12 June 2002
Media and Parliament - a partnership to promote representative and participatory democracy
Honourable Chairperson and
Recently it was my pleasure to address an Indian Ocean Rim conference in these buildings arranged by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other bodies, including the South African Parliament. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the need to secure an effective relationship between Parliament and the media.
That conference was part of a broader process dating back to the "Points of Agreement" produced in New Delhi at a similar conference in February 2000. The heavy, and most welcome, emphasis placed on this subject indicates the importance of the symbiotic relationship between Parliament and media wherever democracy is the norm.
And there can be no denying that the democratic way is slowly but steadily becoming the norm in many parts of Africa, with the continent enjoying growing attention in international affairs despite the heavy claims of other issues and regions to world attention.
Even those who have traditionally been critical and even dismissive about African achievement are recognising the progress made. The momentum of change is beginning to match or eclipse the vast steps forward a generation or more ago when Africa began to throw off colonialism. It is noteworthy that, since 1990, no fewer than 42 of the 48 countries in sub-saharan Africa have held multiparty elections.
These developments impact not only on populations at large but on the media throughout Africa, for the groundswell of democracy brings with it new challenges and opportunities for newspapers and broadcast media. In a repressive society, there are few demands on the media, and a drab, uncritical uniformity is the order of the day. Sycophantic journalists are honoured and critics, if any, are locked up. In a democratic environment, there is a healthy tension between government and media, but mutual respect for one another’s institutional independence.
There is, moreover, a flowering of media activity and talent in such an environment, and this puts special pressure on the shoulders of those who own, edit, market and train in the media industry.
There is, in a democracy, a tendency towards greater diversity in the media, and this process can and should be helped along by democratic governments. We in South Africa have done our bit and, in partnership with the private sector, recently took legislative steps to ensure greater media diversity, notably subsidies and support for community and independent media.
An institution that, supremely, requires media attention in a democratic environment is Parliament itself. Indeed, to the extent that Parliamentary events are neglected by the media, democracy is impoverished. Those who take the trouble to elect parties and their representatives to Parliament are entitled to know what these representatives are doing and saying, how they behave, and how they approach the many issues that confront the nation. Parliament is not an exclusive social club, but an open forum for the whole nation.
As I pointed out at the Indian Ocean Rim conference, the two institutions, Parliament and media, though absolutely 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 and separate institutions found in any democracy, the executive and the judiciary, are crucial to the cause of good governance.
And, with reference to the subject of our debate today, it should be said that the nature of the relationship between Parliament and media is not ideally to be seen as a "partnership". Each institution is too jealous of its freedom of action and independence for that comfy description. They are not in bed together, except on rare and sometimes celebrated occasions when individual enterprise achieves what institutions avoid.
Parliament and media are institutions which stand alone, and each must be given space by the other to get on with their important work, which is central to democracy. That said, it must be accepted that Parliament without media is as barren a scene as media without Parliament.
We in South Africa must not lose sight of the fact that good governance is central to the success of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, on which so much in our continent and country depends. This inspired plan for Africa has, as hon. Members will know, recently received a valuable boost at the World Economic Forum Africa summit meetings in Durban.
Parliament in a democracy is inherently newsy. The debate and engagement among MPs, even operating under a strict party whip, can lead to unexpected outcomes, and the very basis of news is the unexpected. Moreover, a democratic Parliament is in touch with the feelings of the populace in general, and to this extent there is strong news interest in what it gets up to. Charting the process of legislation, motions, questions in Parliament – not to mention the diverting activities of personalities and parties - can be an exacting job; and it is up to Parliament to ensure maximum access and proper facilities to journalists so that they can do their job.
I have commented before on the irony that the South African Parliament enjoyed more space and time in the media in the days when it was merely a rubber-stamp for the repressive apartheid rulers. Admittedly much of what was said was so crassly stupid or blatantly racist that the media had a responsibility to preserve it for posterity, so that our children can, in wide-eyed wonder, now see what went before. But it is an undoubted fact that, now that Parliament is a creative, meaningful and democratic force in the land, it should attract more attention from the media. It has a myriad activities, numbers of fully-reportable committees, and many newsy full-dress occasions to attract journalistic attention. The President regularly addresses Parliament and answers questions, as does the Deputy President.
Which brings me specifically to the National Council of Provinces. This is a meaningful House, not in the mould of second or upper houses, in South African history or elsewhere, which have been repositories of incompetence, party loyalty or mediocrity. It has direct links with the provinces, which lie at the very coal face of administration and delivery in South Africa. It is a place where Premiers tread.
But it does seem obvious that the National Assembly enjoys greater attention, in the media, than this House, and it would be a good idea if the NCOP looked closely at the situation and devised strategies to raise its profile via the media. This is not to donwplay past efforts, which have led to some considerable success. But it is an ongoing, uphill battle, particularly when one considers that this House is so strongly representative of provincial interests whereas the media generally, as presently constituted, are generally concentrated in the cities.
So, I should like to issue a challenge to both this House and the media: see what you can do, creatively and effectively, to raise the profile of this place, in the very real interests of the nation.
The media can be asked to provide a coherent and systematic account of what goes in Parliament, though it remains free to choose its subjects for reporting and comment. At the same time, it is up to the legislature to ensure that its own activities are newsworthy and properly communicated. And if the legislature feels that it is not getting the attention it deserves, it is better to see this as a spur to greater effort rather than cause for complaint.
Media, generally, do have special responsibilies. A crucial one is to maintain the highest standards of reporting and comment. Editors are the upholders of these norms, and, when journalists depart from them, it is the editors who must curb the excesses, and make amends in public through adequate and spontaneous correction and, where warranted, apology (incidentally, which legislators should also do when they err). As I have argued before, editors, in order to edit, should, surely, have intimate knowledge of their journalists’ sources, and exercise some judgment about their veracity. Do they all?
Editors should, moreover, raise the status of their Parliamentary journalists if they want to give a coherent account of law-making, and if they wish to have a meaningful relationship with the institution of Parliament. I have gained the impression that this is an area which requires substantial and urgent attention at editor level. If they do not give their Parliamentary reporters the attention they deserve, other areas of reporting, eg financial, environmental and information technology, will eclipse Parliamentary reporting, to the nation’s loss.
In South Africa we are about to embark on a system of accrediting journalists to cover the Presidency, and it would be a pity if this move were seen as competition for Parliamentary reporters and not as complementary to what they do. Without in any sense downplaying the significance of reporting the executive – heaven forbid! – it is necessary for the media to maintain the balance between the legislature and the executive, and it would be an idea if reporters sought to cover both, as far as possible.
So, I would make an appeal to the media to extend and not to reduce their coverage of Parliament. They should consider more detailed information on Parliamentary programmes, and greater depth in analysis – which involves careful study of basic documents - and more attention to speeches, which currently are almost totally ignored in large sections of the media. This, of itself, would ensure that speech quality improves. To know that your utterances are likely to be reported is a discipline that can exercise the mind wonderfully, and be a spur to newsiness and creativity.
To close, Hon. Chair, I would suggest that never before in South African history has Parliament had closer links with the people. This, surely, should be reflected in the media, a worker if not actually a "partner" in the same democratic cause.
Minister in The Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)