MPs outlaw satire in New Zealand

New Zealand's Parliament has voted itself far-reaching powers to control satire and ridicule of MPs in Parliament, attracting a storm of media and academic criticism.

The new standing orders, voted in last month, concern the use of images of Parliamentary debates, and make it a contempt of Parliament for broadcasters or anyone else to use footage of the chamber for "satire, ridicule or denigration".

The rules apply any to broadcasts or rebroadcasts in any medium.

They also ban the use of such footage for "political advertising or election campaigning", except with the permission of all members shown.

The new broadcasting regime coincides with the introduction of Parliament's own continuous in-house TV feed, which will be made available to broadcasters.

Private broadcasters will still be able to opt to use their own footage, but will be subject to the same rules, which also include an instruction that cameras focus on the Speaker "in the case of general disorder on the floor of the House".

So if a fight breaks out in the debating chamber, as happened in Taiwan recently, anyone who shows it will do so on pain of contempt.

But if private broadcasters opt to rely on Parliament's feed most of the time rather than use their own cameras, they won't have a choice about it as the Parliamentary feed will not show the disorder.

In some respects, the new rules relax the old ones, which required that footage should focus at all times on the head and shoulders of the member speaking. Appropriate reaction shots and coverage of interjections are now permitted.

However, the old rules were frequently breached, as the media often used wider-angled shots or published photographs of MPs napping, reading comics, eating lollies, and in one notable case, giving another MP the finger.

Occasionally, media organisations were punished for this, but only by the withdrawal, for a set period, of their right to attend the chamber.

The new standing orders make a breach a contempt of Parliament, potentially punishable by imprisonment.

Leader of the House and deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said the rules were designed to prevent the misrepresentation of what happened in the House through partial editing or other trickery. He insisted that they would be interpreted liberally and would not constrain legitimate debate and comment on politics.

The Green party tried to strike out the no-satire condition, but was voted down 111-6.

The new rules have been widely panned in the media. Vernon Small, chair of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, pointed out that MPs ridicule each other as often as the media join in, and said the rules seemed to be aimed at trying to protect MPs from themselves.

"If MPs want to improve the reputation of the institution, and of themselves, the answer is surely in their own hands, through improved behaviour," he wrote in the Dominion Post.

"It is not in restricting the media and giving themselves protections they do not need or that are unworkable - and therefore bring the institution into further disrepute."

Small also complained that the media was not properly consulted over the changes, and said they were unfair to photographers. Photographers taking still images will still be obliged to focus only on the MP speaking.

Others have pointed out that satire and ridicule rules are probably unenforceable - for example, if someone anonymously posts an overdubbed satirical video on YouTube.

Several academics have taken another tack. They note that the reports of the Standing Orders Committee contain no mention of the NZ Bill of Rights Act, which applies to the legislature and requires that any limits on the freedom to seek and receive information must be reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

University of Auckland law professor Paul Rishworth told the NZ Herald that the requirement that coverage should not be used for satire or ridicule was worrying "for these can be legitimate tools in the commentator's armoury for offering robust commentary - and freedom of expression certainly protects political debates".

He doubted that the rules were justified. "Having a broad rule in place can deter legitimate speech, even that which would ultimately have been found permissible by a narrow reading of the rule."

The rules would even prevent opposition parties from using, during the election campaign, a clip of an MP lying to the House.

However, there is no mechanism in the Bill of Rights Act to hold Parliament accountable to it. Under the Act, the Attorney-General warns Parliament when a bill is introduced which appears to be inconsistent with the protections in the Bill of Rights. But that process does not apply to Parliament's Standing Orders.

The new rules were passed under a sessional order, so will expire after the length of the present Parliament.

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