Public in­ter­est is our lodestar

CityPress - - Voices - voices@ city­press. co. za

There is a pa­tro­n­is­ing tone to this ‘big media de­bate’

In the trenches and long-gone ma­hogany rows of the fourth es­tate, I have worked with an­ar­chists, so­cial democrats, ne­olib­er­als, cen­tre-right con­ser­va­tives, so­cial­ists, rad­i­cal left­ists and jour­nal­ists of other ide­o­log­i­cal bents and quirks.

There have also been un­eth­i­cal fel­lows I would rather for­get – no­tably crime re­porter Craig Kotze, whom we sus­pected was a po­lice spy in The Star news­room in the late 1980s, and who con­firmed as much later.

Ex­tremes notwith­stand­ing, a news­room of jour­nal­ists who rep­re­sent the coun­try’s di­ver­sity and don’t nec­es­sar­ily share the same world view is worth cher­ish­ing. A clash of ideas and ide­olo­gies ig­nites a news­room. It keeps jour­nal­ists on their toes. It en­cour­ages bal­ance – a sought-af­ter and elu­sive qual­ity.

Another must-have is a fired-up team that val­ues its role as the fourth es­tate, with a news editor on a mis­sion to get the best sto­ries – good or bad. The news editor is not in place as a cheer­leader for sun­shine jour­nal­ism or to slav­ishly ex­e­cute the boss’ agenda – or that of their sources. The goal is to seek the truth with­out fear or favour, en­cour­ag­ing re­porters to gen­er­ate their own ideas and yes, dammit, to dig in places that the rich and pow­er­ful hope to con­ceal.

Thanks to the ANC, the de­vel­op­ment of this cul­ture of jour­nal­ism was en­cour­aged and South Africa has en­joyed 21 years of media free­dom in a self-reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment un­der a press code of con­duct that is guided by the coun­try’s Bill of Rights. Cer­tainly, “the media” don’t do enough to speak for the marginalised and there has been some cow­boy jour­nal­ism and abuse, but the re­cently strength­ened om­buds­man is in place to ex­pose those who let the side down.

Yet, in­stead of nur­tur­ing this sys­tem amid a pun­ish­ing cli­mate of cost-cut­ting and shrink­ing news­rooms, there has been a lock­down of in­tol­er­ance by the state, the threat of a media ap­peals tri­bunal ever-present.

And now, “the media” has been faced with an as­sault not only from gov­ern­ment, but from within its own ranks. If noth­ing else, this gives the lie to the tired fin­ger-point­ing mis­con­cep­tion that “the media” is a ho­moge­nous op­po­si­tional bully.

There is a pa­tro­n­is­ing tone to this “big media de­bate” – cheered on by media-bash­ing politi­cians. An ugly di­vi­sive­ness is build­ing, putting pres­sure on jour­nal­ists to make an ar­ti­fi­cial choice be­tween be­ing “for us or against us” in the name of pa­tri­o­tism and the “na­tional in­ter­est” – the very same ar­gu­ment the Nats used to jus­tify the dra­co­nian curbs on the media dur­ing apartheid.

Co-op­tion is not pe­cu­liar to South Africa – it is ev­ery­where. In an ar­ti­cle on The Con­ver­sa­tion web­site about the Aus­tralian media’s treat­ment of the Ed­ward Snow­den rev­e­la­tions, Deakin Univer­sity As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Martin Hirst warns that when the media starts to put “na­tional in­ter­est” be­fore “public in­ter­est”, it is time to be wor­ried. Hirst points out that when an Aus­tralian news­pa­per de­fended its gov­ern­ment’s right to keep se­crets from its peo­ple, it be­trayed its fourth es­tate prin­ci­ples.

The guide­lines that gov­ern these prin­ci­ples are out­lined in the soon-to-be-re­vised South African code of ethics for print and online media. The code en­forces trans­par­ent, ac­count­able jour­nal­ism in a trans­formed and in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ment. When un­eth­i­cal rogues or am­a­teurs trans­gress it, the con­comi­tant con­se­quences are pub­licly ex­posed.

De­spite all the ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences within “the media”, there is surely a com­mon­al­ity – ral­ly­ing around the craft’s code of ethics, safe­guard­ing in­de­pen­dence and putting public in­ter­est first.

Janet Heard

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