The last time the Constitution, Complaints Procedures and the Press Code of the Press Council were reviewed was in 2007, before the current council was appointed. The radical change then was the incorporation of the voice of the public in the system, but the dominant voice was still that of the press.
So when the Press Freedom Commission (PFC), set up after the Press Council’s own review, suggested that the numbers be reversed, it led to heated debate within the industry. After all, South Africa ratified the African Declaration on Freedom of Expression that states: “Effective self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media.“ The notion of a non-media majority in the Press Council went against the grain.
The sober voices in the media pointed out that we have to fight public perceptions that the system is designed to protect publications, rather than root out unethical journalism. They argued that it has enough independence already and that it was the media who were voluntarily agreeing to the new system. And that it was not an imposition from the legislators but an acknowledgement of press freedom that is guaranteed in the Constitution.
It was not easy to get to the consensus that was reached about changing from “a voluntary independent press self-regulatory system” to “a voluntary independent co-regulatory system involving exclusively representatives of the press and representatives of the public”. However, once the shift happened, the discussions moved to ways in which this system could be expressed. Consensus settled on a Press Council made up
of six press representatives and six public ones,
chaired by a retired judge. The deputy chairpersonship will be rotated between the press and public members.
These debates started in the task team that was set up by the Press Council in August 2010 and continued when the team reported to the full council. The Press Council’s Review, published in August 2011, reflected the outcomes of those debates. When the council handed its report to
the associations that constitute the Press Council for their views, they handed it to the PFC to review it and do additional investigations of its own. The PFC gave its report in April this year.
Debates within the industry about the way forward have raged since then until the Press Council announced the final results on 3 October.
The PFC recommended that the chair of appeals sit with one press representative on the
Panel of Appeals and three public representatives when he or she hears an appeal. Due to the possible difficulties of convening a hearing because of the logistics of getting so many people together at the same time, the discretion on the number of public representatives is now with the chair of appeals.
Another debate that raised temperatures leading up to 3 October was the waiver that complainants currently have to sign before their complaints are considered. Currently, the Ombudsman accepts complaints only if the complainants agrees to waive the right to take them to the courts or another tribunal.
The PFC recommended doing away with this waiver. Many editors pointed out that without it, they could find themselves having to answer twice to the same complaint. This would lead to more adversarial proceedings in the Ombudsman’s office. But, the main concern was once there was a ruling against a publication, the complainant could take the findings to court and sue for damages.
This remains a major hurdle, but the compromise position was that the new Press Council should exclude the waiver, watch for any abuse of the system and review this position after a year.
There was less heat with other decisions, but a concerted effort to find ways to improve the system:
Personnel in the office will be beefed up: a director, an ombudsman and a public advocate and, if necessary, their deputies. The public advocate receives the complaints and is the champion of the complainants throughout the process. The director will spend his time talking about ethics and standards, in the newsrooms and on public platforms. In the newsroom – to help journalists live the code and thus lead to fewer breaches and with the public – to remove false perceptions about the system.
Third party complaints will now be accommodated.
The public advocate may under some circumstances initiate complaints if it is in the public interest.
Legal representation shall generally not be permitted.
Recalcitrant publications will be fined, suspended or expelled from the Press Council, but not for content.
Findings will be handed down within 21 days of a hearing.
The Press Council and the print media believe that the attention that will be paid to education in the newsrooms should lead to even better journalism and an effective system of co-regulation will benefit readers and the country and enhance our democracy. n
For more details visit www.presscouncil.org.za
Joe Thloloe is the Press Ombudsman.
This story was first published in the November 2012 issue of The Media magazine.