Press should be able to stand scrutiny

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si jack makobi

After the ANC mooted the idea of a media appeals tribunal, which was rejected by the media industry and opposition parties, the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) and Print Media SA established an independent commission, chaired by retired judge Pius Langa, to look at the current self-regulatory press environment against the ANC’s proposed tribunal and come up with a report.

All parties made submissions to the inquiry and last month the commission released its report with specific recommendations on how to regulate the print media.

Coincidentally in Britain, after the phone-hacking scandal at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Judge Brian Leveson to examine Britain’s press standards and ethics in what is now called the Leveson Inquiry.

Witnesses who have appeared before the inquiry have indicated how powerful the hold was that Murdoch’s media empire is alleged to have had on British politicians for three decades.

What has also emerged is how far outside ethical boundaries the press can go to generate scoops in the chase for higher circulation figures and therefore more advertising revenue, which is the lifeblood of every commercial publication.

When we debate the role of media in SA society, we tend to underestimate two fundamentals. The first is that the media influences politics directly and indirectly and that the media is itself a business, with shareholders with an interest in profit. It is not just an institution that “speaks truth to power”, but can also influence who that “power” is.

After decades of Tory (Conservative Party) rule in Britain, the Labour Party led by Tony Blair cozied up to Murdoch, who was then a Tory supporter.

Alastair Campbell, who was the Labour spin doctor at the time, told the Leveson Inquiry that “there is no point denying that Murdoch was the single most important media figure in the UK”.

Murdoch, after engaging with the Labour Party in 1994, ordered his newspapers to endorse Labour in the run-up to elections that they won in 1997.

Here at home, the recommendations of the Langa Commission were received with guarded optimism by the media and the ruling party.

Key among other recommendations is a move away from the self-regulation regime to what it calls “independent co-regulation” in a Press Council with a citizen majority, even on its appeals panel.

It recommended a system of penalties: space fines for editorial transgressions, monetary fines for repeat offenders and the possibility of suspension and expulsion for those who refuse to comply.

There is general consensus that these measures will go a long way towards eliminating bad journalism.

I believe the media, like any other profession, must be subjected to professional scrutiny.

They, like any other profession, must be held accountable for their deeds and words, far beyond the right to reply which some newspapers still do not grant to the subjects of their reports, so as not to allow the facts to “get in the way of a good story”.

With the advent of “brown envelope” journalism, where politicians and businesspeople pay journalists for positive publicity or to smear their opponents, as alleged in the case of former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool, we need even more accountability from the media.

Journalists are human. They have material needs and hold political views.

They have backgrounds that inform how they interpret social, economic and political events and reflect them to us.

For instance, they individually have personal opinions about who our next president should be.

Just as we often argue that, sadly, the police, intelligence and the politicised public service are divided right down the middle along the lines of ANC internal divisions, so are all newsrooms. There are many professional journalists who need not fear professional scrutiny.

Just as they rightly expect elected leaders and public representatives to stand up to public scrutiny.

As Professor Anton Harber wrote in response to the commission’s recommendations in a business daily recently: “These measures will help eliminate the worst of our journalism, but do not guarantee that we will have good, quality and in-depth reporting.”

As a trained journalist and media practitioner, I have always believed the media also needs a professional body, something akin to the legal profession’s bar councils, to adjudicate profession misconduct against set standards and ethics, and with the power to disbar or strike off the roll journalists who abuse the power of the pen.

For me, the proposed Press Council comes very close to this.

n Mokobi is an independent media and politics analyst.


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