Do We Need an Independent Media Tribunal?

by Aug 5, 2010All Articles

By Jeremy Cronin

It is generally considered unwise for a politician to debate critically with the media through the media about the media. You don’t exactly enjoy home-ground advantage.

This has been obvious in recent weeks with the re-surfacing of the debate around the ANC’s 2007 national conference resolution on an independent media tribunal. There has been a back-lash barrage of negative editorial comment directed against the three or four ANC and Alliance comrades who have had the temerity to raise the tribunal proposal again.

Yet beneath the negative barrage some interesting issues have emerged. In the first place, notice how senior journalists are divided on whether to respond positively to ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s invitation to have an open and frank discussion on the matter at Luthuli House.

While unhappy with the tribunal proposal, Rapport columnist Jan-Jan Joubert nonetheless criticises a certain “English-language newspaper editor” for not taking up the opportunity of a frank engagement with the ANC. I assume Joubert is referring to Business Day’s Peter Bruce, who in his own weekly column this Monday confirms that he will not be attending the meeting “on principle”. Clearly Bruce is only prepared to play when there is home-ground advantage.

But in his previous week’s “Thick End of the Wedge” column Bruce himself made a number of enlightening admissions. Bruce conceded that the present self-regulatory, print media ombud arrangement is woefully inadequate. He also noted that when newspapers were required to publish an apology they often buried it obscurely, in contrast to the original offending story which might have been emblazoned in a prominent place. Bruce assured us that as editor, at least of Business Day, he would always seek to publish an apology on the same page as the original.

And, indeed, true to his word, within a week, this Monday the Business Day was carrying a front page apology to Minister Siphiwe Nyanda. The paper apologised to Minister Nyanda for a story alleging intended corruption in the suspension of his Director General. The story had been based on a single unnamed source, and the newspaper’s apology conceded that this was “shoddy” journalism.

Bruce (or is it the renewed call for a media tribunal?) seems to have triggered a fashion for apologies. The very next day, The Times carried its own rather half-hearted apology (but an apology nonetheless) for having run a story on Monday headlined “Jail journalists – Nzimande”. The newspaper conceded that our General Secretary had not said this at the SACP’s 89th anniversary rally in Rustenburg.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. While The Times was busying being apologetic on Tuesday, the Business Day, having done its apologetic thing on Monday, was now running an editorial attacking cde Nzimande for “getting so excited at the prospect of sending a journalist to jail”. Presumably this editorial claim was based on a single source once more – in this case, the erroneous story in The Times!

Media stories, especially sensational allegations about prominent personalities, have legs of their own. Saying sorry after the event is just not good enough. Sorry doesn’t undo the damage, whether the sorry is prominently displayed or obscurely tucked away.

Clearly, we’ve got a problem. In fact, we’ve got several media problems. Part of the confusion in the debate around the proposed media tribunal is that ALL of these problems tend to be lumped together. The tribunal is presented either as a solution to them all, or as a sinister non-solution.

It would be wrong to see a tribunal as the solution to all media problems. For instance, within the ANC-led alliance there is considerable frustration with the fact that much of the print media, in particular, appears to have adopted a narrowly anti-ANC oppositionist stance. Remember the orgiastic media froth at the launch of COPE? Notice how stories about the SACP and COSATU are all too often anchored around the forlorn but endlessly repeated conviction that we will split from the ANC. These are irritations for us, but they are not the kind of thing that could or should be sorted out in a tribunal.

Related to this oppositionist inclination is the media’s view that it is a watch-dog over those in power (usually those in political rather than economic power). The media certainly needs to play a watch-dog role. There are many examples before and after 1994 of journalists exposing wrong-doing in high places and we should salute those who have done so. However, there are times when watch-dog zealotry displaces other roles of the media – like helping ordinary citizens with accurate information on matters that affect their daily lives. But, again, the question of getting this balance right is not really a matter for a tribunal – except where there are spurious and ungrounded allegations masquerading as blowing the whistle.

Another big problem is the ownership of media. Two major corporations dominate the newspaper business – the Independent Newspaper group and Media24/Naspers. One recent attempt to break this monopoly, the Nigerian-financed This Day soon became…well, Yesterday. It was marginalised not on the basis of its editorial content, but because the two big corporations dominate everything from paper supplies to distribution networks. This might be something that the Competition Commission could consider but, again, it is not properly a matter for the proposed tribunal.

There is another problem with the Independent Group. It is foreign-owned and while its local papers are turning a profit, its foreign newspapers are in serious trouble. According to many journalists working on so-called “Independent” newspapers in SA, surplus from SA is being pumped out to prop up failing titles elsewhere. Newsrooms are being squeezed locally. Experienced journalists are being retrenched and junior journalists are being deployed to cover stories for which they are ill equipped. Again, while these dynamics are no doubt partly responsible for the grievous inaccuracies that often occur, the question of media ownership as such is not a matter for a tribunal. The democratisation of the media and the fostering of a diversity of voices is a battle to be fought on other terrains.

Writing in Sunday’s City Press, in his capacity as a freshly appointed “in-house ombudsman” (another too-little, too-late self-regulatory move?), Mathatha Tsedu, quite candidly concedes that Media24’s ownership transformation exercise has been a “joke”. However, he assures us that ownership personalities are largely irrelevant, it is the editorial staff that determine content. All that the effective Media24 owners worry about, he tells us, is making a profit – “if the target market is lapping the newspaper off the stands, they let the content managers be.”

But, contrary to what Tsedu appears to assume, this is NOT reassuring at all. If editorial “independence” swings on profit maximisation, then we will tend to get exactly what we are often getting. Trashy tabloids aimed at the working class, and acres of middle-class whingeing in what passes for serious journalism. In short, journalism that panders to the lowest common denominator in its target audience.

Let me stress that these are tendencies, not the whole picture. There are many positive features in our media. There are thoughtful commentators and plenty of professional journalists. There is much lively public phone-in participation on our radio stations and an impressive array of local community broadcasters.

So why do we need to consider having an independent media tribunal?

It should certainly not be about taming the media into being docile lap-dogs for the ruling party or government. We cannot go back to that pre-1994 past. Nor should it be about getting even with individual journalists, still less packing people off to jail. The stories of an individual journalist are seldom simply his or her work alone – from a collective news conference’s allocation of assignments, through a sub-editor’s dodgy headline, to the general ambience of competitive and money-making pressures, what appears as an individual story in the media is essentially a collective, institutional product. If a tribunal is to have some teeth – say the levying of fines – then these should be imposed on the business and not the individual.

We DO need a reliable and independent institutional mechanism to which members of the public, including (but not only) high-profile personalities, can take concerns around grievous misrepresentation and unethical reporting. So what about the courts? Civil action against libel needs, of course, to be an option, but it is costly, prolonged and often inconclusive. Won’t the independence of a tribunal appointed by and reporting to parliament run the risk of being compromised by a dominant majority party? It’s possible, but I believe that the example of our Human Rights Commission and latterly of the Public Protector demonstrate a different trajectory.

One thing’s for sure, as this week’s carnival of newspaper apologies demonstrates – self-regulation on its own simply isn’t working.


From “Red Alert” the electronic newsletter of the South African Communist Party (SACP) – Volume 9, No. 15, 4 August 2010

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