Hard News by Russell Brown


New Rules

I hope Colin Espiner can keep up his daily political blog on Stuff, because it has swiftly become a useful addition to the local debate. Notable recently: his commentary on the new rules for visual coverage of Parliament's debating chamber, both before, then again and after the new provisions were passed with only the Greens objecting.

From the first link above, a useful explanation of what was about to happen:

Parliament’s Standing Orders committee is proposing to change the rules around broadcasting the goings-on inside our House of Representatives.

To some extent these rules simply codify existing practice. Technically, TV networks are not currently allowed to show any reaction shots from the chamber or indeed anything or anyone besides an MP on their feet, the Speaker, or a wide shot of the whole chamber.

As you’ll see on the news most nights, those rules are not followed. The Speaker grumbles every now and again – most recently when TV3 showed New Zealand First’s Ron Mark giving the fingers to National’s Tau Henare. TV3’s cameras got a week in the sin-bin for that.

It’s a moot point whether giving the fingers would be allowed to be shown under the new rules, but certainly they are a relaxation over what’s the case at present. (Interestingly, newspapers have not been ticked off for running a still version of this picture off the television. It’s up on the Stuff website again today and I’m posting it again with impunity again here.

But rather than leave it at that, the committee wants to chuck in a new rule forbidding TV networks to lampoon politicians in the chamber through “satirising or denigrating’’ their behaviour. Now frequently of course MPs satirise and denigrate themselves and each other - and that’s fine, according to the committee. Just so long as the media don’t do it.

They’re also proposing bringing in a new punishment for those who transgress: contempt of Parliament. This is a very serious charge, with open-ended sanctions. Parliament could throw a journalist in jail, for example, or slap them with an enormous fine.

No, I am not without sympathy for our MPs. The New Zealand news media's coverage of Parliament is often superficial. A sleeping-MP gotcha will lead the news while important legislative events go unexplained. And I also felt that when they attempted to depict the presence of public cameras in the chamber as some sort of creeping social, the TV companies were basically defending their monopoly on the pictures.

But this just doesn't make sense. The ability to "satirise or denigrate" our elected leaders - a purpose to which TV pictures from the House now cannot be put - is one of the marks of a democracy. If MPs don't like that - and I know they are sometimes genuinely hurt by the way they are portrayed - then they shouldn't be in politics.

Here's the official account of the new rules:

The House has adopted new rules for filming and still photography in the House. They are aimed at ensuring fair and accurate reporting of parliamentary proceedings.

Previous rules which limited filming to the member speaking or the Speaker are considered restrictive. The new rules allow limited reaction shots, questions and interjections and general background shots to illustrate the mood of the House and to introduce variety. The change coincides with the introduction of remote-controlled cameras in the House, which will film all proceedings. In addition to web-casting, a broadcast-quality feed of the images will be made available to television broadcasters, who will decide if they wish to use the material.

The House has also adopted rules relating to the use of television images from the House. Images will not be able to be used for political advertising or electoral campaigning (unless all members pictured have given permission); satire, ridicule or denigration; or commercial sponsorship and advertising.

And, in conclusion, it says this:

Preparations are on schedule for the webcasting of Parliament to begin in mid July. In all, approximately 17.5 hours will be streamed live on this site, http://www.parliament.nz , every week the House sits.

Ah. The webcast. The Standing Orders committee report says this:

Live coverage of the proceedings of the House of Representatives is made available for television broadcast, webcast, and recording in other mediums to provide greater public access to the legislature. The coverage is made available on the following conditions:

1 Any broadcast or rebroadcast of coverage must comply with Broadcasting Standards Authority rules.

2 Coverage of proceedings must not be used in any medium for:

- political advertising or election campaigning (except with the permission of all members shown)
- satire, ridicule or denigration
- commercial sponsorship or commercial advertising.

3 Reports that use extracts of coverage of proceeding sand purport to be summaries must be fair and accurate.

Breach of these conditions may result in a loss of access to coverage, and may be treated as a contempt and proceeded against accordingly.

Or not. Michael Cullen has already said that any old mash-up on YouTube won't be pursued under the rules (and the BSA has no jurisdiction on the internet anyway). But the availability of raw public footage of debate is something of a boon - or it would be, if it was clearer what we can do with it. Can we capture and make separately available parts of the webcast? Will there be any features to help us do that? Archiving? Annotation? Bookmarking of the money quotes? It would be nice to know.

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