basis of how I have gone about the research element of the
Because New Zealand journalism codes have yet to find a
definite place in the existing body of work on codes, and because of the
paucity of research into New Zealand print journalism more generally, it
is the New Zealand case that I am going to focus on today. It is my hope
that my findings, with some comparisons with the British experience, will
prove useful to those of you involved in the teaching of journalism ethics
in New Zealand.
Some Findings about the development of print
A central part of the study included exploring the
regulatory history of the New Zealand press in relation to that of the
British press. A parallel between the two cases was the regulatory role
performed by each of the journalists’ unions - the New Zealand
Journalists’ Association, and the British National Union of Journalists,
before formal systems of self-regulation were established in each of the
Both were formed fundamentally as trade unions with
industrial concerns of the working journalist as their main objective.
Interestingly, both unions moved to embrace professional concerns, which
resulted in each adopting an ethics code.
Both unions at one stage
commanded the membership of the majority of working journalists in each
country and for a considerable period played a central role in the
regulation of professional standards of journalists. It was in view of
this that the development of the two respective journalists’ union codes
was looked at first of all.
Upon approaching my research, I found
the history of particularly the Journalists’ Association code to be quite
a mystery. It was only after a degree of ‘digging around’ and a visit to
Victoria University (where the full archived collection of the
association’s records are held), that I have been able to fill in some of
the gaps in knowledge about the code’s history and development.
The process of the NZJA’ code was quite a long and drawn out one.
The eventual adoption of a code by the Association in the 1960s had in
fact been preceded by the odd suggestion that a code be adopted,
particularly around the time the Australian Journalists’ Association was
progressing towards the adoption of its own code in the early 1940s. These
suggestions never made it to the agenda of the union’s national meetings
until after 1960, when a motion put that the NZJA consider the possibility
of implementing a code of ethics was accepted. Even after this it was
another seven years before a code was actually adopted.
1961 a code (based on the Australian Journalists’ Association’s version)
had been drafted with a series of recommendations for its enforcement
circulated to the provincial unions for comment, there was an overall lack
of feedback. This meant that by the time the most recent official history
of the union was published in 1962, little progress had been made with the
code. It was after this that the draft code was distributed a second time,
which resulted in a great deal more response form union members.
response to the idea of a code of ethics received was quite mixed. Some
members of the union argued that a code was an unnecessary initiative in
itself. Part of this was based on the idea that the journalistic abuses
noted of countries such as Britain, that called for such a code of ethics
were comparatively absent here. Some commentators also pointed to the
existence of a ‘strong unwritten code’ of the New Zealand press which
contributed to the ‘air of respectability’ that the NZ press enjoyed. So
at this stage, there appeared to be something of a ‘don’t fix what ain’t
broke’ attitude within the Association towards the idea of implementing
There was further debate within the JA about
the perceived ‘practical value’ of an ethics code. Bearing in mind the
industrial objectives of the NZJA, a code of ethics was seen by some as
having the potential to increase the professional status of journalism and
thus the economic rewards for journalists - some members felt that a
professional code of behaviour would increase their worth for industrial
bargaining purposes. This was a central factor driving the idea to adopt a
code in both the NZJA as well as the NUJ in Britain. This deliberating
continued for quite some time against a background of increasing pressure
on the NZJA to implement a code of ethics for journalists.
Perceived threats to press freedom came in the form of two
parliamentary bills in particular – the Indecent publications bill of 1963
which the NZJA, as the main advocate for press freedom at the time, saw as
unduly restrictive and sought to have amended.
The News media
ownership bill of 1964, which aimed to restrict foreign ownership of New
Zealand media, was another issue that occupied the resources of the union
at this time.
While these concerns seem to have meant that the issue
of a code was temporarily side-lined, there is also the possibility that
they underpinned an increased interest within the union to show that
journalists could regulate themselves internally, with their own internal
guidelines in place.
There was also increasing public agitation in
the 1960s for the professional regulation of journalists. Not long before
the first major calls for a press council were heard in NZ, there were
indications that the public were wanting to see the NZJA adopt a code with
some sort of disciplinary committee open to the public. Evidence of this
can be found in some of the New Zealand magazines and periodicals
published at the time that were concerned with social and political issues
Also motivating the adoption of a code by the union
later in the 1960s was the perception that if journalists did not produce
their own effective guidelines, then there was the risk of them being
externally imposed. New Zealand journalists only had to look at the
turbulent experience of press regulation in Britain by this time to find
out what the consequences of inaction could hold.
So as a result of
these sorts of factors, by 1966, the NZJA had set up a new committee to
further investigate the issue of adopting a code. It was at the Annual
Conference of the union the following year - in September 1967 - that a
code of ethics was adopted.
The idea of an ethics Committee with
disciplinary powers, which had been mooted earlier, was a hot topic at the
September conference. A number of members disputed the idea and in the
event an Ethics Committee without such powers was agreed upon. So the code
was operated as a voluntary one form 1967 until 1974 when the provincial
unions, (apart from Auckland), merged to become the New Zealand
Journalists Union. The code was then incorporated into the Union’s rules.
So a breach of the code meant a breach of the union’s rules and carried
with it the ultimate sanction of expulsion from the union. And of course
in those days, this wasn’t something a journalists wanted to have happen
to him- or herself, given the advantages of union membership once upon a
time. But this is another story…
A main difference between the
development of the NZJA code and the British NUJ code is in the time each
took to implement their respective ethics codes. A code was first proposed
within the NUJ in 1934 and was adopted two years later. While there was
some opposition within the union on similar grounds to that which was
expressed in the New Zealand case, these contentions were overcome
comparatively rapidly. There much concern within the NUJ that professional
standards of journalists were deteriorating in the broader context of
circulation-wars between major newspapers around this time. There was a
perceived ‘crisis of ethics’ brought about by increasing competition for
readership. This motivated the union’s adoption of an enforceable code of
conduct comparatively quickly.
This was not so much the case in New
Zealand, although like in the New Zealand context, an increasing concern
about the possibility of external interference provided further grounds
for the NUJ to adopt a code.
In each of the two cases, a code was
developed just prior to the establishment of formal systems of press
self-regulation. In the 1940s, the NUJ actively campaigned for the
establishment of an industry-wide system of self-regulation presumably to
give more expression to the professional standards of its code.
similar manner, it was the NZJA which took the first steps towards having
our Press Council established by the press industry in New Zealand.
while both unions had professional codes of behaviour in place, there were
obviously questions whether either of the union’s codes were sufficient
regulatory mechanisms in themselves. In both cases, there was obviously a
perceived need for a more extensive self-regulatory regime that offered
readers a forum to air their complaints about press performance.
being the case, both unions continued to operate their respective codes
after such systems were formalised in each of the two countries.
In more recent times, industrial relations legislation has, in
both countries, undermined the role of the unions and the regulatory force
they may have once exerted over journalists. This has of course, placed
increased responsibility on the formal self-regulatory bodies for
implementing ethical guidelines and overseeing their adherence.
together, the existing work on press self-regulation in Britain highlights
a pattern that the development of press self-regulation in New Zealand was
compared with. My study explored the idea that the internal reform of
press self-regulation in Britain has been largely reactive with ethical
guidelines being most commonly formed in circumstances of external
pressure, most notably parliamentary pressure. It was in terms of this
idea that the New Zealand Press Council’s development of ethical
guidelines was assessed.
So to elucidate this argument in terms
of the British experience:
As it is quite well documented, the
British Press Council was instituted as the General Council of the Press
in 1953. Ever since this time, press self-regulation in Britain has been
characterised by much uncertainty as to its effectiveness. The British
Press Council became rather notorious for its lack of responsiveness to
the recommendations from successive government-initiated committees and
commissions inquiring into the press that it adopt a code of ethics.
Like in the New Zealand case, the British Press Council initially saw
this unnecessary where the NUJ’s code was already in place. So, this was
said to be a main reason for its failure to develop and operate its own
However, as time went on there was increasing pressure on
the Press Council to adopt some ethical guidelines for journalists of its
own. Its compromise came in the form of its declarations of principle.
These documents were devised after period of more serious criticism of
certain aspects of press performance and of the effectiveness of the Press
The first of these declarations was devised on the
practice chequebook journalism. This followed controversy about payments
to witnesses in the Moors Murder trial in 1965. The possibility that
Contempt of Court laws would be tightened to cover chequebook journalism
provided the main impetus for this development.
Another of the
council’s main declarations of principle was on the topic of privacy and
press intrusion, which was formed in 1976. This followed the report of the
1972 Younger Committee on Privacy, which condemned press intrusion. The
committee had further recommended that the Press Council adopt code of
ethics to spell out what practices were undesirable in relation to privacy
intrusion, and hinted at the possibility of statutory restraint in this
area if the council failed to establish some effective form of voluntary
So, the development of the Press Council’s declarations
of principle was ultimately to pre-empt statutory regulation in the areas
with which they were each concerned. However, they apparently did little
in the longer term to appease external criticism, and the behaviour of
sectors of the British press that this criticism was directed at.
The British Press Council continued without a formal comprehensive
code of ethics until 1989 when circumstances forced a change of stance.
The Calcutt Committee on privacy had been convened to consider the issue
of press invasion of privacy, and the effectiveness of press
self-regulation under the press council more generally. While the Calcutt
the Press Council conducted an internal review, which
resulted in its adoption of a code of practice after nearly 40 years of
This coincided with the development of an ‘editors’ code’
by a sub-committee of the Newspaper Publishers Association. Funnily
enough, the NPA had never previously given much thought to adopting a code
until by the late 1990s there was an unprecedented degree of pressure for
This code, as well as that of the Press Council and the draft
proposed by the Calcutt Committee, were merged into the code that was
adopted by the Press Complaints Commission when it replaced the press
council in 1991 as recommended by the Calcutt committee. The fact that the
Press Council left developing a code of practice so long has even been
located as a factor in its eventual demise.
in Britain has continued in much the same pattern over the last decade
with the Press Complaints Commission code being strengthened most commonly
in a context of external criticism and pressure for reform and the threat
of statutory intervention.
The development of self-regulatory codes
in Britain is interesting because of the manifest similarities to the New
Since its inception in 1972, the New Zealand Press
Council had (like its British ancestor), always stated its preference for
a ‘case law’ approach, and had pointed to the Journalists union code of
ethics in defending its failure to operate its own version. This remained
the case until recently. The context in which the British Press Council
eventually adopted a code before it was disbanded, and that which the New
Zealand Press Council adopted its Statement of Principles more recently,
are actually very similar.
Both initiatives were largely underpinned
by the threat of privacy legislation for the press.
In New Zealand, -
as you’ll no doubt be aware - there talk of the print media’s exemption
from the provisions of the Privacy Act being removed - leading up to the
Act’s 1998 review. And underlying this was the broader global debate about
privacy and press intrusion in the aftermath of Princess Diana which
resulted in the code of the British press being tightened. While many New
Zealand newspaper editors were quick to defend the ethical standards and
degree of responsibility of the New Zealand press, Bruce Slane (the
privacy commissioner) quipped that the editors of Britain’s ‘quality’
newspapers could say the same thing, and then began urging the adoption of
a comprehensive code by the New Zealand press.
This appears to
have been the immediate background to the Press Council’s decision to
adopt a Statement of Principles, which it did in August 1999. So
eventually, the New Zealand Press Council acknowledged that it was an
exception among press regulatory bodies in not having some form of written
code, and that not having one undermined its credibility and
effectiveness. A lesson was learnt form the British experience that some
form of guiding document was necessary – whether the aim here was to
promote the highest professional and ethical standards in journalism, or
to subdue external criticism and threats of statutory intervention
however, is the ultimate question however.
In many ways, the set of
principles follows the looser format of the British press Council’s
declarations of principle, although covers a wider range of areas of press
conduct. In this respect, it is more like the statement of principles of
the Australian Press Council, which influenced the New Zealand version.
The Press Council’s arguments for the form it was to take centred
around the idea that a more rigid code wasn’t necessary here and could
prove too inflexible. However, the more cynical among us might not see
this development as any less reactive and unconvincing as the efforts of
the British press council during its existence. Of course, on the other
hand, we might see this as a positive development in the ‘right
direction’. I guess only time will tell…
In the meantime,
Independent Newspapers Ltd. had developed its own code of ethics. In doing
so, INL set a precedent in this country as the first major newspaper and
magazine publisher to adopt a code for its journalists.
Irrespective of this, this was a development that appears to be
reminiscent of the British case when in 1989 a sub-committee of the
British newspaper Publishers Association was formed to develop a code
ahead of the British Press Council as I’ve said. And the basis for this
decision in the New Zealand case was evidently similar – the perception
that the press Council wasn’t seen to be making much headway with external
pressure – particularly from within the office of the privacy commissioner
- increasing. So this provided the basis of INL’s decision to go ahead to
produce a code on its own.
Wilson and Horton, (the other main newspaper
publishing group in New Zealand) reportedly mooted the idea of following
suit however, my inquiries into this matter suggest that this idea never
went much further than this.
by way of conclusion, there are clearly some interesting parallels in the
New Zealand and British experiences in the development of print media
codes of ethics.
Codes have been developed by the self-regulating print
media in a non-statutory context - but they have often been driven by
external pressure carrying implicit and not so implicit threats to the
continuation of such a regulatory framework.
This is a pattern
more characteristic more of the British case although, as I’ve pointed
out, it seems to have been emulated in the New Zealand context more
recently particularly with the Press Council’s adoption of its Statement
Overall, New Zealand has been much slower in the
progression towards adopting ethics codes for print journalists. This is
perhaps largely to do with the very different climate of practice that the
New Zealand press has operated in relation to Britain. This has been
employed both to defend the absence of a code of ethics for the New
Zealand press, and the necessity of such in the British case.
Certainly, the degree of competition within the British press,
which has been attributed to the maintenance (or otherwise) of
professional standards, hasn’t been so much of a problem here. This is, of
course, much to do with our small population and patterns of newspaper
reading, and the monopoly-type situation most major dailies have enjoyed
here over the years.
The effectiveness of press self-regulation has
always been a much bigger issue in Britain. The circulation wars and
degree of competition between the major players in Britain’s National
press has tended to underlie the debate about the ethical standards of the
British press and the professional guidelines it has to keep them in
A general pattern can be noted of the British press in its
development of ethical guidelines, as I’ve mentioned:
criticism of press standards occurs, particularly in periods of more
intense competition, (and possibly accompanied by threats of statutory
alternatives), which poses perceived threat to ‘press freedom’. It is most
commonly this sort of external pressure that precipitates action from
within the press in developing or revising its ethical
This pattern underlies the ‘politics of voluntary
restraint’ in a market-dominated climate of practice, which I have
assessed the New Zealand case in terms of also.
What will be
interesting to observe from now on, is how the New Zealand Press Council’s
Statement of Principles fares as a self-regulatory tool in the future;
whether new media technologies and new media forms, with inevitable change
in the New Zealand media landscape, brings the need for stricter
regulatory structures for the print media than those existing at
Whether the ‘politics of voluntary restraint’,
characteristic of the evolution of press self-regulation in Britain over
the twentieth century, will become so pervasive in the New Zealand context
into the new century, and if so, what the outcomes of this will
is a post-graduate student at the University of Canterbury (Christchurch,
New Zealand). She completed a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics in 1998, and
a BA (Hons) in linguistics and journalism in 1999 and was awarded a first
class honours. The receipt of a scholarship from the Centre for Research
on Europe (an interdisciplinary unit established at the University of
Canterbury at the beginning of 2000), and a University of Canterbury
research award, encouraged her to undertake a Master of Arts in journalism
in 2000. Her MA research topic incorporates some of her principal
interests in journalism and the media developed during the honours year;
including journalism ethics, media policy and regulation. Undertaking a
comparative study of the evolution of print media codes of ethics in
Britain and New Zealand thus served the dual purpose of integrating these
interests, and of contributing to an area of enquiry that has not been
widely attended to in previous research. Elsaka intends undertaking
doctoral research which will explore the nature and development of
professionalism in New Zealand journalism.