15 April 2002
The relationship between the legislature of any democracy and the media has engaged much attention down the years.
It can, at best, be a relationship of healthy tension. It should never be bland or, on either side, subservient. At worst, it can be mutually destructive – and therefore destructive of democracy.
All of the legislators present here today will have experience of good and bad media relations, in one way or another. And all the media people here today will have experience of good and bad contact with legislators and the institution of Parliament. The subject is one which leads to lively debate in any free country.
It is therefore commendable to note that this Cape Town initiative has been taken, enabling senior Parliamentarians and media representatives from Indian Ocean Rim countries to identify ways ahead in improving relations between Parliaments and the media. In particular, the role played by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the World Bank Institute, the Commonwealth Press Union, the Commonwealth Journalists Association and the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association in co-operation with the South African Parliament in arranging this Indian Ocean Rim conference is highly commendable.
This, too, is part of a broader process. The conference’s aim is to refine and expand the "Points of Agreement" produced in New Delhi at the previous Commonwealth conference on the same subject in February 2000. It is a credit to this world organisation, the Commonwealth,which is without doubt showing its relevance in world affairs despite the scepticism expressed in some quarters in the past, that it is able and willing to give sustained attention to such matters, in the interests of global enlightenment.
The two institutions, Parliament and media, though independent in any democracy, are complementary in their activities and effects. Neither can do without the other. They are, in this sense, collaborators in the same cause – the cause of enlightenment and good governance of citizens. The relationship of these two institutions with one another, and their interaction with those other great institutions found in any democracy, the executive and the judiciary, are crucial to the cause of good governance. And we in South Africa must not lose sight of the fact that good governance is central to the success of the New Partnership for Arica’s Development, on which so much in our continent and country depends as the 21st century unfolds.
The members of the legislature are the chief generators of news in the context of Parliament. They make laws and they make speeches; and the media are free to report and comment accordingly. As members of the renowned Fourth Estate, journalists are free to use their wit, conviction and humour to make their points. They easily get under the skin of members of Parliament. But they can, as easily, indulge them with praise. Politicians are acutely conscious of the media, whose members can hand out bouquets or brickbrats at random - and indeed be absolutely charming or terribly tiresome depending on how they view things. That is how it is, and democratic governments and legislatures should not expect anything different.
It is seldom the media which generate the news in Parliament, except for the odd recorded case of fracas in the Press Gallery or the Lobby, or celebrated Budget leaks leading to inquiry and even summonsing of journalists as has happened in years gone by in South Africa, Britain and elsewhere.
In a democracy it is the free choice of the media to report and comment as they wish, within the bounds of good taste and Parliamentary and legal rules. But it is up to the legislature to ensure that its own activities are newsworthy and properly communicated, if it wishes to have an impactful public profile. And there is little value in just blaming the media (or, might I suggest, the executive?) when the legislature gets critical or scant public attention, as does happen in some countries. This situation, if it exists, should be seen not as a matter of complaint but as a spur to legislators to sharpen their performance, to look closely at their relationship with the media with a view to improvement. They must become good communicators, and get their message across effectively. They must foster a culture not of secrecy but of disclosure. They must work intimately with the media to sort out the myriad administrative and other problems that inevitably exist in the Parliamentary environment. That done, they might then look around for others to blame, if this can be justified.
On the other hand, media with any pretensions to seriousness should seek to report honestly and fairly on events in Parliament, and they have a special responsibility to maintain the highest standards of reporting and comment. Editors, and editors alone in law and in practice, are the upholders of these norms, and, when journalists depart from them, it is the editors who should be bold enough to curb the excesses, and to make amends in public through adequate and spontaneous correction and, where warranted, frank apology. (Those newspapers that run regular services correcting facts are to be complimented, and I notice that a South African business daily has recently extended this concept, and now commits itself to correct errors where they occur and not in an omnibus, and sometimes rather obscure, correction box.) On the other hand, people in public life should recognise the legitimate place of the media in doing their job in the public interest, and should avoid making generalisations and at hominem attacks on journalists as a breed. When they, that is people in public life, commit error, and it is human to err, they should be prepared to offer adequate correction and due apology.
It is not really the province of MPs or Ministers to give lectures on media ethics. So I tread very warily, for the media are understandably highly sensitive to criticism from public figures. But we are entitled to ask some questions and make some observations. Editors, in order to edit, should, surely, have intimate knowledge of their journalists’ sources, and exercise some judgment about their veracity. Do they? Do they all? They should surely insist on sound professional standards, as, for instance, marked the Washington Post coverage of Watergate in such exemplary fashion, always relying on more than just one source for important disclosure. They might also take note of the groundswell of public opinion – reflected also in some recent court judgments abroad – against gratuitous invasion of privacy in blatant cases where the public interest clearly does not justify intrusion. And so on.
Editors should, moreover, boost the status of their Parliamentary journalists if they wish to have a sound relationship with the institution of Parliament. They should pay due heed to what their Parliamentary reporters say and write. They should appreciate the special position press gallery journalists occupy among those elected by citizens to serve the country in Parliament. The journalists are the eyes and ears of editors at the coalface of legislation. If editors do not do all they can to elevate the status of this particular corps of journalists, they will see them regularly playing second fiddle to the versatile and convincing new breeds of reporters who compete increasingly for space and time in the media – eg the financial and environmental journalists, to name but two, not to mention those who now so extensively and interestingly cover the fields of leisure and information technology. And in this country there could be imminent new competition ahead, in the form of journalists currently being accredited to the Presidency and who will compete for the public’s eye and ear when this Press Corps, proposed by the media and acceded to by Government, gets under way in the very near future. We in the Presidency certainly do not want a good, indeed essential, scheme like this to eclipse vital coverage of the legislature, or in any way to cause friction between the reporting of the legislature and the executive.
At the end of the day, Parliament and Media need one another. The relationship should, however, not be over-close. They should stand at arm’s length, not in one another’s pockets. But there is no reason why they should not, in seeking to serve the public in their respective ways, show mutual respect for one another. They should seek to break down the frosty relationships that can so easily result from an environment where egos tend to be large and criticism fierce. They should seek regular opportunities for briefings and interactions to raise mutual appreciation of one another’s problems and knowledge of what is going on.
I would urge the media to show their good faith towards Parliament by extending and not reducing coverage of this institution. They should consider chronicling and diarising Parliamentary happenings more precisely, and in time to alert the public properly; and reporting the speeches of members more extensively. In South Africa, speeches by MPs seldom receive extensive coverage, if any at all. This becomes a vicious circle, and can impact on the quality of speeches, because of neglect by the media. And there is, I believe, a dearth of Parliamentary sketch-writing, which is so effectively done in some other countries. Some papers do run sketches and services on the week ahead in Parliament, but these efforts could be widened and extended so that they hold centre stage in Parliamentary reporting and impact on the public’s attention. And they should be made as accurate and comprehensive as possible.
It is appreciated that the role of the ‘newspaper of record’ has largely, in the era of tight news holes and rocketing paper costs, becoming difficult to fulfil. But there are newspapers of note in the world which have managed to give consistent and effective coverage to Parliamentary debates, and some of those present here today would attest to this.
In general, it would be a welcome development were editors over a wide front, and solidly backed by their managements and proprietors, to give more serious and sustained attention to the law-making process. This is essential to good governance and service to the public.
No one should expect the media to take the ‘bite’ out of their reporting. The satire, the humour and the sharp criticism are what Parliament is all about. And I might mention, in passing, that the greatest test of media freedom comes not when times are good but when times are bad. It is in times when war or peace is in the balance when the real strains come. We have seen in the months since the 11 September attacks on the USA severe pressures on a world media seeking to cover the aftermath, which has now overflowed into a most ugly and dangerous situation in the Middle East.
It is worth noting, at an occasion such as this, that the combined and most influential bodies of the media world – the Foreign Press Association (of Jerusalem), the Committee to Protect Journalists (based in New York), the International Federation of Journalists (Brussels), the International Press Institute (Vienna), Reporters sans frontiers (Paris) and the World Association of Newspapers (Paris) – have recently (9 April) issued an unprecedented statement attacking the action of the Israeli Government in seeking to seal off entire cities in Palestine as "excessive, unjustifiable and utterly counterproductive". These bodies have urged Israel to allow the foreign media access to the cities of the West Bank, and asked Israeli officials "to desist from public attacks on the foreign press" through "irresponsible generalisations". They have made a "fervent call" on Israel to accredit Palestinian journalists working for the foreign press out of the Palestinian territories. This call is not a moment too soon.
It illustrates, in graphic fashion, the dangers, to the media, of conflict, particularly when there are implacable belligerents. But it shows more than this. One would be failing in one’s public duty if one did not note the degree to which a form of selective morality frequently glosses over invasions of media freedom perpetrated by countries such as Israel, when there is a vociferous howl to high heaven about steps against the media in other countries, not the least in Africa.
So, as I close, I should like to urge that more serious attention be given to Parliament as an institution by the media. It is most ironic that the South African Parliament enjoyed much more space and time in the media in the days when it was merely a rubber-stamp for the repressive apartheid rulers. Now that Parliament is a creative, meaningful and democratic force in the land, it should attract more attention. It has a myriad of activities, numbers of fully-reportable committees (except intelligence, which is acceptable in a democratic environment) and many newsy full-dress occasions to attract journalistic attention. The SA Parliament has never before had closer links with the people, nor with visiting dignitaries. Madame Speaker regularly greets people in the galleries from all corners of the earth. Schools are seen visiting the Parliamentary precincts almost daily during the session. Our Parliament is newsy by its very nature. May it be treated accordingly.
And may democratic legislatures throughout the Commonwealth and the world be given the attention they deserve, too.
I note from the agenda that, in seeking better relationships in the spirit of the "Points of Agreement" of New Delhi, this conference will benefit from inputs on important matters such as ethics and combating corruption, economic and political questions, legal and policy matters, freedom of information and human rights, parliamentary committees, the role of opposition, disclosure of information by Parliament including registers of members’ assets and interests.
May this conference contribute substantially to the cause of good governance, which is so essential in the new global dispensation in which we live.
Minister in The Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)