An incomplete freedom

Linked with Ferial Haffejee – South Africa.

The state of the media ten years into democracy

by Ferial Haffajee (Editor: Mail & Guardian), paper presented at the Harold Wolpe Lecture Series, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 27 May 2004, published on Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust, on May 27, 2004:

Excerpt: … Two weeks ago, the M&G was in court defending itself by a case brought by the former housing minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele. If the claim was not for R2.5-million, I might giggle at how inane the suit is. Every year the newspaper publishes a report-card of the Cabinet. One year, it failed the good minister ordering her to take a ride on the gravy train because there was a whole saga about her friend getting a huge housing contract without literally, laying hands on a brick or going on a building site.

At issue is this: how far can we as the media go in our criticism of those in power. The minister argued that we cannot go very far – that her right to dignity trumps our right to freedom of expression. With South Africa’s history, the right to dignity is fundamental – but so, I would argue, is the inculcation of a culture of robust criticism. I hope we win, otherwise I’m worried everyone’s going to get A’s on the report-card. And the watch-dog would have lost its teeth.

But the biggest threat to our freedom comes from within – it is not a popular thing to say, but an unpalatable truth we often ignore. Consider this: of all the complaints made to the Press Ombudsman, over seventy percent are simple acts of inaccuracy.

We get the basics wrong all the time.

The media’s credibility lies only in its adherence to the code of ethics and accuracy is number one. We are failing and flailing about. Last year was our annus horribilis – several instances of plagiarism, of what the Sunday Times columnist David Bullard called “word burglary”, surfaced.

The Hefer Commission was founded on the foibles of journalists who forgot their ethics – the off the record briefing stays off the record. We act independently, not as the lap-dogs of some faction in power.

What are the roots of such failings? Individual responsibility is of course one. But there are other problems that are institutional.

The past 10 years has also witnessed an unprecedented under-resourcing and under-investment in journalism. Ownership at the major groups changed hands just as advertising revenues began to decline. The bean-counters took over – there are exceptions as there always are – but the bottom line became paramount.

Synergies were the order of the day as individual titles were robbed of their individuality, their journalists compacted into content provider newsrooms that serve an entire group. That’s why I could get onto a flight in Johannesburg with a newspaper and get off in Durban to read exactly the same news in your titles.

Most training budgets were cut just as a new generation of journalists hit the newsrooms. What is regarded as news has quickly become closely welded to what is news for the living standard measure (LSM) you are targeting. Every newspaper now identifies itself by the LSM it attracts, shaping a news agenda round the foibles and fancies of its LSM. It’s not really working because newspaper circulation is only stable or inching up.

I hope we get some mould-breakers in this era who will say damn the LSM, let’s just do journalism that changes the world for if it’s not about that, then what it is about?

In a country where the largest circulation newspaper reaches just 3.5-million people, the possibilities of print changing the world are quite, quite limited. In such an atmosphere, it is the broadcasters who are king. With limited time, let’s look only at the SABC and see how it has fared.

The verdict can only be “not that great” and while it is a broadcaster far removed from its propagandist era symbolised by former news report Cliff Saunders its road has not been a smooth one … (Read the whole rest on the Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust).

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