There are many people who believe that journalism is a glamorous profession. Yes, it is the one profession where you can mix with kings and presidents in the morning and in the afternoon you can find yourself covering a protest in a squatter camp.
But if you are really committed to journalism, you will soon find you have friends for all the wrong reasons and you can so easily upset some people who you might have considered to be your friends, especially when you are forced to write negative stories about your so-called friends.
As a young journalist/activist, I sometimes had to write articles that reflected negatively on the liberation struggle – or at least on people in the liberation struggle – and this sometimes led to me being virtually excommunicated by people in the liberation movement.
But I have always remained firm in my commitment to decent values on which I judge everybody, whether you are considered to be good or bad, or whether you supported the struggle or not.
These values include a commitment to non-racialism and non-sexism and a belief that all South Africans are entitled to have equal access to a good education, proper housing, decent healthcare and jobs that give one dignity.
My commitment to these values has meant I have sometimes fallen foul of politicians who act in a manner that does not promote these values. I have realised that over the next year or so I am probably going to be tested quite heavily by certain politicians, particularly those in the ANC, who think that the paper I am editing needs to promote a particular political agenda.
I need to state it upfront that The New Age has no agenda other than promoting a pro-South African vision, one that puts the interests of the people of South Africa ahead of everything else.
I would like to believe that ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe does not have misconceptions about the role of The New Age but, judging from comments attributed to him, I think this is probably the case.
According to a report in Business Day last week, Mantashe complained about the media’s negativity towards the ANC and said that while The New Age “started off as a ‘breath of fresh air’ when it was launched last year, it is now like any other publication”.
I hope the perception is not that because the paper’s owners are perceived to be close to President Jacob Zuma, the paper should be aligned to the ANC or, worse, a faction within the ANC.
Mantashe was apparently responding to research indicating which media outlets reported in a “positive”, “negative” or “neutral” manner on the ruling party.
“If you take a newspaper like The New Age, it started with a taller graph on positive (content). With the migration of individual journalists, that is becoming smaller and the neutral (graph) grows. The movement of journalists kills the diversity of the media,” he is reported to have said.
According to Business Day, Mantashe said the behaviour of print media houses is “basically the same” and the media remain the ruling party’s main opposition.
Mantashe is wrong on several scores. There is no uniform media voice in South Africa and most of the media do not see themselves as the ruling party’s main opposition. However, they do see themselves as being a watchdog on government.
Also, there has been no mass migration of journalists from The New Age. All the people who have left over the past year have been replaced by better people.
I would like to believe the fact that The New Age’s reporting has become more “neutral” is a good thing.
This does not detract in any way from our belief in the value system I mentioned earlier, a value system I would like to believe that we share with the ANC but which is quite often breached by senior members of the ruling party.
The New Age is first and foremost a daily newspaper that is trying to survive in a tough and hostile environment. To do this successfully, it needs to build its circulation and attract advertising.
But unlike many other media who build their circulations on the back of negative news, The New Age has always tried to report on positive news related to our country. We have gone out of our way to seek solutions to the many problems our country faces.
Mantashe, in his analysis of the media’s attitude to the ruling party, does what senior ANC politicians often do. They conflate the party with government and, by extension, with the country.
What he forgets is that, quite often, the ANC can act in a way that does not benefit the country, even if it benefits the ANC. Instead of trying to point fingers at the media, Mantashe must ask himself whether the ANC has done enough to warrant more positive publicity in the media.
Ryland Fisher is the editor of The New Age.
This letter, first published in The New Age, was republished with his kind permission.