Sam Sole considers the impact of the News of The World scandal and its effect on our media in a story first published in The Media magazine.
The News of the World phone-hacking scandal is heaven-sent for every puffed-up politician and plutocrat around the world. What is sickening for journalists trying to meet the ideals of the profession is that it is going to make it harder for them to do their jobs – and has already dramatically increased the global pressure for statutory regulation of the media.
Particularly galling, though not surprising, is that the man responsible for this, Newscorp’s Rupert Murdoch, has been the single individual most responsible for the destruction of traditional journalism. He has commodifed news, politicised it and trashed the barriers between entertainment and journalism.
What is shocking about the News of the World’s activities is not so much their breach of people’s privacy, but the inappropriateness of their targets.
Privacy is not what it used to be, as those vaguely aware of the way the digital revolution has dramatically widened the capacity to monitor our communications know.
Governments and big business abuse that capacity all the time. I believe that other social agents – the media, Wikileaks, hacking groups – sometimes need to breach the state (and often corporate) monopoly on intrusion.
But they need to do it only where the public interest outweighs the obvious incursion on privacy and confidentiality. This would be done to expose abuses of power.
After all, our own Anton Harber pleaded guilty to trying to bug members of the notorious Civil Co-operation Bureau during his time as co-editor of the Weekly Mail – this in a bid to expose state-sponsored terror.
And the Mail & Guardian almost faced criminal charges over getting copies of bank statements of the late Sandi Majali, which showed he had channelled an advance received from a state-owned-entity into the coffers of the ANC.
But the point is that none of these breaches of privacy were undertaken lightly and could be justified by public interest.
On the other hand, the News of the World deployed their private investigators and their invasive subterfuge in a bid to chase trivial celebrity gossip and the most ghoulish sensationalism.
The South African press, by contrast, does not in general appear to be poisoned by triviality or inappropriate targets. And no-one has really set out the key cases of misreporting that purport to justify the resort to state regulation of content.
The major complaint seems to be that the print media has set itself up as an opposition to the government of the majority party. There seems to be little understanding that our constitution recognises and protects a watchdog role for the media, which places journalists in a structurally adversarial position, vis-à-vis government.
There have been some serious claims voiced, for instance, by media commentator and spin-doctor Chris Vick, about how easy it is to manipulate the South African media with leaked documents and ‘exclusives’, not to mention his allegation that his powerful contacts boast of having journalists in their pocket.
Yet it is the same business and political elite that is calling for a media tribunal, who are also the key agents of this media manipulation (or even bribery). Given that fact, it is hard to understand how such a tribunal will help.
Perhaps more attention needs to be focused on regulating media ownership, rather than media content, such as insisting that a proportion of profits need to be allocated to professional training and development. Journalists need protection and guidance in relation to pressures from both outside and inside newsrooms.
Given the collapse some years ago of the South African Union of Journalists, there is little institutional backing for journalists to stand up for their own professional values and standards – though ProJourn, the professional journalists association, is making a worthy effort.
But the protection (and the sanction, if need be, outside the normal recourses for defamation) should come from peers – who understand pressures and processes of gathering and disseminating the news.
As far as I am aware, there is no evidence of either the Press Ombud or the Press Council being soft on the print media. That is why I am suspicious of the cynicism that has greeted the Council’s attempts to beef up its oversight of the industry.
The difference between journalists and doctors, say, is that journalism is an open profession – a trade, as Business Day editor Peter Bruce put it recently – that is intimately and necessarily bound to a fundamental right.
Notwithstanding the personal, commercial and political pressures that exist, the exercise of freedom of speech in print is bound to the exercise of independent judgment about what to say and what not to say.
We dare not let go of that.