If the ANC is really concerned about the quality and honesty of the media, such noble motives should reflect in the quality and honesty of its discourse on this hot-potato issue. It didn’t do so during Tuesday’s media conference.
It’s always a cheap shot to suggest in writing that listening to a Jackson Mthembu-delivered ANC statement on the media was a sobering experience (We see that didn’t stop you though – Ed). But when it comes to the current discussions around the media, sobriety matters. It also matters what kinds of words you use, how you say them and what you actually mean, as much of the current debate around the press and the proposed media appeals tribunal appears to be caught in a sort of broad-brush stroke hysteria. “The ANC hates the media” says one side, and “wants to kill us off.” “You started it” says the other, “and you deserve what you’ve got coming to you. Oh, and we have the ‘people’, government and right on our side.”
The people involved in this debate matter. As anyone who remembers the Caster Semenya debacle will confirm, Mthembu is not someone who chooses his words carefully. He’s learnt on the job, sure, but remember that a spokesperson is appointed as such in the ANC because they’re senior enough, and trusted enough by all concerned. The actual competence of that person, their understanding of the nuances of TV, radio, print and the Internet comes a little way after that. So when the ANC is quoted as saying that journalists “will be arrested” if they get things wrong, they’ve only got themselves to blame. Even though Mthembu seems to have now realised that may have been the wrong thing to say.
When it comes to regulating the media anywhere in the world, you have two rather stark choices. If you want to stop people writing crap, you have to throw them in jail. If you throw them in jail, you’re a police state. If you let people speak and think freely, others (particularly the poor) will be abused. If you don’t, you may as well resurrect Idi Amin and give him the keys. Somewhere between those two extremes you have to find a happy medium.
In this country, the media groups are fairly large and there is a degree of concentration. The ANC tends to confuse that with making money. Newspapers generally don’t make much money, and in South Africa there have been particular circumstances that inhibited investment by newspaper groups. And in the case of the Independent Group of newspapers, there has been a particularly colonial and imperialist practice of taking profits out of the country. But Avusa in particular has the resources to pay any fines imposed by government for a certain amount of time. So for the media appeals tribunal to have the chilling effect feared by some in the media, either a newspaper would have to be closed down, or a journalist would have to go to jail. Even a group as seemingly hell-bent on these as is the ANC would find that difficult to achieve.
But we digress. Just as reporters are accused of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, the ANC, as represented by Mthembu, has never let the facts get in the way of a good argument. This is borne out by Pierre de Vos’s excellent article on “ConstitutionallySpeaking” this week in which he points out that if the ANC wants to protect the poor, it should be targeting the tabloids. These are the papers that publish complete fantasy and ruin lives. They target the poor and those who don’t conform to their own narrow standards of propriety, and put them on the front page. Indeed, in the UK just about every “media story” is about the clash between celebrity and tabloid, or privacy vs. paparazzi. Which shows up the ANC’s main arguments to be really about protecting the already rich and powerful.
Both the ANC and government have repeated the refrain over the past few weeks that they will protect media freedom, that they will not behave in an unconstitutional manner. After last week’s arrest of Mzilikazi wa Afrika we are right to respond “why the hell should we believe you”. But we should also take a good look at ourselves. Most journalists know that if they get something wrong, the chances of them losing their job, or their reputation are pretty small. This is where the ANC is on vaguely firmer ground.
But then Mthembu misses the goalmouth completely and says a tribunal “will assist editors” by providing a deterrent. And when he seems to believe that journalists control editors, well, he’s just making that up. And his claim that the media tribunal will “help” editors in their work is a pure Orwellian construction.
The media should change, but for the better. There should be consequences for getting it wrong, with a different scale for getting it wrong intentionally, and unintentionally. There also needs to be an understanding that sometimes people will lie to reporters deliberately, and official sources will not confirm or deny the claim. But the ANC, and thus this government simply can’t be the people in charge of determining whether something was incorrect, or what sanction should be applied. And it cannot be the ANC at arm’s length either. Turning media into government’s pr department would condemn this country to a one-party system for the foreseeable future.
Any media body should be led by reasonable people, capable of seeing the facts through the hype, and of listening as well as talking. This country needs them now, needs them very much.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)