Media ethics, politics and social transformation: Gujrat, commissions and weapons of mass destruction
Some two years ago, leaders of the US and the UK argued for the invasion of Iraq, asserting that that country possessed weapons of mass destruction, which posed a 'clear and imminent danger' to their own countries. Dutifully, their armies conducted the invasion; but 18 moths on, no such weapons have been found.
As it became clear that they relied on faulty intelligence, with the media at last "un-embedding" itself, all kinds of commissions were set up to get to the bottom of the matter.
Some ten days ago, an international newswire claimed that two South Africans arrested in Pakistan had planned to attack targets in South Africa. This was picked up by our media, and one media house went to the extent of splashing pages with illustrations of the 'clear and imminent danger' to specific installations, a rugby match and the President of our country.
In the event, it emerges that no such statements were made by any credible source. Even the police chief of Gujrat who was quoted as confirming these rumours has formally denied ever making these utterances.
Whatever interpretations we may have of the commissions set up in the US and the UK, and the outcome of their investigations, the fact of the matter is that some attempt is being made to regain public confidence in the integrity of these polities.
As it became clear that the stories about the 'clear and imminent danger' of terrorist attacks in SA were based on faulty information, virtually all our media defended their actions. Blame it on the security agencies and government communications, they argued. Never mind the truth; never mind the implications of the stories on investment, tourism, the Tri-Nations Rugby tournament and the public's perceptions of its own security.
In the same measure as Saddam Hussein may have posed some danger to world peace, there is no fail-safe guarantee that South Africa may not be in terrorists' target-sights. But that is not the point at issue.
The critical lesson is that the political superstructure of the UK and the US, as in most developed countries, possesses remarkable resilience precisely because, among other attributes, it has the capacity for self-examination and self-improvement, critically proceeding from the premise that popular legitimacy does matter.
The story about arrests in Pakistan may be isolated and atypical.
But herein lies the essence of our engagement today: Does the media fraternity in South Africa possess equivalent qualities for self-sustenance? Does it value popular legitimacy? How has the relationship between politics, media ethics and social transformation played itself out in the First Decade of Freedom?
REVIEW A WELCOME INITIATIVE
SANEF should be congratulated for initiating this review on media communication in the First Decade of Freedom. When government did the same on the impact of its policies, we called on other sectors of society to undertake these reviews so that, collectively, we can measure the distance we have travelled as a nation since the birth of our democracy. In this regard, SANEF joins the religious community; universities and others who have combined deserved celebrations with critical self-assessment.
The importance of media experiences derives from the fact that we are dealing with an institution that is in its own right an important commercial industry experiencing growth: as a source of employment and contributor to the GDP.
Above all, as a platform for education, entertainment and information, the media industry is a critical centre of power, a provider of an important public service. It is instrumental as a frame of reference in terms of national self-worth and identity; it can be a builder as it can be a destroyer.
For its web of relations with actors in all fields of social endeavour, the media industry is at the vanguard of setting parameters about the behaviour of independent institutions: what ethics inform their operations; and what systems of accountability and regulation guide them.
The temptation when one is requested to address matters pertaining to the media is to look for weaknesses everywhere. Perhaps this is unavoidable. A great part of the media's job, we are told, is to throw stones. But then not all media houses are built of bricks and mortar!
On a more serious note, let us emphasise that, if much of our reflection is on weaknesses, this is because the achievements and successes are assumed.
I would therefore start off by setting the record straight on a number of critical premises.
Firstly, if there is one abiding attribute to our democracy, it is the freedom of expression that citizens have gained and are exercising with gay abandon. There is no doubt that among the major components of Brand South Africa is the cacophony of debate, sometimes quite hyperbolic, which reflects an active and socially-conscious citizenry that recognises very few holy cows.
The challenge we face though is to ensure maximum access to accurate and objective information. For, free as we may be to express ourselves, there is a constant danger that, if based on limited knowledge, the decisions that we come to as a nation could have the effect of self-immolation.
Secondly, South African media have experienced one of the most exciting periods in comparison with other parts of the world also from the point of view of permutations in ownership, composition of newsrooms, the fundamental transformation of the broadcasting sector and mobility in personnel.
With regard to broadcasting in particular, from a virtual monolith of state-owned platforms with a negligible number of commercial stations, by October 2000 we had a fully-fledged commercial free-to-air TV channel, 14 commercial radio and more than 80 community stations [MDDA Position Paper, GCIS 2001]. Regulation is conducted transparently and fairly, and the regime is constantly reviewed to satisfy commercial as well as public interest imperatives.
Most of these changes have been positive, giving further expression to the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution. Yet others have had the effect of stifling the depth and gravitas of media content - an issue that we come back to later.
Concern has justifiably been expressed regarding the further concentration of ownership in the newspaper industry in the past decade and half. While between 2000 and 2003 there was some stability, the recent acquisition of Sowetan by Johnnic represents this trend.
Fig I: Market share of newspapers
The shades of the colour of the owners - and even their nationality - are not the issue: the question is whether it is in the interest of diversity of views that there should be such concentration! The owners may not dictate editorial policy. But as has been seen over and over again, the drive to cut costs through rationalisation of newsgathering operations does lead to homogenisation of content.
Thirdly, in its multiplicity of roles as court-jester, actor, trouble-stirrer, the nosy and noisy irritant and bearer of bad and (sometimes) good news, the South African media has acquitted itself well. As to whether the balance among these roles is appropriate; as to the demographics of the social actors whose pride and prejudice find voice in our news media, the jury is still out.
Lastly, we can draw pride from the fact that there seems to be an appreciation among virtually all media of the founding national consensus as reflected in our constitution - in the intersection between the national interest and the public interest. There are of course exceptions, but such is the strength of our democracy that these exceptions confirm the general rule.
Given this background, what have been the major trends in actual content; and how do we characterise the exercise of media freedom in the last decade?
There are, in my view, four major issues that require interrogation: national and media self-definition; balance between role of observer and actor; self-regulation and self-correction; and the real threats to media freedom.
NATIONAL AND MEDIA SELF-DEFINITION
Media reporting and analysis seek to capture the mood and feelings of a nation, to reflect the people - the history-makers - in social and political motion. In this sense, as Philip Graham, the 1960s Washington Post editor described the profession's output, it is meant to be the first and perhaps rough draft of history. However, by seeking to overplay the dramatic as opposed to the mundane but profound movement of history, the media face the danger of missing the essence.
An interesting manifestation of this trend was the expectation, in media terms, that the very dawn of freedom - captured in the voting days around 27 April 1994 - would be full of upheaval and the beginning of social instability. When this did not happen, euphoria about a political miracle set in, and little was done to promote the understanding that the opposing sides in the political spectrum had come to appreciate much earlier that a scorched-earth policy of racial conflagration would be in neither side's interest.
As with all euphoria, depression had to follow. History marched on with its twist and turns, demanding of the actors the determination to deal with the underlying causes to the centuries-old conflict. In the idiom of most media, the old fault-lines had re-emerged and an apocalypse could not be ruled out.
Reconciliation had become the refuge of those who sought to maintain the status quo; the RDP a brand for willy-nilly exploitation by honest South Africans and scoundrels alike. An objective reference to the fissures that divided society and the need to deal with them became "re-racialisation". The heroes were becoming villains of the peace.
In a sense, this was reflective of dominant opinion - not majority opinion; a manifestation of the urgent transformation that the media cried out for and in many respects still requires.
The low in public mood was reinforced by the attitude among those in the media who mistrusted the apartheid state - for good reason - to import this suspicion holus-bolus into the new terrain.
Members of the new government were expected as matter of course to do wrong. Social stability was a passing phenomenon and, because of government "non-delivery", the people's patience was rapidly wearing thin.
In my view, this mindset has defined political coverage over the past decade. From the early campaigns around "gravy-trains", through Sarafina, the arms acquisition process where primary and secondary contracts were conflated and Bredell, to Diepsloot today, a common thread emerges of a preordained truth that politicians should do wrong and things should at some stage go awry.
In the event, history decreed otherwise, and in each general election the people pronounced differently from the doomsayers. And the refrain, even today is a begrudging acknowledgement of government's popularity, with the qualification that "they" vote ANC "despite..."
Thus far the people have not believed the warnings of hell and damnation. But going forward, we cannot ignore the caution in a recent Financial Times editorial (02/08/04) about the coverage of public policy: "Politics becomes yet another soap opera, with a cast of heroes and villains constantly moving from one category to the other. There is a cost to the persistent demeaning of politics and its practitioners. Cynicism breeds contempt ...and encourages the rise of the sort of populist demagogues seen in several other European countries".
COURT-JESTER AND "CONCEALED" SOCIAL ACTOR
This trend in political reporting and analysis reflects a number of interrelated factors.
The first of these is a self-righteousness that eschews critical self-examination. This is precisely the experience with regard to the case of SA citizens recently arrested in Pakistan.
An attitude set in earlier in our democracy among some of the senior media actors to view any attempt at debating the role of the media and the need for it to transform as a threat to media freedom. Society and especially government were told that the Fourth Estate was a holy shrine, never to be subjected to scrutiny, never to be a terrain of contestation.
Different views on this matter did start to emerge as the more progressive and mainly black journalists sought to assert themselves. However, important opportunities had been missed in terms of depth of self-examination with regard to both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process and the Human Rights Commission hearings on racism in the media.
The confident self-assertion among these progressive journalists took time to manifest itself for many reasons. One of them is that professional solidarity, which is quite important and necessary, had in the earlier years been appropriated to mean defence of an agenda at worst opposed, and at best ambivalent, to transformation.
This brings us to the second interrelated factor: it is a matter of course that all media actors do wear political colours. Yet there is pretence in South African that a journalist is a breed apart from other human beings; that s/he is not impacted by the fissures and dynamics within society and therefore does not hold personal views on social developments.
Yet, open any newspaper and watch or listen to electronic media and you will see the mast to which the writer or producer has pinned his/her colours. Because ideological advocacy is presented in our country as something the media avoids as a matter of principle, you then end up with an ideological hoax of historical proportions.
This comes out in bold relief if you took for instance the recent reporting on the issue of foreign land ownership. Of the scores of reports on this issue, it is difficult to find more than two stories, which sought the views of persons other than estate agents and those who were expected to oppose debate on the issue. Virtually, none of the journalists who seem to rejoice when the Landless People's Movement, COSATU or the PAC fight government on other issues, approached these organisations for comment.
Another example: a few weeks ago, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) revised downwards the estimates of AIDS figures in our country from the oft-quoted 5-million to about 3,8-million. This was preceded by new less dramatic projections by the Actuarial Society of SA (ASSA). Of course the figures are very high and we are in the midst of a pandemic. But the point is that the new ASSA figures were barely mentioned. The StatsSA conclusions on this matter were not reported at all, except by one daily, which interestingly plucked the story from an international newswire and one weekly in commendable in-depth analysis.
The same can be said about the release of crime statistics in 2003: society was told they were not credible and that the police were misleading the public. Only a few months down the line, when the Institute of Security Studies came up with the same conclusions was the information reported as accurate - of course with a rider that what mattered was perception which, we are told, is as good as reality.
And so the pretence of objectivity and non-partisanship continues. The political standpoint among reporters or those who task them, or more generously, the concept of news as controversy blind us to reality.
We cite these examples to assert that the effort objectively to reflect the truth should be pursued as a matter of principle. But further, one wishes to make a call: free our media houses and journalists from the pretence that political positions do not influence their output, in particular the choice of news items and the angles from which they are covered. Let them openly exercise their right "to be partisan, [but they] must distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact" [Lawrence Raw on the new code of practice for British media: "Media Ethics and Media Regulation in Britain"].
The third factor is that, under cover of objectivity and non-partisanship, some journalists seek to browbeat others to tow a particular political and ideological line. Matters had reached such a sorry state, by the time of the Cabinet/SANEF Indaba in 2001, that some journalists were complaining that they could not write stories about positive things done by government, even if the facts were there for all to see, for fear of being labelled lap-dogs. This has somewhat abated.
But the tendency does continue. The recent campaign in the press and among SABC competitors around its editorial line is one case in point. Yet when one examines objective research, the allegation that SABC news has become more positive towards government, compared to other media, since the 2004 elections, is not backed by fact: all media positively reported on government in the period May-June in particular, on account of the content of the President's State of the Nation Address, the Ministerial briefings and the practical things that government is doing to realise its mandate.
Fig II: Intensity of coverage of government by all media depends on nodal points in government's programme and its articulation. And where government is the initiator of news events, positive (green) and 'neutral' (yellow) commonly surpass negative (red).
Fig III: While the SABC had more statements (blue) on government programmes in the May-June 2002 period, eTV news was more positive (green) in its content.
Fig IV: The dailies reflected similar trends in positive coverage with the exception of Beeld and Business Day.
Fig V: The same trend was apparent in the weeklies, except for the Sunday Independent, Mail&Guardian and Financial Mail.
The fourth issue is the notion that revolving doors between government and the media should be avoided at all costs. This is besides the fact that the Cabinet/SANEF Indaba identified such exchanges as critical in ensuring better service to the public, and specifically proposed joint initiatives to "explore exchange of internships" [Way Forward, Emerging from Cabinet/SANEF Indaba, 30 June 2001].
Many tales were told at the Indaba about how young journalists get simple facts wrong simply because they do not know how government operates - and of course how some communicators in government are guilty of equivalent misjudgements.
At a recent briefing by the Minister of Public Service and Administration (DPSA), a journalist insisted on the Minister elaborating about people with disability because she thought DPSA in this instance stood for the Disabled People of SA. One daily, previewing Freedom Day celebrations, informed the public that corvettes would be part of the march-past in Pretoria!
And so, the call here is: there should be more, not less, revolving doors between the media and government - lest we have to reintroduce military conscription!
SELF-REGULATION AND SELF-CORRECTION
Because of the niche media occupy in the confluence between constitutional rights and their realisation in actual practice, the state is meant to have an arms-length relationship with the media in terms of regulation. Beyond the fundamental issues of electronic media regulation given the finite nature of the broadcast spectrum, and ordinary constitutional rights and common law, there is no legislation to mediate matters of content.
Yet like any industry that provides a public service, and more so because of its role in shaping public opinion, there is no debate about the need for self-regulation. This relates to matters that affect citizens' constitutional rights such as what some refer to as "spying, prying, watching and besetting"; deriving personal gain or allowing others to do so from inside information; outlawing image alteration; ensuring accuracy and so on.
The International Federation of Journalists, in its principles on the conduct of journalists, further updated at its 18th World Congress in 1986, identifies such issues as respect for the truth, fair methods to obtain information, professional secrecy regarding sources and presents as "grave professional offences the following: plagiarism; malicious misrepresentation; calumny, slander, libel and unfounded accusations; the acceptance of a bribe in any form in consideration of either publication or suppression".
The SA Press Ombudsman's Code of Conduct contains the same principles, and further states: "news shall be presented in context in a balanced manner, without intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by: distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation; material omissions; or summarisation".
It also calls for "making fact and opinion clearly distinguishable" and addresses an occasional source of great distress: "Headlines ... shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report in question. Posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report..."
One could give many examples where these principles have been violated; and there will be even more instances where they have been scrupulously observed. The fact that an error has been committed does not in and of itself necessarily imply malice and wilful distortion of facts - nor does it suggest a lack of integrity on the media's part.
As with any institution, the question is whether the measures in place to deal with transgressions are adequate to obviate repeat offending and whether there are trends that may suggest a slide into a culture that encourages an oblivious attitude to these codes.
The jury in this regard is still out; but South African media would do well to reflect on the following: how have we dealt with instances of plagiarism; how have we discouraged manifestations of entrapment of some journalists in the vortex of factionalism and backstabbing in political and other institutions; how have we dealt with the temptation to ridicule public representatives, merely on account of our disagreement with the policies they pursue; have we exercised sufficient caution not to find ourselves as purveyors of other states' national interests because we do not trust our own; do editors pay sufficient attention to sensationalism in content, in headlines and in posters?
These questions are in a sense a line in the sand that, if we cross (even subconsciously), we may find ourselves in an inexorable slide to anarchy. The media will be the loser; the public will be the loser; democracy will be the loser.
CEDING THE POWER OF THE PEN
As indicated earlier, media is an extremely powerful social institution.
Therefore, in a society like ours, which guarantees media freedom to the maximum extent possible, the notion that the media is a victim waiting for others to abuse it can be intensely debilitating. In fact, in the midst of a multitude of genuine threats to media freedom, pointing the finger in the wrong direction, usually government can in fact conceal the insidious encroachments on media freedom happening before our very eyes.
How do such threats manifest themselves? In three ways.
The first is the surging power of the bottom-line, ubiquitous as it spreads its tentacles into the newsroom and the editorial office - as it imposes itself on the mind of the practitioners. What editors and their staff think and how they should express it is subject to that deity, the bottom-line. But if this merely meant kneeling in prayer to one god, there would be hope that on-going iteration may lead to rationality: that the boardroom upstairs would appreciate that higher circulation, readership and viewership can be achieved through content that in proportionate manner educates, informs and entertains; that relevance to the social conditions and genuine interests of the majority would suffice to guarantee audience figures.
But the hierarchy has another rung, with the pinnacle occupied by those to whom the media platform is but a lifeless transmission belt of the base instincts of consumerism. Large audiences are relevant only if they are moneyed and perceived as such. And so editors cower and tow the line under threat of dismissal; they are co-opted into the number crunching of short-term commercial imperatives.
Fig VI: Between 2001 and 2003 there was improvement in advertising expenditure across mediums but print has grown by a lower rate (18,6%) compared to television (27%).
The advertising pie does increase, though it is dependent on other economic factors. But it is shared disproportionately within and among mediums, more on the basis of familiarity of advertising executives with particular platforms rather than their true value. And so we end up with the anomalous situation in our country in which programmes and platforms with large audiences of all economic groups are valued less, simply because their patrons are black, with content that is aimed at satisfying the rich, to sate the appetites of the marketers and advertisers.
Fig VII: Advertising income does not necessarily correspond with size of listenership (figures for YFM, 2003 not available).
In other words, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, the marketers and advertising agencies end up determining the editorial content of media. The audience does matter, as we are told, because they can vote with their purses. But in the ethics of the bottom-line, marketers and advertisers become the kings of content.
The second threat to media freedom pertains to conglomeration and homogenisation.
Concentration in ownership continues apace in our country, but more so in developed countries on whom we are so reliant for the ripe news to pluck. As we have seen in the past ten years, such concentration encourages cost cutting and rationalisation, reliance on a smaller pool of active journalists and reduction of complex social dynamics and zillion angles from which they can be covered into homogenous sound bites.
With the herd mentality pervading the media, the tendency is for smaller entities to follow the big and the successful; and lo and behold George Orwell's 1984 becomes a living reality: mind control takes root, not from the exercise of state power; but from within the industry itself.
Attached to this is the dominance of media of developed countries in the interpretation of world reality. Has anyone among us ever paused to reflect on the origins and meaning of phrases such as "Sikh extremists", "Muslim fanatics" versus "Christian conservatives", "Black radicals" and "civilisation-as-we-know-it"? Yet these phrases roll off our tongues and our pens as if we were born with them; but all a product of conditioning that is as pervasive as it is Pavlovian.
At a deeper level, we take facts and their interpretation from these global media as if they were gospel truth. Because it is said by them, we do not need independently to verify the story. And so, at times, we end up purveyors of half-truths and promoters of other states' national interests.
The third level of danger to media freedom is how we wield the power of new technology and management practices and turns them into weapons of self-destruction.
Information and communications technology can be a beautiful tool for the writer and producer, but it can also become the refuge of lazy journalism, which is detached from real life experiences of ordinary folk. And with cost-cutting, training programmes, research facilities and backroom personnel are among the first to suffer.
The principle in modern management sciences of career-pathing up the corporate ladder and executive share holding can be a good incentive for productivity. But this often results in rewarding good journalists with management jobs because it is the only way to "make it"; share-holding for editors and senior journalists can mean buying loyalty to the bottom-line rather than to the bottom of the story; and the profession suffers immensely.
These then are today's real threats to media freedom in our country. And our campaigns as journalists should focus on them. We should resist intrusion of the boardroom into matters of content, and take keen interest in the efforts to transform the advertising industry. We should also debate the question whether the trend towards stand-alone media companies reliant solely on the media undertakings for their profit is a good idea. For, in the vagaries of the trade and with no possibility of cross-subsidisation, all kinds of unseemly things are done to satisfy short-term so-called "shareholder value".
Failure on our part to interrogate these questions would constitute an unforgivable ceding of the power of the pen - complicity in negative encroachment on media freedom.
OPTIMISM OF THE NEW AGE
We have as a nation entered the Second Decade of Freedom in the midst of exciting possibilities for faster improvement in the human condition. The achievements we have made in the first decade include the entrenchment of media freedom, which in turn has served as one of the catalysts to the deepening of our democracy - in reflecting the changes in people's material conditions, in contributing to the intellectual discourse within society, in speaking the truth to power, in celebrating progress and in revealing the flaws in all of us.
Sometimes the profession got it wrong; but it is from such weaknesses that people of integrity are able to improve their trade.
The buoyant mood out there in society confirms that, on the whole, our nation is on the right track. This is reflected in public assessment of whether the country is going in the right direction, which is at its most positive since 1994.
Fig VIII: The mood is in part affected by the electoral cycle. However today optimism is at its highest since the period immediately after the 1994 elections.
The Business Confidence Index as measured by the Bureau of Economic Research (BER) at the University of Stellenbosch is at its best since the 1980s:
Fig IX: Business Confidence approaching peaks of the 1980s
The Consumer Confidence Index also demonstrates the spirit of hope engulfing society, at its best since it was first measured in 1982:
Fig X: Improvement also manifests in Consumer Confidence, and while different income groups are at different levels, the trend among all of them is in a positive direction.
Now, it's not often that nations experience such a confluence of positive energies. The challenge therefore is whether the leadership in all sectors of society, including the intellectuals and the media, is geared towards taking advantage of this unique opportunity to take the country to a higher trajectory of growth, development and national unity.
On its part, government has outlined the concrete things it will do in pursuit of this objective. Besides the substantive issues contained in the programme, what should also be of interest to the media is the transparent manner in which these matters are being handled. Researchers have yet to identify any other country whose government has decided to place all its programmatic decisions in the public domain, complete with targets and time-lines, for the public to join in the monitoring and evaluation of implementation.
Our hope is that the media fraternity will play its role in reflecting with accuracy and in-depth the unfolding story of a nation hard at work to realise a dream, and not merely get galvanised into action when targets are missed to pose the question, whether the President will crack the whip!
Overall, one is persuaded that the country's good tidings will rub off on the media industry, in our Second Decade of Freedom and beyond.
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)