Ipsa scientia potestas est
1 August 2014 09:39 (South Africa)
Opinionista Julie Reid

Media freedom debacles aside, the press is failing us

  • Julie Reid
South Africa is fighting for media freedom, but I’m not always sure why – since even when journalists have freedom in theory, they seem to spend an awful lot of time parroting the ‘official’ standpoints on the country’s most burning issues. Why?

Let me be clear. There is a small collection of really courageous journalists and editors in this country who consistently and tenaciously produce outstanding work in their dogged pursuit of the truths that matter, and ferociously battle to keep the reading public informed, sometimes at great personal cost. This column is not about them.

This column is about the flip side: the much larger number of journalists and publications who are rubbish.

Since mid-2010, anyone interested in media freedom and freedom of expression has been swept up in a state of hysterics and anxiety. Media people, civil society and activists, and media academics have been on a knife-edge of nervousness because of the twin threats to press freedom posed by the Protection of State Information Bill and the ANC’s proposed Media Appeals Tribunal.

The thorough reviews of the press regulatory system, by the Press Council and the Press Freedom Commission, offered two rare opportunities to decipher the factors prevailing in the press sector which result in poor quality journalism. This did not happen. But neither the Press Council nor the Press Freedom Commission can necessarily be blamed for that.

Prior to the start of the very first set of public hearings held in either process of review, in February 2011, I wrote a column in which I stated that the Press Council’s review was due to take place amid an atmosphere of “poisoned air”. The self-same atmosphere persisted throughout the Press Freedom Commission’s review.

To its infinite credit, the Press Council took a brave stand in refusing to bow to political pressure from the ANC or anyone else. The same cannot be said about the Press Freedom Commission, whose eventual report delivered to the ANC almost precisely what the ruling party had asked for, and was a thinly veiled political compromise.

But the point is that both processes were framed and directed by the reality of the twin monsters of the Secrecy Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal. We all knew very well that this was why we were there, and as a result, many discussions revolved around ways to protect press freedom, and on producing a regulatory system for the press with which we could all live. The general quality of journalistic reporting was not high on the agenda.

When a government or a particularly powerful ruling party starts to give the press even an inkling that it has set its regulatory sights on the way in which the press operates, media people go on the instantaneous and emotional offensive. As they should. Media freedom is massively important and must be defended with vigour. But in an atmosphere of threat, where press folk feel as if they are on the back-foot, it’s metaphorical suicide to try to open up discussions about what the press does wrong and how to fix it.

So the Press Council and Press Freedom Commission reviews were a lost opportunity for constructive self-criticism. The threatening atmosphere, which had us all feeling that press freedom was at stake, was never going to produce a platform on which to debate how and why the press errs (on occasion). We were too busy making arguments about how and why the government should be kept strictly away from the regulation of press content in the interest of freedom of expression to be able to turn our critical lens onto the press itself and perform some deep introspection.

But it is time now to do that. I say this because we are at a critical juncture in the history of our country and the press, most of it, has behaved in a manner that is more than disappointing. This is a disaster because when considering the press’s important role in promoting the citizenry’s right to access to information, it is precisely at historical nodal points such as these that we rely on the press to be really on the ball.

The police are an organ of state and therefore representative of government. So, when the police begin to respond to upheaval of any kind with maximum and deadly force (whether or not this is explained away by reasons of self-defence) it boils down to the government (or at least its representatives) killing citizens. In South Africa, we recently witnessed how the state punished a collective act of rebellion by spontaneously meting out the death penalty. This is huge. Social scientists will easily tell you that the killing at Marikana is both massively significant, and also most likely signals a disturbing alteration of trajectory of our “democracy”.

We were probably heading in a very different direction to what some of us still thought we were prior to Marikana, but Marikana cracked open the mythology of the ever-miraculous-Rainbow-Nation-new-democracy, dispelling that myth entirely. If the killing of Andries Tatane was not enough for you, it is now quite obvious to everyone that we are in the ‘kak’. We need the press to be on top of this. But mostly, they have not been.

It was an academic, Peter Alexander, and not a journalist, who first gave us an idea that the magnitude of police violence on 16 August was catastrophically greater that what was visible on the television footage of the Marikana shooting. Alexander and his team of researchers worked the scene, recording evidence and interviewing eye-witnesses. In doing so, they came up with a very different version of events to the one originally reported in the press. But why didn’t any journalists do this? If it had not been for the revelations in Greg Marinovich’s article on 30 August, would any of us have known about the killing site at Small Koppie where 13 persons appear to have been shot at close range?

Marinovich spent two weeks putting that story together. Why was he the only one? Jared Sacks, also not a journalist, spent a week living in the Nkaneng settlement interviewing people there. He discovered that the killing started earlier than originally reported, and described a violent scene of deadly conflict between NUM leaders and strikers. He also listed a number of misrepresentations of events which had been widely reported in the media. Prof Jane Duncan (again, not a journalist) conducted an analysis of newspaper articles published in the week after the shooting, with a view to the sources of information referenced in the articles. This revealed that miners, who were eye-witnesses to the events, were quoted an abysmal 3% of the time (other sources included representatives from political parties, NUM, AMCU, the police and mine managers). Of these 3% of interviewed miners, most were asked about the alleged muti-rituals performed among the strikers prior to the shooting. Only one miner was asked what really happened. He said that it was the police who fired the first shots.

The knock-on effect of this is that miners/strikers voices were almost entirely excluded from the press coverage, and the press, for its part, became the willing mouth-piece for the ‘official’ (empowered) voices of the unions, politicians and mine-bosses. Howzat for mass mediated ideologically inspired propaganda?

This may not have been a conscious action on the part of most journalists involved. It’s understandable that when chasing a looming deadline, it’s simply much faster (easier) to re-word (or cut-and-paste) a parliamentary statement or a Lonmin press release than it is to engage in the time-consuming effort of venturing into an informal settlement, negotiating one’s way in, and then talking at length with the people there. But the latter, in this case, is what was badly required. Considering where this column is published, this is going to sound like bias and I accept that: but as a media analyst, I challenge you to find another print media or online news platform which has delivered the depth and detail of reporting on Marikana as the Daily Maverick journalists have done. They have put the rest of the press to shame.

The press sector needs to address seriously how to improve its quality of reporting. We need to begin a national conversation which tables the barriers to in-depth reporting, including the difficulties faced by journalists in the newsroom and in the field. Journalists will scream that it’s excruciatingly difficult to provide in-depth investigative reporting when faced with impossibly tight daily deadlines. It’s a fair point. So we need to start talking about ways in which to invest in more in-depth investigative reporting, and strategies to free up at least some journalists’ time, allowing them to really get to grips with a story before rushing it to publication.

Sensationalism in reporting and the reasons for this, as opposed to responsibly informed reporting, needs to be discussed. There are great examples of publications that create productive spaces for investigative reporting (such as the Amabhungane unit at the Mail & Guardian) but they are too few, and a survey of the journalism that such platforms produce is dominated with stories of state corruption, tender fraud and general high-level nastiness.

All of that is important, but we also need to hear the stories from the other end of the social spectrum, from the people on the ground who are the most acute recipients of government failings. We also need to hear the stories of people like the people who live in Marikana. We need to talk about how we can make that happen.

It’s time now to forget about what the ANC wants with the press. If the ANC takes this Media Appeals Tribunal thing to Parliament, sure, of course, the press freedom activists will all be there, guns blazing – and we will let them have it. But we also need to have our own conversation. And let us leave them out of this. In fact, let us leave all the bloody politicians out of this (who frankly, all of them, each one of them, have an obvious personal interest in how the press gets held accountable). I do not give a damn what Luthuli House wants in this regard.

For the moment, I am done talking about how to best protect the press from the politicians. Let us start talking about how the press can best serve the public. Full stop. DM

  • Julie Reid
julie reid

Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly from @jbjreid and writes about media policy debates and the state of media freedom in South Africa. Julie is the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM), and an active member of the Right2Know campaign. She is involved in various media policy research projects, has published research in the field of media studies and edited a book on South African visual culture.


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