24 November 2000
The debate over the right to personal privacy versus the public’s right to know is a stubborn and permanent feature of all democracies.
The issue is never completely or satisfactorily resolved. It worries the public – from preachers to politicians - almost as much as it worries the editors and journalists who have to make critical decisions which can ruin or even end lives.
Just where that line is which divides people’s purely private activities from those about which the public at large has an undeniable right to know, is a matter of ongoing dispute. Maybe the issue will never be resolved. That is why it is such an intriguing subject.
The most celebrated journalists and editors have grappled with the issue, seeing it as one of the most complicated facing particularly the mass-media in a fast-moving and changed world. The rapid and universal dissemination of news and comment in an electronic, globalised era has given the debate an added edge. So, where should the line be drawn?
Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post saw it this way (page 464 of his A Good Life):
"The private lives of public officials are their own business – unless and until their private behaviour encroaches on performance of public duties."
In Bradlee’s rather picturesque shorthand, this, he explained, meant: "Drunk at home, your business; drunk on the floor of the US Senate, our business."
Open and democratic systems produce plenty of newsy, sometimes riotous, behaviour by public figures in private, semi-private and public places e.g. drunken cavorting in a fountain by a chairman of ways and means with a stripper in Washington DC; Gary Hart’s challenge to the media to catch him misbehaving, and they did, which threw his nomination; and Prince Charles’s inconsequential endearments on the phone, picked up, it seems, by a retired bank official from the dubious vantage of a telephone pole. Was it always right for the media to publish? Of course not. But open societies develop, by unfolding experience, guidelines about what is permissible reporting when dealing with people’s personal conduct, or condition. We in democratic South Africa must be sure that we do not err on the side of prying into private lives in unjustifiable ways.
For we should know better. People in South Africa lived through an apartheid era when it was the required job of police to feel blankets, pry with torches and shin up trees to spy on lovers contravening the Immorality Act, and later exposing this highly private but normal conduct in open courts. That was hideously wrong. We saw the security police hawking around hidden tape-recordings of hotel-room indiscretions by political leaders and trying to get them published. That was also nonsense. Our national record is full of abuse of privacy.
That has all changed now, or should have, and the right to privacy and dignity required by our Constitution makes it necessary to draw a firm line between what is public and what is private. For instance, phone tapping cannot just be indulged in at will by inquisitive intelligence services or others. The strictest rules apply, and the public is most carefully protected from unwarranted invasion of their privacy.
Illness has always been a problem in media reporting. It is often shrouded in euphemism. Cancer was, at one stage, seldom listed as a cause of death in obituaries, and it was – and still is, in some circles – referred not by its name but as the Big C, or "a long illness". People are generally very private about their personal health, and even the most robust public figures skirt admitting details of illness in many cases.
When the HIV/Aids threat ballooned throughout the world, different societies reacted to it in different ways. At first, in the media of the post-industrial world there was very careful and purposely uninformative reporting about it – with many obituaries particularly of young and successful people excluding the cause of death in cases of obvious Aids. On the other hand, there are popular figures, like Magic Johnson and a judge in South Africa, who have come out openly and bravely, as being HIV positive, and they have in their different ways become role models for a society grappling with this very serious problem facing all humanity. To each his/her own; and that’s how it should be.
We should note that different societies and cultures – and different media - have responded in different ways to the issue of HIV/Aids. I believe it is up to the individual to decide whether to report – to anyone – the fact that he or she has a disease, which does not statutorily require notification, and Aids is in such a category as I speak. You may think that a celebrated Aids sufferer is robbing the public of a valuable role model in not trumpeting the illness from the rooftops, but I would suggest that it is a matter of personal decision – and the personal right to privacy, entrenched in our Constitution, should be respected at all costs. This is particularly so in cases of death where the family has spoken, and this should be the last word.
It is therefore a bit much when media effectively demand to see the death certificate of a person to satisfy some seemingly insatiable desire to fend unseemingly controversies, just because that person held a senior position in the country. I believe it might possibly help the public campaign against Aids for such an individual to "come out", as they say, but there are enough people willing to do that to make it unnecessary for society to demand it of people as a matter of public compulsion.
So I must therefore take my stand on the side of those who were seriously put out by the public clamour for public admissions, of whatever type, over the cause of death of Parks Mankahlana. I do know what is firmly said. He was a stalwart of struggle, he did a difficult job well, and his family wanted their privacy respected when he fell ill and gave the public a reason for his death. Can we not leave it at that?
That is not in any way to discourage public or private people to come forward to reveal their health conditions and therefore to fuel the campaigns against HIV/Aids or any other malady. But let us leave Parks be.
To argue the opposite case, and to require families to say what they are entitled not to say – or even know - is to show a degree of insensitivity that makes a mockery of the media’s true role in society, and to weaken its moral force in dealing with matters of privacy.
Which leads me to another point, and it concerns the broader but related question of what is public opinion.
People live in different worlds in South Africa, those in the leafy, walled suburbs, and those in the bleak townships and rural areas. And those, increasingly, in between.
There is a world of difference between them. There is no such thing as one public opinion, though the political leadership has done much since 1994 to encourage a broad new and overarching patriotism based on tolerance and commitment to democracy and non-racialism. But to speak of the South African people vious problem in reflecting how people feel about things in SA. This is because people feel differently. Honesty requires some degree of media schizophrenia, and it is better to accept this than to pretend it does not exist. And it is not only inaccurate but somewhat arrogant for media to present one view of South Africa as the definitive one. The major media, in general, are still dominated by commercial establishment interests. There are exceptions, and they tend to stick out, but the mainstream opinion of the established papers is the opinion of the monied, largely white, and propertied classes.
It could be that in the more affluent areas there is a view of Aids and other deadly afflictions, which require – for cultural reasons, and possibly because of greater exposure to other countries’ ways of handling a problem of this scale - more frankness and openness in combating them. In fact, increasingly in the developed world we have seen a growing frankness and openness.
That may be all well and good, for a particular culture. But it does not invalidate the views of other sections of society – in fact, the majority in South Africa – many of whom may well feel less inclined to make a public issue of Aids etc, which others in South Africa are quite happy to publicise to the high heavens.
So, let us respect the sensitivities of one another. Let us be tolerant. Let us not compel anyone to do anything that, for cultural or religious or for any other reason, they do not wish to do. If a family wishes to have privacy over the death of a loved one, we should accept it at that. And if it wishes to make a socially compelling point about the cause of death, so be it. But let us not demand conduct to suit our own view of what public opinion is or should be.
Now te, permit me the chance to make a point about media and journalism over a wider front.
The major new trend I have noticed in the South African media of late is going into print or over the air with damaging and reckless allegations – often gleaned from one clearly biased source – without even taking the trouble to check with the person criticised what his or her version of events might be. This has happened a number of times of late, and The Presidency has not escaped this brand of shoddy and nationally damaging reporting.
Quality journalism – like that pursued by the Washington Post - requires that, when sources are unnamed in important matters, there should be corroboration by at least two totally independent sources, and that the person or institution subject to public criticism be given adequate chance to comment. That is just elementary fairness, and since the media is pretty hot on seeking fairness in public life it is an area, which the editors of our media could consider with benefit to them and the public good. And the journalists.
The days when checking facts with state authority could lead to banning or otherwise silencing of the source are gone in South Africa. Why should the media not routinely seek the other side, or, in the Latin phrase, audi alteram partem? Are they afraid of spoiling a story? Are they just idle? Do the editors know, for a fact, who the source of sensitive stories are? Do they insist on knowing, on pain of refusing to publish, as has happened in South African history, to editors’ credit? Do they question their journalists about checking processes adopted? What rules, I ask, apply? Do they – do you – agree with my propositions?
Well-run media have style books and manuals which set out the procedures adopted by good journalism – e.g. insisting on giving the other side of stories, ensuring that editors know from what quarter stories have come, and so on. My question not only to the FBJ but to newspaper groups and interests generally is: Do you care? Or do you, possibly, place commercial considerations above good journalism? As they say in Afrikaans: ek vra net. Yes, the public have a right to know this too.
Minister in The Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)