The government may be wrong about much of its criticism of the media, but Stephen Grootes believes it is right about the media not treating people with respect.
There is a tendency in media circles sometimes to think we are all-powerful. There is feeling that no-one can really touch us. If we get what seems to be a really good story, we can shout to the world “go ahead and sue”, knowing that the prospect is far more risky for the litigant than it would be for us. Never mind the cost. When it comes to government control, we can think, “Ag, it won’t happen, we’re too strong, the people will protect us.”
A recent survey by TNS Research Surveys bears that out. It found that around 80% of metropolitan residents believe that a free commercial media is important to society, and vital for exposing corruption. That, of course, is true. There, the ‘people’ are with us.
But there is one vital area where when the ANC says the people are not with us, it may well be right. For the last few months, one consistent statement from the ANC – within its otherwise very loosely written discussion documents and public utterances – has been this: that the ‘people’ agree with the party that the media is in the wrong. We shouldn’t ignore this as political posturing. Because, in one major aspect, we might find out that they are right.
The issue at stake is about dignity. It is about the way the media treat people, particularly political leaders. Respect is the key word here. While there are some in the ANC who would benefit from media that refused to investigate their businesses or personal lives out of respect, and are thus pushing this agenda, it’s not just about that. It’s about the way we treat leaders of the ANC, who are also held up as the leaders of many of the people who vote in this country.
The ANC believes, with some serious justification, that the media doesn’t treat its leaders properly; with the dignity and respect they deserve. The media’s response, generally speaking, is to retort that, under the law of defamation, people who seek the public eye have a much higher burden to prove wrongdoing if people report on their lives. In other words, you go into politics, take what’s coming to you. Except the ANC doesn’t believe that. It may want to suggest that, while President Jacob Zuma is a public person, he didn’t go into politics to become president, he went into politics to liberate his people.
In return, according to this view, he gets publicly portrayed with a shower on his head. Of course, Zapiro has the right to draw him like that. Of course, in many ways, he should continue to do that, to remind us that we are being led by someone who has got himself into a situation in which he has said silly and dangerous things about a pandemic that virtually shapes South African life. But, as the media, we don’t explain that. We don’t say, on a continuous basis, why Zapiro should do this. As a result, people living in rural areas, who perhaps don’t have much contact with non-SABC media, see only the shower head – and the insult.
When the media, quite rightly, criticised and condemned Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for her destructive Aids policies, it became common for her to be referred to as ‘Manto’, something she hated. For some in South Africa, that was good and proper, because she was killing people and, because she acted irrationally, she wasn’t due any respect. But for others, she was someone who had dedicated her life to the struggle for freedom and had to go into exile at a young age. She was surely someone who deserved some respect. Instead, she was publically humiliated again and again.
Looking back now, that may have been a mistake. Perhaps we should have thought slightly further ahead. At the time, emotions ran high, and her spin doctors did very little to mitigate her public image. But we can make sure that public figures aren’t humiliated in quite the same way again. It is possible to make a point without humiliating someone.
We should also draw a line between how people are treated in news reportage, headlines, cartoons and comment. Zapiro should continue to draw the way he does, because that’s his comment and it must be published in the comment and opinion section. But headlines shouldn’t use leaders’ first names. Ever. And that includes on billboards.
South Africa, for a long list of complicated reasons, has a very British newspaper culture. For examplie, British newspapers routinely published John Major in his underwear, or take pride in being as insulting as possible to politicians and often kick people when they are down. We are not British, and we should behave differently. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interrogate political statements and question the motives of the people who make them. But it does mean we should be slightly more humane when we do it.
At the very least, that will remove one of the arguments that certain members of ANC are using against us. And in a battle in which the media presently is involved, it’s about weakening your opponent’s arguments, and strengthening yours.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.