Story: Media and politics

Page 1. Democracy and freedom of the press

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Role in democracy

The news media is central to New Zealand's democracy. Ideally the news media's role is to:

  • provide the public with in-depth, factual information to inform their political decision-making
  • act as a watchdog against abuses of power
  • offer a forum for the exchange of opinions, experiences and perspectives.

These functions assist the public to understand complex social and political issues, from the local to the international level.

Factors affecting the media

The news media’s ability to fulfil its democratic role is affected by:

  • laws protecting freedom of expression
  • regulation and censorship
  • media access to official information
  • ownership of the media
  • levels of funding for public-service broadcasting
  • commercial pressures to increase advertising revenues
  • levels of newsroom resourcing.

Freedom of the press

Freedom of expression, including that of the media, is protected by the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Legal recognition of the media’s crucial watchdog role is found in the Evidence Act 2006, which allows a journalist to protect the identity of a confidential source, although this right must be balanced against the public interest.

Access to government information

The Official Information Act 1982 is an important tool for journalists. This act allows all official information – including cabinet papers and officials’ advice to ministers – to be made available upon request unless there is good reason for withholding it. Many journalists have complained that officials and ministers use a range of methods to delay or refuse such releases of information. Nonetheless, many political news stories are based on information released under the Official Information Act.

Censorship and political control of media

Government censorship of the news media has a long history in New Zealand. It began in the early 1840s, when Governor William Hobson closed down some newspapers criticising his Māori land purchase policies.

In 1923, when radio was first becoming established in New Zealand, the government banned the broadcast of any ‘propaganda of a controversial nature’. They stipulated that broadcasts be ‘restricted to matters of an educative or entertaining character, such as news, lectures, useful information, religious service, musical or elocutionary entertainment’.1

Jamming Uncle Scrim

On the night of 24 November 1935, radio engineers employed by the Post and Telegraph Department deliberately jammed a popular religious programme by Colin Scrimgeour, commonly known as ‘Uncle Scrim’, just as he started to talk about the upcoming election. The engineers had been instructed to do so by their superior, on the grounds that Scrimgeour was likely to urge his listeners to vote for Labour. The postmaster general, Adam Hamilton, who was the minister responsible for broadcasting, denied having given orders for the jamming – which subsequently became notorious.

In 1937 Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage set up an Official News Service, under which all radio news bulletins were to be compiled and issued from the Prime Minister’s Department. Radio news only became largely independent of political control with the establishment of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) in 1962.

During both world wars there was strict censorship, to prevent the dissemination of information to the enemy and to maintain public support for the war effort. Pacifist and revolutionary socialist papers were targeted, with the Communist Party coming under particular scrutiny in the early years of the Second World War. A number of publications were banned and their distributors prosecuted.

In 1951 National Prime Minister Sid Holland imposed strict censorship during the waterside workers’ industrial dispute.

Lange vs. Atkinson

In 1996 former Labour Prime Minister David Lange sued political scientist Joe Atkinson, whose article on Lange’s role as prime minister had appeared in North and South magazine. Lange alleged that the article was defamatory. The case went to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council in London, and then back once more to the New Zealand Court of Appeal. In 1998 and 2000 the Court of Appeal accepted the defence of ‘qualified privilege’, allowing journalists to criticise politicians on the basis of ‘honest belief’. These decisions gave the New Zealand media greater freedom in commenting on politicians’ performance.

Legal restraints on the media

In the 2000s the media had much greater freedom of expression. However, this was restricted by a number of laws introduced to protect other rights. The Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993 had provisions designed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnic or national origin, age, gender or disability.

If a person considered that false statements had been made about them through the media, they could sue the broadcaster or publisher of the statement, under the Defamation Act 1992. This did not apply to statements made under parliamentary privilege.

The media were banned from publishing the name of anyone granted name suppression in court.

  1. Quoted in Patrick Day, The radio years. Auckland: Auckland University Press in Association with the Broadcasting History Trust, 1994, p. 51. Back
How to cite this page:

Kate McMillan, 'Media and politics - Democracy and freedom of the press', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Kate McMillan, published 20 Jun 2012