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Parliamentary Press Gallery Guidelines?

The New Zealand Parliamentary Press Gallery could put effort into creating guidelines in the rules it agrees on with the Speaker of Parliament. The New Zealand Press Gallery could use guidelines to help it manage its response when others query or challenge its behaviour.

Guidelines could similarly assist the growth of media rights and obligations in the wider Pacific.

In drafting media guidelines, reference could appropriately be made to political theory, political culture and political history. Political philosophers such as John Stuart Mill have written about freedom of speech. The American Constitution also addresses freedom of speech. The architecture of New Zealand’s and other Parliaments includes press galleries – a reminder those generations past and present see media as part of the political system.

Can generations of media agree with past New Zealand Speakers who said in 1998 “The media should see themselves as major participants in maintaining the relevance of Parliament to the people”.

Guidelines might focus on media rights and obligations – spelling out assumptions students may learn in social studies and citizenship education. Guidelines that assist the media perform their “Fourth estate” role can help good governance, transparency and accountability.

People in different roles are more likely to respect and advance the public good roles of the media in the Parliamentary context if there is clarity about the basic assumptions. Guidelines, about local and universal assumptions, can assist in the exercise of judgement.

The debate about the media guidelines, informed by Parliamentary Press Gallery members, past and present, can also inform the next generation.

Guidelines might be based on the principle that Parliamentary Press Gallery members have the right of the media to communicate for and to the public, and the obligation to not interfere with the rights of Parliament to operate.

Guidelines might include:

  • The Parliamentary Press Gallery is a direct link between MPs and the people.
  • MPs represent what they interpret to be the wishes and/or mandate of those who elected them or voted for the political party of which they are members.
  • MPs express this variously through government actions or statements and support of or opposition to those actions or statements. They express this in debates, motions and select committee hearings and reports and in confidential briefings of and leaks to Press Gallery members and members of the public outside Parliament.
  • The Press Gallery transmits to the people the decisions and positions, stated or unstated, of MPs, political parties and the government, including officials. In that sense the Press Gallery is an informant of the people, both conveying information and enabling the people to make informed judgments. That is essential to a well-functioning democracy.
  • The Press Gallery asks questions of MPs, political parties, including their acknowledged and unacknowledged supporters and sources of influence, and the government. It does that on behalf of the people, who have limited means of directly asking those questions themselves. These questions seek elucidations and seek to hold to account. In that sense the Press Gallery is an agent of the people, who fund Parliament and the Government and must by law abide by its decisions and have an inalienable right to object to misuse of money or power.
  • Taken together, those two functions (asking questions and transmitting positions and decisions) of the Press Gallery implant it as a significant element of our democracy. It could as a result be argued that the Press Gallery and its members have a duty to act in such a way as to uphold the democratic system and its institutions. Some media say actually, this is not so. There is no privilege in law even remotely comparable with Parliament’s privileges. The news media are free agents, even those media owned by the state. However, there is a logic in upholding our democratic system and its institutions to the extent that they are instrumental in maintaining freedom of the news media, which to a great extent they are.
  • Parliament’s standing orders are the law within Parliament’s precincts. The courts have no role there, except to the extent that MPs might want to reflect or replicate some principles laid down by courts.
  • Freedom of information is a human right covered by NZ’s Bill of Rights.
  • The Bill of Rights covers other rights. Sometimes rights are in conflict, and sometimes freedoms of information rights are limited. Examples of limitations are defamation law and right to a fair trial. The courts make choices between rights.
  • It might be argued that the fact that the Press Gallery is housed in offices in the Parliamentary complex and has privileged access to some parts of the Parliamentary and Executive Building precincts imposes on it a reciprocal duty to uphold, and do nothing to undermine, Parliament’s status and privileges. But that grant of office space is to facilitate the transmission function noted above. It does not imply duty to act in any particular manner.
  • However, privileged access to Parliamentary and Executive Building precincts does imply a reciprocal responsibility to act at all times with respect and within reasonable guidelines voluntarily agreed between the Press Gallery’s officers and the Speaker and contingent on the Press Gallery being able to carry out its two principal functions outlined above.
  •  Acting with respect entails: being courteous and acting with decorum and decency; not intruding on privacy or private grief; reporting fairly, accurately, openly, evenly and without fear or favour; and observing all Parliamentary rules and privileges.

I have advocated for guidelines, without assuming all key players will agree. However, both in New Zealand and other Pacific Parliamentary circles I have found some interest, enough to lead me to set out these initial thoughts, reflecting attitudes some other Press Gallery members have put to me. If I had my way, some other guidelines would be included – steps on the way to increasing the public good role of journalism.

This report, from a Pacific Islands Citizenship Education Capacity Building Programme 2013-2016 (PICE) series in www.citizenshipeducation.net from Anthony Haas, Asia Pacific Economic News representative in the NZ Parliament’s Press Gallery and Director, Centre for Citizenship Education), is supported by the Commonwealth Foundation and the Tongan Office of the Clerk. Opinion is the responsibility of Anthony Haas, ahaas@decisionmaker.co.nz, not of the supporting institutions.

Updated February 2014

 Find out more

National Council for the Training of Journalists, 1964, Training in Journalism, London, England

Masterton, Murray, 1988, Applied Journalism Print Course Book and Reader, Suva, Fiji

Evans, Nigel et al, 1989, Getting into print, Auckland, New Zealand

Tucker, Jim, 1992, Kiwi Journalist, A Practical Guide to News Journalism, Auckland, New Zealand

Haas, Anthony, 2003, DecisionMaker Guide to Parliament and Government, Wellington, New Zealand

Haas, Anthony, 2014, Being Palangi – My Pacific Journey, Wellington, New Zealand

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