Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary general of the ANC, has always been outspoken about the media and its role. After years of interaction with it as Nelson Mandela’s right hand person after he was released from prison, as Gauteng MEC for safety and security and ambassador to Mozambique, among other positions, this is her opinion of the ‘fourth estate’.
I have visited and worked in a number of countries around the world. Something I have seen on my travels, and long for in South Africa, is a more diverse media. Media is meant to be for the public good, as the voice of the people and the carrier of news made by the people. Media diversity means reflecting the lives of all classes of people and their opinions, in a robust and informative manner. It is meant to be a daily tool we use to form our opinion of the world in which we live.
But the media in our country, in particular the print media, is trapped in the mould of selling the newspaper and not telling the story. Newspapers all tell the same story and all the editorials sound similar. There is a pack approach to the news. This like-mindedness may stem from the reality that the print media houses are owned by a few conglomerates that employ a similar type of journalist: conservative thinkers, mostly anti-government propagandistic opinion-makers who must sell to a particular market segment. We are treated to all the drama but not given enough diverse views to assist readers in getting a balanced view on any matter. I believe there are more embedded journalists working as civil servants in our country than any intelligence operation anywhere in the world. This is because there is a lack of mutual trust that the truth will be provided when asked for and printed when given.
In my view, the use of sources is by far the most glaring symptom of rotten investigative and senior journalism. Terms such as “suggest” and “in the opinion of” or “a highly placed source” replace “this paper has unearthed and has in its possession irrefutable evidence” on a matter. In this way, many lives are destroyed because of the belief that there is no smoke without fire. And by the time an apology is made after acknowledgment of an error, the horse has bolted.
Broadcast media brings scant relief. The SABC is told to tell “good news stories” and this is no better than the segmented approach of the print media. It, too, speaks to a market segment and the story will not be told, but sold. It is important to tell the truth; that way the good news will also be told. It is essential not to ignore the reality people face and to show their lives in a balanced way.
e.tv journalists also appear to me to be openly politically biased. This condemns the news they provide as they slant it to shape it for the segment to which they sell.
Millions of people are simply left out of the segmentation, and so their stories are never told. It just does not seem to be important to tell the nation that basic service delivery has shaped how people live now. The story of a person getting a house for the first time is considered a ‘tired theme’. Really? But to whom is this a tired theme? Eating sushi off a human being gets front-page lead space, but the reality that we have been able to improve on life expectancy is lost on page five.
We have been able to reduce mother-to-child transmission rates of HIV. We have built over 3.5 million houses and provided water, electricity and sanitation to millions of people. We all know it is not enough.
We have a good story to tell but yet we tell a story that appears as if we have no social capital at all. It is true that unemployment is our greatest challenge and our media talks the country down to the extent that the investment that is so desperately needed to create jobs may take longer to achieve. Having said that, we are spending more money on infrastructure and this will attract some investors. We need a concerted and united effort to get people to consider our country as the great destination that it is. Nobody is expecting journalists to lie, but rather to tell the whole truth of what we have in South Africa.
South African media was not always like this and many activists of the 1970s and 1980s engaged in anti-censorship campaigns because freedom of the press is a right. It was something we had to fight for because it is a right as fundamental as the right to all other freedoms we were denied by the apartheid regime. Journalists back then defied detention and sometimes death to make sure they gave us information about what was happening in various parts of the country. But, even then, many newspapers ‘sold news’ and some co-operated fully with the apartheid regime. We do not want that now and anyone who is propagating systemic management of the news is not a true believer in freedom of the press.
Over the years I have met some of the greatest journalists produced in the country. Aggrey Klaaste, for example, was never a spokesperson for any political party, but he challenged every one of us with insightful editorials. Zwelakhe Sisulu, a dear and close friend, courageously and openly supported the liberation movement. When politically motivated necklacings were being perpetrated in the townships, his editorials condemned the brutality of this act that was contemptuous of our goals to achieve a just and humane society.
I never met Ruth First, but I read every one of her books that I could get my hands on. Her courage exposed slavery in South Africa and her writing about organisational structures has guided me. The talented and brave Percy Qoboza wrote editorials that compelled me to read The World. I learnt from these giants of journalism the importance of freedom of speech, particularly because it was denied for decades to most people of my generation.
Moegsien Williams and the journalists of his generation who started community papers in the 1980s also entrenched the belief that our society must protect this right.
When truth becomes a mitigated opinion and fact is a secondary concern, it all goes wrong. We lose all perspective when media houses become groupies for one notion or latch on to one story with one angle and the headlines are all similar. I believe some headlines are even written before an event happens because one source or information peddler tells them what is going to happen. The agenda for the country is then set by individuals who have their own agenda to perpetuate. It’s not that South African journalists are naïve or wanton abusers of our trust, but the story that is real is mitigated to produce an opinion instead of the reader being trusted to know the truth, warts and all. Authenticity is lost in the rush to have a ‘sting’. It gets more ridiculous when an information peddler puts out a story baying for the blood of a politician and the actual facts do not match the screaming headlines.
The worst enemy of freedom of speech is scepticism, when the population no longer believes the media. It is then that accountability becomes a hostage to misinformation. Instant analysis denies us the right to freedom of intelligently looking at a longer view of any issue. There is only one line to toe, facts be damned.
It is therefore not helpful to present a villain before the crime is committed, but it is helpful to expose with facts those people who use the state to enrich themselves. The truth does set us free: we have the most free press among a number of nations on our continent and elsewhere. We must not wish to emulate CNN, telling stories that shape the views of the nation in the same direction and please one segment of the market. News is just that: it is news. It has to be uninhibited, balanced and fair. Every side of the story must be told and this I have always thought was the very essence of what journalism is about. This means that journalists have to say what the market segment represented by their news product does not like. They have to show courage and challenge the editors who have one opinion and a powerful pen.
I think we have lost the courage of Qoboza, the fearless and influential journalist and editor of The World and City Press; and Nat Nakasa, the courageous journalist from the Drum magazine era and the first black journalist to work on the Rand Daily Mail.
We need more newspapers that are independently owned. We need to ask for the integrity of the news to shape the story, not the desire of the market segment for whom the news is intended. Give us facts, not biased opinions; give us truth and you will be rewarded with freedom. The knowledge that the country is well informed is a freedom and we can then make our own choices.
I still believe the South African media is one of the most free in the world, but we can do better if we allow diversity in ownership and give journalists the freedom to tell a story as factual news, instead of selling it to attract a market segment.
As economist JP Landman wrote in his book ‘The Long View’: “If you don’t read the newspapers, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspapers, you are misinformed.” This is the saddest sentence but it is also a truth.
We all need each other, and the media and government need to establish a more open relationship. The media and the ANC need to take the elephant of mutual distrust out of the room.
This story was first published in the December 2013 issue of The Media magazine.