Joel Netshitenzhe - Goedgedacht Forum for Social Reflection

27 July 2002

27 July 2002

The role of the media in building the national interest

One was intrigued by the manner in which the theme for discussion was posed. In asking the panellists to define "the role of the media in building the national interest", there is already an assumption that media has a role to play in such an endeavour.

But even more "dangerous", from the point of view of some in the media, would be an ensuing assumption that what one builds and shapes, one also has to serve, to promote and to defend. So it would be with the media and the national interest!

Perhaps we should start off by posing the basic questions: what is the national interest, who should define and shape it, and how an interest can be promoted, if it is truly national!

The Tension of Concept Definition

One poses the questions in this manner because clearly there is no consensus within the media on these issues – there are various schools of thought.

The most extreme of these expresses itself thus: don’t ever raise the issue of national interest in relation to the media; least of all, never ever invoke it in relation to media coverage and analysis – for you would blunt the teeth of the watchdog and allow scoundrels (supposedly in government) to thrive!

And in the culture of solidarity that characterises relationships among media practitioners, this approach is not challenged within the profession. So it becomes, by default, the assumed view of the media fraternity as a whole.

Yet I would submit that, in actual practice, individual journalists and media houses do daily invoke and appeal to a national interest, however defined. In most instances, the core of the charters, missions and visions of media houses refer to some national interest as being at the foundation of their operations. Almost daily, strong views are articulated on some major issue of public policy and these are buttressed by reference to a national interest. One is not saying this is right or wrong; but this is to emphasise that national interest is at the foundation of public and media discourse, despite the protestations made when someone else invokes the concept.

To illustrate, three levels of this can be identified:

Firstly, at the level of company charters and visions, The Sowetan proudly proclaims its mission of Building the Nation; the TML (Johnnic Publishing) Charter commits the group "to advance the general good of South Africa and its people"; and it is easy enough to find in Independent Newspapers aspirations "to be part of the process of creating a national consensus" to be involved in "the invention of a new culture" and make a contribution "as we rebuild our country".

Secondly, at the level of commentary, a certain prominent commentator recently reflecting on the prospect of blanket amnesty speaks somberly of this as one of things "a nation should not do". During the recent debate on relations between one scientist and the Minister in The Presidency on the issue of HIV/AIDS, the Sowetan calls on those involved in the dispute to desist in the interest of the nation. And hardly a month goes by without our editors urging our national sports teams to victory!

Thirdly, in conceptual debates, most journalists refer to the Constitution as the foundation of the national interest. When the issue arose at the Cabinet/SANEF indaba last year, there was a dynamic which argued for a distinction between public interest (a fit interest for the media to serve) and national interest (not so fit). Half time was declared with the affirmation that "the starting point in our deliberations and the way forward is commitment to the development of South Africa and the acceptance of the Constitution as reflecting our national interest".

National Interest, Public Interest and National Consensus

And so we are challenged to reflect on whether there is a distinction between national interest and public interest, and how each of these relates to the question of national consensus.

One cannot claim fully to grasp these concepts. For purposes of discussion, it is better to base oneself on empirical observation of public discourse, as distinct from claiming any scientific reference. It is in this context that I venture to make the following submission:

National interest cannot and is not defined or decreed as such in any statutes. One can refer to it as a nation’s sixth sense, which evolves out of experience, with the evolution of a nation and a nation-state. Often it is invoked by an ultimate social authority, which is the state. It is viewed as being of a higher social order, and appeals to practically everyone within a given nation.

On the other hand, public interest can be viewed as being in the interest of a section of a polity or nation-state, usually civil society or the aggregate of individuals who make up society as distinct from state institutions. It eschews formal authority and expresses itself as being autonomous of government. It is not decreed, and one can say it also expresses itself as a sixth sense. In the extreme, it is seen as a challenge to government: only the media or civil society or the Courts (to buttress their judgements) can invoke the public interest! Like the national interest, public interest evolves with a nation – it is not decreed – but it requires conditions of democracy and freedom of expression or the struggle for such, to express itself.

There is therefore this dichotomy between national and public interest. The critical issue is that these issues cannot be examined outside of the context of struggle for democracy and human rights. And in such a context, to counter-pose (not so much distinguish) one against the other may be a splitting of hairs. Why?

Firstly, because governments and states do not exist for themselves, but to serve society. For instance, some may argue that it is in the public interest to expose corruption, and not necessarily in the national interest because a government may not want this to happen. But my argument is that there is no reason why it should not be in the national interest, or even a truly democratic government’s interest to expose corruption. And, was it not after all in the national interest to fight apartheid?

Secondly, there is usually protest at the temptation on the part of governments or states in general to appropriate the right to define what is right and wrong for society. However, this does not mean that it is of necessity a bad thing for democratic, open and accountable governments legitimately to exercise a right to lead – a right deriving from an electoral mandate.

Thirdly, counter-posing national and public interest as a matter of principle can in fact mean a dereliction of duty on the part of those who see their own domain as being merely defence of the public interest. This is because the premise for such an approach arises from ceding to someone else the right to define the national interest. Thus media and citizens and civil society are expected to confine themselves to the perch of armchair critics of public policy.

What one is arguing therefore is that, while national interest and public interest are distinguishable, and occupy different rungs and orders of "importance", they can and do coincide; they can and should in fact be complementary, specifically under conditions of abiding democracy and a culture of human rights.

This requires, of the aggregate of social actors within and outside of the state, a certain basic consensus on the fundamentals of self-definition.

In our own country, the SANEF/Cabinet Indaba Declaration starts to point us in the direction of such self-definition and identity by identifying, as one said earlier, the Constitution as the foundation of South Africa’s national interest. The Constitution locates and derives our rights and responsibilities from our past as well as from the values to which we aspire. In its preamble, the Constitution defines itself as a means to:

  • heal divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and human rights;
  • lay the foundation for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is protected by law;
  • improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
  • build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

In a speech delivered a few years ago, Judge Richard Goldstone tries to identify some of the elements on the basis of which national consensus can be forged. Among these, he cites:

  • Firstly, the constitution, a vibrant form of democracy, openness; and therefore that we should not let difficulties prevent us "…from experiencing the joy of having been freed from the chains of apartheid and as members of one nation, being able to embrace each other openly";
  • Secondly, the urgent need to deal with the disparities that we have inherited; and to recognise that "the reality that the ‘haves’ are white and the ‘have-nots’ are black carries with it a time bomb";
  • Thirdly, the need for all of us to take active part in the process of change, and more particularly, that those who benefited from the apartheid system cannot ignore our past and should be "… willing to make a meaningful contribution to restoring [the] dignity…" of the majority of the citizens;
  • Fourthly, that "appropriate corrective action is not only morally and legally justified, but is in the interest of all South Africans".

One could add to these, the challenges of sustainable economic growth, poverty eradication and protecting our sovereignty as a nation-state. The critical methodological issue here is that forging national consensus around major issues is a critical step towards identifying the national interest.

A Unique South African Challenge

What challenges do South Africans face in trying to forge national consensus and define the national interest? The reality is that South Africa is a society in transformation.

In the first instance, to have national consensus and national interest, you should at least have the basic building blocks of a nation in place. And the fact is, ours is a nation-in-gestation. So we have to attend to the combined tasks of building a nation and, almost artificially and before its time, defining, and acting in, the national interest. National interest, and the other things that we need to forge as a nation-state, cannot wait until we have truly forged a nation from our disparate pasts.

Add to this the challenge of globalisation and the task becomes even more difficult. We have achieved our freedom in a situation in which national identity and sovereignty are under severe strain. Besides the vexed matters of macro-economic policy in small open economies – seriously impacted upon by global financial markets – there are issues of culture (including television, music and film) and even health (pharmaceutical companies) in which multinationals play a central and self-interested role.

Yet if we lay prostrate, and accepted our status as a victim, we would indeed become a victim. We have to define and promote our national interest in the context of our transforming society, our evolving nation.

In a globalising world, the failure to identify, define and promote the national interest can mean that many of us become, inadvertently and unwittingly, tools of other countries’ national interest. In the communications arena, we have had many experiences where we had, as government, to wage difficult battles to convince our own media of the truth behind a story, the approach to which some had readily drawn from briefings by foreign government agencies.

The moral of this is that, an approach to public interest which bases itself on suspicion of what your own (democratic) government says and does, can result in a situation in which other governments, other national interests, in fact become the basis upon which reporting and analysis in your own country take place.

If we agree on the Constitution as the basis of our national interest, if we agree on the issues that Judge Goldstone identified as an elaboration of the constitutional imperatives, if we agree that defining national interest is a joint national task, and if we agree that national interest and public interest may be distinct but not necessarily contradictory – what then is the role of the media!

Let’s start off by confirming what the organisers had assumed: that media can and does have a role in building and promoting the national interest. In fact, more than most societal institutions, media can make or break the national interest.

One would in this context venture to say that the South African media is to the national interest what the accounting profession is to the capitalist system. After the experience of Enron, WorldCom and others, there are concerted attempts to restructure the accounting industry, lest it precipitates total collapse in confidence in the system of capitalism, due to its unprofessional conduct. So can the South African media – by sheer dint of lack of professionalism, shallowness and trivialisation of social transformation – weaken a democratic polity and encourage cynicalisation of politics.

We’ve had, in my view, our own Enron-type behaviour. A case in point is the lack of self-criticism and lack of condemnation that has accompanied reporting on the sequel to the false story regarding the "beheading of a wife of an MDC member" in Zimbabwe; or the one about a Zimbabwean journalist of the Independent Newspapers who, to put it mildly, exaggerated an arrest and treatment at the hands of the Zimbabwean police a few months ago. Granted, there are many terrible things happening in Zimbabwe that we do not agree with. But for media, in such a polarised situation, to so pin its colours to the mast that it loses objectivity, can undermine the profession as a whole.

In other words, for media to play its role in promoting democracy requires objectivity. Further, if they have to serve both the national and public interest, journalists should inform themselves of the facts behind the facts, and ensure that they attain expertise or at least have substantial research back-up when pursuing critical news stories.

Briefly to cite a few recent examples:

  • Coverage of the World Conference Against Racism could have been about more than just citing South African examples of incidents of racism and sensation of the walk-outs at WCAR, and paid attention to the concept of racism, the totality of things that need to be done to eradicate it, and strategic assessment of whether we are making progress in SA and across the globe.
  • Reportage and analysis of the recent media briefing by President Thabo Mbeki after the Cabinet’s July lekgotla could have been about more than the media’s own current affairs agenda on issues such as the Global AIDS Fund, the Myburgh Commission and ANC-SACP relations.
  • The commendable coverage of the AU inaugural Summit could have done with less excitement around alleged antics by Colonel Qaddafi or on when action would be taken against President Mugabe, and dealt more with in-depth analysis on how NEPAD and the AU promote our own interests as SA.
  • Coverage of the recent Lesotho elections would have benefited from an assessment of the supportive role that SA played in the past few years, including the sacrifices of SANDF (and Botswana Defence Force) members on behalf of SADC to bring about the 2002 achievement that we all celebrated.

Contained in these examples, and they are not necessarily the best, are many lessons regarding the national interest and how to pursue it: not so much that particular uncomfortable issues should be glossed over or that tantalising news nuggets should be left untouched, but that we should strive to strike the right balance and stay focussed in the midst of dazzling detail.

To recapitulate: the institution of the media does have a role to play in defining and promoting the national interest. A genuine national interest in a democratic society cannot of necessity be contradictory to the public interest. Within the parameters of the Constitution and the strategic national programmes of social change, no one has to be anything other than oneself to play a role in promoting and defending the national interest. There will (and should) be differences on many questions of detail.

Nor should anyone be obliged to promote and defend the national interest if one has elected to define oneself outside the domain of strategic national pursuits.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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