I for one am glad that South Africa is banding about ideas of independent bodies that will supervise industries and professions that have a direct and material public – and for the sake of completeness, social or environmental – impact; and make it possible for them to be held accountable for their actions. Sound regulation of the South African financial services industry through the Reserve Bank, National Treasury and the Financial Services Board was after all one of the key things that blunted the tsunami of red that was (is?) the global financial crisis.
So this media tribunal thingy (technical term) for example. Let me state clearly that I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit, but let’s not be naive. On this topic, the ANC is wrong on almost all points except (for whatever reason) on this: while section 16 of the Constitution protects freedom of expression (and with it, freedom of the press), this freedom is not granted carte blanche. The South Africa Press Code itself recognises that freedom of the press is balanced against responsibilities, including that to report news which is truthful, fair and accurate, and in context, and in a balanced manner. It is this code that guides the Press Council, Press Ombudsman and Press Appeals Panel – which allegedly “promote and develop excellence in journalistic practice and ethics, and promote the adoption of and adherence to those standards of practice and ethics.” I say allegedly and use inverted commas because I’m not sure if or how exactly they do this. On face value and from available information, all the Press Council does is field complaints from the public and make the kind of rulings that are the equivalent of sending publications to the naughty corner. (Sidebar: I’m picking on the Press Council but the entire news media industry and its bodies and forums – IAJ, PMSA, SANEF, FXI, etc – are culpable for not having organised themselves sufficiently sooner and have left the industry vulnerable to zealots.)
So far in 2010, the Press Council has issued about 32 rulings according to its website. Most of these (by my crude count) imposed some kind of a sanction on the publication concerned. I cannot say if this admittedly crude statistic is a merit or demerit to SA’s print media industry, but I can say with a fair degree of certainty that imposing a piddly sanction (i.e. forcing a newspaper to print an apology and/or a retraction) will never achieve the objective of developing and promoting excellence in journalistic practice and ethics. Promoting and developing anything requires involvement at the front end, not punitive measures at the back end.
So let’s for a minute pretend I am a journalism student right? Somewhere along my journey to a formal journalism qualification (which by the way is not necessary to practice this very important thing called journalism), I will encounter some variety of media law and ethics course. It’s “some variety” because there isn’t a uniform curriculum when compared to, for example, the ethics and professional conduct courses all chartered accountants in SA go though. So let’s pretend now I’ve graduated and I’m in the big bad world, chasing stories. There memory of the semester-long (year-long if my university was feeling fancy) course is but a hazy memory. Sure the newspaper I work for – which is itself a signatory to the South African Press Code – has got me to sign some form of code of conduct but again, it isn’t uniform and is at the discretion of the paper. So let’s now pretend I’m under pressure and need to get a story out quickly. I cut a few corners. I don’t check facts. It goes to press and someone complains. Worst thing that happens is that my paper has to print a retraction. Phew, I’ll likely live to see another day.
Do you see where the problem here is? By its own admission (and backed by the Constitution), the news media – in fulfilling the role of gathering and distributing news and opinion – serves society by informing citizens and enabling them to make informed judgements on issues of the time. It’s a bloody important role, but the mechanisms that the news media industry has put in place to regulate itself and maintain standards are not above reproach and in my humble opinion, woefully deficient. They all make it too easy to accuse journalists of unethical and corrupt behaviour. They make it easy to say that all the news media is concerned about is selling newspapers and advertising. They make it way too easy to make heavy-handed censorship tactics seem less insane than they actually are.
Given the importance of the media’s role in society, why is there no independent body – to which individual journalists and news media organisations are subscribed and actively involved – that promotes and develops excellence in journalistic practice and ethics starting at the university level? Why is there no body that exists to ensure that the training, experience and practice of the journalists in the field and organisations that perform such a key role are up to scratch? As a member of the public, where do I look to if I need independent verification of the objectivity and independence of journalists or news media organisations (after all, aren’t the scruples of the messenger just as important as the content of the message)? As news media extends to digital and mobile spaces, what is the industry doing to ensure that standards of practice and ethics also evolve with new platforms?
Maybe after fighting off this latest attack on press freedom, the industry should really look into something like this. Having such a body – which I stress would be by journalists, for journalists – would both protect freedom of the press and help the industry fulfill the obligations that come with this right. It would put the industry above reproach and elevate the standards and practices to a level that almost matches the industry’s (understandable) self-importance. If the news media industry had such a body, it would be as good as polycarbonate thermoplastic walls.
All that said, turnabout is fair play. South African political parties are next on my blog hit-list.