Friday 25 January 2019
Keeping the Public Interest at Heart
Michael Schmidt, executive director, Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, The Media, 15 November 2010
It has become a commonplace over the past two years for leading lights in the South African media to state that that media – and by extension, free speech and thus democracy itself – is under threat by dark forces. But I believe that South African society is robust enough to resist the current statutory threats to our media freedom: the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), the Promotion of Information Bill (POIB) – the so-called “Secrecy Bill” – and other pending legislation: the Public Service Broadcasting Bill, and the ICASA Amendment Bill. My stance is in fact a little harsh on the media itself, because I believe the media could well do with a little more introspection on what has provoked this raft of constrictive new rules.
Some of the causes are indeed rooted in the skullduggery of a kleptocratic clique that has wormed its way into the leadership ranks of the ruling African National Congress, a clique whose apparent drive towards impunity by means of removing their henchmen from media scrutiny gives notice of what can only be described as criminal intent. But the ANC leadership is also possessed of a majority of irreproachable cadres steeped in a vigorous democratic tradition nearly a century old. It is just not that clear which faction is in the ascendancy. But what is clear is that the media failed to raise as big a stink as was warranted when the National Prosecuting Authority committed seppuku in public last year by announcing in effect that justice could be bought, by admitting that in capitulating to Zuma as it had to Mbeki before him, the NPA would bend whichever way the prevailing political wind blew. If the media had taken as strong a stand then in defence of the rule-of-law aspects of our democracy as they are now in defence of its free speech aspects, I would be more inclined to believe today that they were being public-spirited in asking civil society to rally to their cause. It was a missed opportunity and I am reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous statement on his incremental failure to resist the Nazis, how by failing to protect others, he eventually failed to protect himself.
The key question is whether this contest over public space is in itself injurious to democracy. And my short answer is no, precisely because of the complexity of that contest. For example, I will happily welcome the launch of The New Age as an implicitly, or even an explicitly, pro-ANC daily – when it finally gets its presses rolling. After all, when one travels in France and picks up a copy of Libération one knows one is reading a centre-left newspaper, and that with le Figaro, one is reading a right-wing newspaper. Perhaps the time of all South Africa’s mainstream newspapers huddling safely in the political middle, proclaiming bland constitutionalism to be their only creed, is over. Now they can feel free to express their genuine orientations, interests and prejudices, to nail their colours to the mast in the spirit if not style of Daily Sun. I will also answer no as to whether the contest of ideas polarizes us: once the democratic genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to force it back in, if only because its sheer, expansive size is no longer confinable in such a small space. Those social, political and economic complexities that apartheid tried to divide-and-rule, have now meshed together and the process, while seldom smooth, is irreversible. This is not to say that new democracies do not have fragilities and that they will not perhaps suffer reversals of some elements of their hard-won freedoms from time to time, ground that will have to be won back, but that the tide of history is on the side of greater freedom of expression and thus of the media that convey it. The question of whether smaller reversals can be prevented is based on the depth of implantation of democratic practice and the strength of institutions such as my own that facilitate that implantation. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we will have to recognise that the state itself is no democracy, rather it is akin to a bureaucratic army; and businesses are very seldom run as democracies, enlightened autocracy being the best we can expect from them. And so the task of ensuring that the balance remains tilted in favour of socially-responsible freedoms rests with other interest groups, whether formally organised or not: civil society, labour, political organisations, faith-based communities, community-based organisations, the media. This is not to grant any of these the status of unalloyed champion of democracy, however, because all are exceptionally diverse realms in themselves where progressive and reactionary ideas clash continually; but that’s the substance of a democracy and should not in itself be of concern to free speech advocates.
What are of concern, of course, are statutory media restrictions. But I believe that the advocates of the Secrecy Bill have realised that they have overreached themselves in pushing for a law that they would balk at having applied against themselves (the sure litmus test of fairness), and that before it is passed into law, it will be substantively softened in deference to the domestic and international pressures being exerted to bring it into line with democratic norms. We may have a tougher time arguing against the ICASA Amendment and Public Service Broadcasting Bills, if only because their drawing of the SABC closer under the skirts of the communications minister is nowhere near as wildly intemperate as the Secrecy Bill; but again, a campaign dedicated to ensuring that we never, never, and never again have a his-masters’-voice SABC but rather a genuine public broadcaster will go a long way towards curbing that. The Media Appeals Tribunal remains the wild card, in part because it has not yet been codified into a Bill and remains a vague, formless threat, so we don’t know what its exact content will be, but more precisely because the ANC also claims it is batting for the public interest here: while its own gripes against the current Ombudsman have been shown to be bogus, there are no doubt genuinely aggrieved readers, listeners and viewers who feel slighted at times by an arrogant media, too comfortably assured of its unassailable status as the Fourth Estate – and there is an even broader tinderbox rent-a-crowd out there, ever ready to get out the pitchforks and light the torches whenever the ANC barks against its perceived enemies.
But a bigger threat may be the long-term impact of the recession. After the closure of The Weekender, it is perhaps only a matter of time before other mainstream titles begin to shut down – or at the very least cut their operations down to the bone. Mainstream media houses have already embarked on huge cost-cutting exercises: newsrooms have been trimmed down even beyond what were considered crazy staffing levels only 10 years ago and “expensive” experienced journalists laid off, or like myself faced with the option of languishing in dead-end senior posts or leaving journalism; layoffs have also particularly affected sub-editing staff, the last bulwark of quality journalism. Dire warnings about the demise of the print media are hardly limited to South Africa, however. In the United States for example, venerable mainstream newspapers such as the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News in Colorado have been forced out of business, while even world-class standard-bearers like the New York Times are reeling from the twin blows of the recession and the lock-stock-and-barrel shift of classified advertisers to online services.
Alexander Cockburn, editor of the respected online American political journal CounterPunch, painted a scene of panic about the very future of American democracy in a June 2009 column provocatively titled Who Needs Yesterday’s Papers?: “Sonorous phrases about ‘public service’ mingle with fearful yelps about the ‘dramatically diminished version of democracy’ that looms over America if the old corporate print press goes the way of the steam engine. In The Nation recently, John Nichols and Robert McChesney quavered that ‘as journalists are laid off and newspapers cut back or shut down, whole sectors of our civic life go dark’ and that ‘journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States’.” But Cockburn, who co-wrote the book End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate, stated bluntly that apart from “a brief flare-up of investigative zeal” in the early to mid-1970s, “any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions would issue a negative verdict in every era”. He claimed that the mainstream press had in fact, at every turn since at least the 1930s, failed to serve the public interest, and warned that many would dance on the graves of a mainstream press that avoided reporting coherently on the economic, political, social and environmental processes that affected the lives of their readers. The lesson for us here is clear: unless our media holds the public interest at the core of its operations, we are merely giving ammunition to the demagogues who would see the media turned into the mouthpiece of vested interests. And against this backdrop, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism has a clear mandate: to remain a lighthouse of progressive, quality, socially-uplifting, cutting-edge, public-spirited journalism training on the continent.