As me­dia we must man­age our bias

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis -

When it is done best, it is done by cu­ri­ous, hard-work­ing peo­ple who are nei­ther bound by al­le­giances nor suf­fo­cated by ex­ist­ing nar­ra­tives. Of all the qual­i­ties of good jour­nal­ists, it is the abil­ity to ques­tion our own al­le­giances con­stantly that is the most dif­fi­cult to main­tain. We are, af­ter all, only hu­man. But we would like to think that we are able to man­age our per­sonal prej­u­dices in the ser­vice of the truth.

And it is ex­actly this qual­ity of jour­nal­ism — this aware­ness of its own prej­u­dices, done within the frame­work of a free, in­de­pen­dent me­dia in­fra­struc­ture — that en­sures it re­mains a no­ble en­ter­prise.

At present, South African jour­nal­ism hap­pens in the midst of a con­certed cam­paign to free the state from the grasp of one fam­ily (or two, if you count the Zu­mas) that has been able to use a vast network of in­flu­ence among mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment to fur­ther its own busi­ness in­ter­ests.

As we’ve noted in this space pre­vi­ously, the ref­er­ences in the State of Cap­ture re­port by the pre­vi­ous public pro­tec­tor, Thuli Madon­sela, show that the me­dia have been an im­por­tant force in un­cov­er­ing the reach of state cap­ture and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing bat­tle for the soul of the ANC.

On any given day, jour­nal­ists in the Mail & Guardian news­room, as else­where, poke at the ev­i­dence, ac­cu­mu­late facts, ask ques­tions, cul­ti­vate sources, look at doc­u­ments, win trust, re­ceive re­but­tals, start all over again and go on to re­port the news.

The on­go­ing rev­e­la­tions about state cap­ture are a good il­lus­tra­tion of the im­por­tance of a free press. But it’s not the first time the me­dia in South Africa have caused dis­com­fort to the most pow­er­ful among us. Over the years, the news me­dia have con­sis­tently been cen­tral to re­veal­ing cor­rupt prac­tices and mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion that taints the state.

The real test of our com­mit­ment to a free press, how­ever, lies in our abil­ity to tol­er­ate the in­for­ma­tion dis­sem­i­nated through the me­dia that dis­rupts our prej­u­dices.

Our real com­mit­ment to a plu­ral­ity of voices lies in our abil­ity to tol­er­ate in­for­ma­tion that threat­ens the neatly tucked cor­ners of our world­view.

Our real com­mit­ment to a free press lies in our readi­ness to de­fend edi­tor Steven Mo­tale and the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent when that pub­li­ca­tion chooses to pub­lish al­le­ga­tions about the deputy pres­i­dent’s ap­par­ent fondness for a var­ied sex life.

Most law-abid­ing, Con­sti­tu­tion-de­fend­ing cit­i­zens of South Africa can tell that these rev­e­la­tions are be­ing used to colour the char­ac­ter of the deputy pres­i­dent in the minds of ANC supporters as he cam­paigns to be­come the next leader of the rul­ing party.

We can ques­tion whether an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair is news. There is def­i­nitely a dirty tricks cam­paign afoot to in­flu­ence the out­come of the ANC’s elec­tive con­fer­ence. We must be aware of it and we must be able to guide our read­ers.

But we also can­not stand for the ob­struc­tion of the free flow of in­for­ma­tion, even if it comes from a camp that has been judged to be “wrong”, “cap­tured” or too close to the Zu­mas (or the Gup­tas, or who­ever it is that’s ac­tu­ally run­ning the coun­try these days).

In­deed, if some jour­nal­ists or pub­li­ca­tions choose to back a par­tic­u­lar fac­tion or party and are trans­par­ent about it, the M&G cer­tainly has no quib­ble with that. Ob­jec­tiv­ity is a myth that has long plagued the prac­tice of jour­nal­ism. We could just as well pur­port to be uni­corns.

What is dan­ger­ous, how­ever, is when we have a very def­i­nite nar­ra­tive of “good guy/bad guy” that we put for­ward with­out ques­tion and still main­tain this as ob­jec­tive jour­nal­ism.

There was a cer­tain level of hypocrisy and dou­ble stan­dards at play last week in the man­ner some of us re­sponded to Ramaphosa’s at­tempt to in­ter­dict the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent.

Ramaphosa is so clearly en­trenched as the good guy, be­cause of his op­po­si­tion to state cap­ture and his will­ing­ness to take on the most pow­er­ful fac­tion of the ANC, that we failed to call out his real crimes ad­e­quately last week. His at­tempt to muz­zle the me­dia must be con­demned.

The deputy pres­i­dent’s coun­sel told the court that In­de­pen­dent

News­pa­pers chair­per­son Iqbal Survé had as­sured Ramaphosa that the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent would not pub­lish the story. So, Ramaphosa ac­tu­ally called up a me­dia pro­pri­etor and asked him to in­ter­vene in edi­to­rial pro­cesses? If it had been the other way around, if it was Zuma call­ing a news­pa­per owner, there would have been out­rage.

The “good guy/bad guy” nar­ra­tive is a trap we must re­sist.

Mo­tale may well be the 2017 ANC elec­tive con­fer­ence’s ver­sion of what jour­nal­ists Vusi Mona and Ran­jeni Munusamy were in Polok­wane. Of course Mo­tale’s sources had an agenda. But then, all our sources have agen­das. Let us not pre­tend that the sources of the Gupta Leaks emails ob­tained and dis­sem­i­nated them to news pub­li­ca­tions for the sake of pup­pies and rain­bows.

Power is be­ing con­tested here. And when­ever power is be­ing con­tested, it is ugly.

It is there­fore im­per­a­tive that all of us who work in the me­dia re­mem­ber what hap­pened in the run-up to Polok­wane. Jour­nal­ists and pub­li­ca­tions chose sides, they were prox­ies for fac­tional bat­tles, and they were be­trayed.

We are jour­nal­ists. But we are not free­dom fight­ers. No­ble though our work is, we must aban­don our self-right­eous zeal. Truth, jus­tice, pup­pies and rain­bows are sure to fol­low if we’re able to re­port the news as we ought.

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