[COMMENT] The outcome of the litigation by the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) against the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is utterly irrelevant.
While one can understand wanting to turn to the courts to prevent threats of bodily harm or even to life, the news media are not doing themselves any favours by trying to litigate a defensive wall.
From the point of view of the EFF, or any other political party or business for that matter, bringing the courts to bear will only exacerbate their anger at the media whether they win or lose.
The danger for the EFF in all this is the potential outcome of Sanef’s review of media ethics.
It seems logical that if Sanef is serious about media ethics, then, among many other issues, the question of the publication of inflammatory statements, just for the sake of sensationalism and sales, will have to be seriously considered.
Right now, there is no question that many media houses and journalists are extremely unethical in seeking sensationalism to boost readership, listenership and viewership.
It has almost become the norm. If indeed Sanef decides this practice should be deemed unethical, it means many politicians and activists will find that attention seeking through inflammatory statements simply won’t work.
Right now many of them believe that news media are so desperate that they will publish anything, no matter how inflammatory, illogical or just plain stupid.
From Sanef’s point of view, whatever the courts may decide, they will have lost the ability to get both sides of a story – which in itself should be the cornerstone of ethical journalism.
One of the important lessons I learnt as a columnist for The Star, Sunday Times, and particularly News24, was that it is counter-productive to consider any form of litigation. Sure, a personal physical assault is another story, but that is a criminal offence and perpetrators should be charged whether the assault is on a journalist or not.
Right now many of them [politicians and activists] believe that news media are so desperate that they will publish anything, no matter how inflammatory, illogical or just plain stupid.
On numerous occasions after some particularly vindictive and threatening responses to my columns, I would get contacted by attorneys literally begging me to give them the opportunity to sue for everything from slander to threatening bodily harm.
My peers at the time strongly persuaded me to never go down this road. Because getting the law involved would immediately give the perpetrators some sort of victory, on top of which it would set a precedent in terms of curtailing those who wished to comment on my opinions.
Freedom of speech is not only a nice, warm, fuzzy concept, but also imperative in gauging the mood of society.
News media are simply unable to develop any form of accurate research on their content without allowing unfettered freedom of speech.
Understandably it is extremely disconcerting, if not frightening, for any journalist and their families to be confronted by an angry, threatening mob.
The problem is this goes with the territory. After all, journalists, especially those who pen opinions, can be pretty vindictive too at the best of times.
It’s a pity, I think, that Sanef decided on litigation in the case of the EFF.
Hopefully, though, the editors forum will take its decision to review media ethics very seriously and given a logical outcome, this should in fact prevent the necessity for any sort of litigation in the future.
Chris Moerdyk (@chrismoerdyk ) is a marketing analyst and advisor and owner of Moerdyk Marketing with many years of experience in marketing and the media as well as serving as non-executive director and chairman of companies.
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