Should media serve the national interest or the public interest?
I discovered during preparations for today's event that the other presenter was Mathata Tsedu, with whom I was on a panel discussing the same issue at a Goedgedacht Forum a few months ago. We joked that we had become our own Boswell and Wilkis: the Tsedu and Netshitenzhe Circus on national and public interest.
Most of the issues one will raise in this presentation are a restatement of the presentation at Goedgedacht, in summary form. In order to ensure a disciplined input, I have reduced the presentation to ten Basic Theses.
The media, as an institution deserves and should be afforded the space to flourish as a critical platform for freedom of expression. All of us have a responsibility to defend media freedom and editorial independence from any form of compulsion, be it political, economic or commercial.
However, independence from such pressures does not presume that journalists are unique human beings with unique journalistic genes and genealogy. They are impacted upon by the environment within which they operate, by the circumstances that spawn them.
It would be to relegate the media to a status of social irrelevance to demand that journalists should have absolute freedom - only the inconsequential in social processes have a semblance of absolute freedom. Media as an institution is not a victim waiting to be abused. It is a repository of immense ideological, economic, social and political power.
Thus as would be demanded of any institution that wields power, there has to be some form of accountability. In its "Recommended Revised Journalist Code of Ethics", the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) of Australia says, in the preamble:
"Journalists describe society to itself. They seek truth.
"They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role…
"They give a practical form to freedom of expression.
"Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities.
"They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable.
"Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities".
National interest as a concept is meant to define the aggregate of things that guarantee the survival and flourishing of a nation-state and nation. Usually national interest is counter-posed to that of other states, as a basis for foreign policy.
Critical though is that it is not meant to be subsumed under the fleeting passions of public mood swings. For it is not impossible for the public mood at some moments to declare (as Dante once said): "Death to our life and life to our death", thus precipitating self-destruction.
Further, national interest cannot be decreed in statutes; it's a sixth sense and it evolves with a nation's history, with national experience; and it's often asserted by the ultimate formal authority, the state.
In a sense, the developments around the banning of various newspapers, which we are commemorating today, were about contestation of the national interest. PW Botha and others would have argued that their act was in the national interest. On the other hand, these newspapers correctly asserted that reporting in the manner that they did was in fact the genuine national interest.
One should add that, by saying that national interest is not decreed in and through legislation, one does not mean that it cannot be referred to in a law. It is important to explain this because I understand Dene Smuts of the DP, in opposing some elements of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill, misquotes what I said at Goedgedacht - in this period, a clarification is in order, in case I am mistaken for the neo-liberal incarnate!
Public interest, on the other hand, is meant to represent the interests of the aggregate collective of citizens - independent of state institutions. It's a kind of collective civil interest, the sixth sense of civil society. Some even see it as necessarily opposed to the state, invoked to assert rights against state authority.
The dichotomy between national interest and public interest does not mean that the two are contradictory, let alone antagonistic: inasmuch as the dichotomy between the state and the people does not mean that the state is necessarily anti-people or that the people are necessarily anti-state.
In fact, this raises the fundamental questions of legitimacy and democracy. In a consistently democratic dispensation, the state exists not for its own sake but to serve society. Legitimate states derive their mandate from the people, and they have the right and the responsibility to exercise leadership. Similarly, the governed have a right to contribute on how they should be governed.
Thus, to counter-pose national interest and public interest could in fact mean that civil society cedes to someone else the right to define the national interest: instead of the people governing, some elite governs and the people protest!
So, under popular democracy, national interest and public interest can and do coincide; they should in fact be complementary.
National interest and public interest, as claimed, should not be confused with the immediate self-interest of the claimant.
To illustrate: we may agree it's in the national interest to expose corruption in government; but at a given moment, a government representative may argue to a journalist that a given exposé should at least be delayed "in the national interest". But this would be the government's or the ruling party's immediate self-interest, to protect its image; not the national interest as such.
On the other hand, we may agree that it's in the public interest for society to know what happens to Lotto charity funds; but a reporter may then say in large headlines that only 3c out of R1 is getting distributed - without saying that from the same Rand one has to subtract operational costs, profit for the operator, personnel costs and so on. So the actual ratio may be about 3c/27c meant for charity. Claiming the 3c/R1 in the name of "the public interest" may in fact conceal the immediate self-interest of the journalist to get onto the front page and of the newspaper to sell more copies.
If national interest is not decreed - if it's a sixth sense - whence the framework for its definition? My view is that there is a hierarchy of such definition, with the Constitution as the starting point. As it says in its preamble, the Constitution is meant to heal divisions of the past and establish a society based on social justice and human rights; lay the foundation for a democratic and open society; improve the quality of life of all citizens and so on.
A lower rung in the hierarchy is how we realise these objectives. This would mean, among other things, that we all contribute to the upliftment of the disadvantaged, economic growth, poverty-eradication and elimination of crime.
An even lower rung would be such critical matters of detail as the campaign against HVI/AIDS: and the need on the part of the media to persist in this campaign even if there is no controversy. Another example is the recent reports around seeds and fertiliser that for one reason or another are being withheld from farmers - the beginnings of a chain that could lead to massive food price inflation next year: and the need on the part of the media to investigate such issues thoroughly in the national interest.
In other words, the Constitution is a foundation of the definition of the national interest, but its provisions, in real life, can be disaggregated to identify how the national interest can and should manifest itself.
Often, an impression is created that national interest is to the media what a red flag should be to a bull - with the state as the matador to boot. Never invoke national interest in relation to media reporting and analysis, we are told.
My submission is that this is pretence par excellence: everyday in editorials and angles to a story, openly and by implication, the national interest is invoked. Everywhere in Visions and Mission Statements of media houses, there is appeal to the national interest.
So the issue is not so much whether or not media should serve the national interest, but who should define such interest!
National interest in SA and its expression are evolving and maturing with our emergent nation. But even as the nation evolves towards maturity, we need to unite around some consensus, to forge ahead as one. Failure to do so means that we can become unwitting tools of other countries' national interests. In the past six years or so, we have had many such experiences.
When Nelson Mandela intervened in a manner that some powerful global forces did not like in Libya on the Lockerbie disaster, rumours were started that Col Ghaddafi had bought him a house. When he pronounced on Kosovo, whispers were started that Milosevic had stashed his money in SA and was considering emigrating to this country. Then, in our naiveté, South African media picked up the stories from these foreign media and gave them prominence.
Today, it seems our media are more circumspect. As we know there are whispers, intelligence briefings and suggestions in foreign media against SA because of the principled and rational position we have adopted on the issue of Iraq: stories that we are selling strange big pipes, uranium and other weapons to this country. Except for one political party and its MP's who have chosen to behave like a fifth column in our midst, the media have not fallen for these strange gimmicks.
Pursuit of the national interest by the media does not make for conformity and boring journalism. There are always opportunities, differences of approach and different angles to a story. Above all, positive stories and serious national interest issues do not make for bad sales - bad journalists do.
One could quote the instance of the BMW plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria, chosen as the best performing plant in the African and European "region", including Germany itself. Beyond just stating this somewhere in the middle pages, South African media did not follow up the story. On the other hand, Wall Street Journal did, in its front page, in a gripping story about trends in vehicle manufacturing across the world.
In other words, serious good news stories in the national interest are not necessarily boring; it's just that we are unable to make them interesting. We are unable to demonstrate through our productions, as the International Marketing Council would say, that South Africa is alive with possibility!
So, in response to the question, should the media serve the national interest or the public interest, my answer is: South African media should serve both!
We should enjoy our freedoms and exercise our power as part of a society and social system without which the profession cannot thrive.
Yes we should not shout fire in a crowded cinema. Nor should we claim that manna could fall from heaven - misleading society about possibilities in a protracted process of change - to eliminate the massive legacy of apartheid in one fell swoop, had it not been for this government!
Overall, there will be those who do not accept the national interest - it's their right. But don't let them claim to speak on our behalf; don't let them draw us back.
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)