Looking critically at the media, DA leader Helen Zille insists that to speak truth to power, the media must look at its own shortcomings too, in a story first published in The Media magazine.
In recent months, acres of newsprint have been devoted to the government’s attempts to curb media freedom through proposals such as a media tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill. Government communications head Jimmy Manyi has been roundly (and rightly) condemned for suggesting that the government could withdraw advertising revenue from newspapers that don’t toe the line.
We are facing an assault on the free press not seen since the darkest days of apartheid. The truth is the ANC is not interested in building an open society. On the contrary, it wants to shut down every institution and person willing to speak truth to power.
There can be no more chilling example of this than reports of pending charges against Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Time will tell what fate befalls her for daring to rule against Police Commissioner Bheki Cele and other high-ranking members of government for corruption and maladministration. The selective application of justice is just as great a threat to the future of our country as the curbs on freedom of expression.
The growing public outcry against these moves is encouraging because it signals a commitment across the spectrum to protect those who hold the government to account. The only downside is that, as ever, when the stakes are high, there is little room for nuance – “you are either with us or against us”, as a former American President once said.
So, just as Jimmy Manyi interprets every criticism of government as all-out hostility, every criticism of the media – no matter how valid it may be – is seen as an attack on the free press. As a result, people who deeply value press freedom, but have legitimate concerns over the performance of our media – including many working in the media themselves – tend to keep quiet. This is a great pity because the media have a great deal to be introspective about.
The DA has always supported ‘self-regulation’ as a means of ensuring that the media can be measured against the core principles it has set itself, and which mirror the values of our constitution. But if the media wants ‘self regulation’ to continue, it must work effectively.
In many instances it does not. A clear example of failed “self regulation” is our recent experience with the Sowetan over repeated incidents of inaccurate reporting about the DA and its administration in the Western Cape. Correspondence and voice mail messages remained unanswered and the Sowetan’s blatant bias continued. Eventually, after months of failed attempts at communication with the newspaper, we removed the errant reporter’s name from our voluntary media circulation list.
This elicited an extraordinary “pack-hunt” of misdirected media outrage, and was misinterpreted as “black listing” and an attack on media freedom in general. Firstly, the DA is under no obligation to send emails to anyone, let alone everyone. Secondly, the core problem was the failure of the self-regulatory mechanism to address legitimate concerns about continuous journalistic lapses at the Sowetan.
When we met a South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) delegation in order to discuss the collective media outrage at the removal of a journalist’s name from our circulation list, we produced our file to demonstrate our repeated and fruitless attempts to get “self-regulation” to work at the Sowetan. The Sanef delegation then openly acknowledged that there had been a “complete melt-down” at the Sowetan. Instead of focusing on the real issue, which is a “complete melt-down” at a newspaper that influences tens of thousands of people every day, the media themselves sought a political scapegoat. An irony worth pondering.
The second was the Sunday Times’ refusal to release the full 2008 report into the meltdown at that newspaper which gave rise to a series of dubious front page stories. It took dogged pressure from a Rhodes journalism student (including a failed Promotion of Access to Information Act application) for the full report to see the light of day – despite many rival newspapers having the report in their possession. Few were willing (at least initially) to break the unwritten code of honour that stops newspapers from publishing stories that are unfavourable to other newspapers, even when it is in the public interest to do so.
I believe that, if our media are to successfully speak truth to power, three things must happen:
Firstly, the government must desist with its assault on press freedom. The amendments of crucial sections of the Protection of Information Bill are a step in the right direction. We must continue to use every legislative and legal means at our disposal to protect the free press.
Secondly, media outlets need to invest more in training journalists. There are some excellent journalists out there. While I may have had disagreements with some of them over the years, I have never been in any doubt about their commitment to fair and accurate reporting. But, for every journalist who understands his or her craft implicitly, there is another yet to grasp the basic tenets of journalism, such as marshalling the facts and checking them with more than one source, or giving the right of reply. Most alarming is that very few journalists these days have the ability to accurately record a statement verbatim. This is why I tend to give written comment over email or SMS – otherwise the risk of being misquoted is simply too high.
Thirdly, we need to find ways to make self-regulation and peer-review work. The Press Ombudsman needs to be better-resourced to do his job optimally and be given more teeth to impose greater sanctions when newspapers get it wrong or overstep the mark. More than that, there needs to be a culture of honest and open peer-review between media outlets. If a publication gets a story wrong, then let other publications say so and interrogate what happened. The unwritten code that prevents journalists from writing critical pieces about their peers and rival publications needs to be broken.
I hope these points will be taken in the constructive spirit in which I intend them. Nobody is more committed to protecting press freedom than the party I represent, but the point needs to be made that speaking truth to power is a two-way process. The media does not have a monopoly on the ‘truth’. It is even harder in our society for a politician to speak ‘truth’ to an editor. Getting to the ‘truth’ depends on a press corps capable of fair, accurate, incisive reporting and an industry willing to be honest and open about its own shortcomings. And, if the media can get its house in order, there will be even less justification for the government to interfere.
Zille is leader of the DA and Premier of the Western Cape.