South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

Op-Ed: Media’s big debate about itself, the facts edition

Op-Ed: Media’s big debate about itself, the facts edition

It's been an interesting week in the interface between politics and the media, with many questions raised about the role, and agenda, of the media. It started with a column by the editor-in-chief of The New Age and ANN7, Moegsien Williams. That sparked a response from Yours Truly, which in turn elicited a slightly annoyed missive from Lumko Mtimde. At the same time, the editor of The Citizen newspaper, Steven Motale, wrote a long piece in his newspaper, in which he said he wanted to publicly apologise to President Jacob Zuma for accepting the media message that Zuma was corrupt. The timing of all of this led to the more conspiratorial among us to mutter darkly. Whether deliberate or not, none of this should not go unchallenged. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

I must point out right at the beginning here that I carry no mandate, no torch, no holy writ from any person or body to write on behalf of them. Everything in this piece is my opinion, and mine alone. I cannot and do not claim to be writing on behalf of “the media” as a whole, because such a body simply does not exist. That is the point of a free media, to have a whole variety of views. Oh, and yes, I did cover the trial of Schabir Shaik in its entirety.

That said, let’s begin with The Citizen editor Steven Motale’s piece. Again, let me be clear here: Motale has a full and inalienable right to his opinion. However, he does not enjoy such freedom with the facts.

It would be tempting to say he gets it wrong from the beginning, with his opening line: “It all started in 2005, when Judge Hilary Squires handed down judgment to Schabir Shaik, financial advisor of the then Deputy President Jacob Zuma.” Tempting, because it started long before the Squires judgment. It started when the Scorpions (as they then were) started investigating Zuma. That led to the famous quote by Bulelani Ngcuka that he was not going to prosecute Zuma, “despite there being prima facie evidence of corruption against him”. Motale of course goes on to say that “unlike many among us I have gone to the trouble of reading Squires’ judgment” and he is convinced that it made no findings against Zuma.

But even if we let this one fly by, it is not a make or break issue. As important as it is, there is a much bigger, fundamental problem:

Motale is looking at the wrong judgment.

The ruling by Squires was appealed. First to the Supreme Court of Appeal, and then to the Constitutional Court. It is to their rulings that we must look, as their findings both agree, and then supersede, the findings of Squires. Which means that in the end, it is the view of the Constitutional Court that matters, and not the findings of Squires.

The Constitutional Court, in fact, heard two cases from Shaik; the first was his appeal against his convictions and sentence, the second was against the forfeiture of his assets, which were taken by the state as they were the proceeds of the crimes for which he was convicted.

In that second ruling, the media summary of judgment states simply:

In a judgment delivered this morning (Kate) O’Regan ADCJ, writing for a unanimous Court, dismissed the appeal by Mr Shaik and his two companies. After analysing the parties’ factual and legal arguments, she concluded that the state had established, as a matter of fact, that both benefits flowed to Mr Shaik and the Nkobi companies as a result of Mr Zuma’s support for Mr Shaik and his companies, as evidenced at least by his intervention on 2 July 1998. That intervention led to the appellants obtaining a stake in ADS, from which considerable financial benefits flowed.

The key words here are that:

…”benefits flowed to Mr Shaik … as a result of Mr Zuma’s support for Mr Shaik”.

If that is not a statement that Zuma intervened on behalf of Shaik in return for cash, then what is? That the court did not use the phrase “generally corrupt” is not the issue, what is the issue is that Shaik paid money to Zuma, and Zuma acted in Shaik’s interests in response. That is corruption.

There are those pedants who will point out that a media summary by the Constitutional Court is expressly not legally binding on the court. But in the formal judgment, Judge O’Regan says:

“I have found that the benefits of the shareholding and the dividends did result from Mr Zuma’s intervention on behalf of the appellants (ie Shaik).”

In the words of the Constitutional Court. What more is there to say, Steven Motale?

Incidentally, even if Motale was correct in that no court said Zuma had engaged in corrupt activity, what happened to the money Zuma was paid by Shaik? In 2009, the day after Mokotedi Mpshe announced that the charges against Zuma were going to be dropped, Zuma appeared in the High Court in Durban (in fact, in the same courtroom that hosted the Shaik trial for so long). Immediately after that, Zuma held a press conference in a nearby hotel. At one point I asked him what the money was that Shaik had paid to him. When no answer was forthcoming, I interrupted the next question and asked again. I will never forget the look and the retort from Jessie Duarte on live TV at the time. Zuma said simply: “It was a loan.” Which the courts had all found it was not.

And there is no evidence to suggest that Zuma has ever paid that ‘loan’ back.

All of this means that Motale’s interpretation of this issue is, at the very least, badly misplaced. He has not interpreted this correctly, and he has not looked at the right judgment. The fuss over the phrase “generally corrupt” is a mountain being made out of a molehill: Squires indeed never used that phrase in his judgment, journalists (including myself) were indeed wrong to ascribe the quote to him, but that doesn’t change the fundamental findings of his judgment, of the ruling of the Supreme Court of Appeal or of the Constitutional Court.

And as Motale’s entire argument is built on that pillar, it is reasonable to expect that the entire construction is faulty and cannot stand.

Right, with that off my chest, on to the debate around the role of the media.

On Sunday, City Press published a piece by Moegsien Williams, in which he suggested that the media should not be so oppositional to government and the African National Congress (ANC), demanding there should be “solution based journalism” and that the anger of some in government and the alliance towards the media was not misplaced. I responded, suggesting that the only reason people felt under attack by the media was because journalists were telling uncomfortable truths.

Former Media Development and Diversity Agency CEO Lumko Mtimde then responded to my piece. He seems to feel strongly that I was incorrect to say that Williams was “wrong”. In fact, he has an issue with the use of that word.

Well, sometimes, things, ideas, suggestions, interpretations are just wrong. Williams was just plain wrong. This is a contest of ideas, it is an arena: nobody likes being called “wrong”. Sometimes it is merited and I believe that this is such a case. So, I will repeat: Moegsien Williams (and Lumko Mtimde), you are wrong.

Mtimde interprets Williams as suggesting that the media must “also report good stories, assist in constructing a better life for all, and take our country forward”. As I have said previously, what is a “good story” and what is a “bad story”? Mtimde does not engage with this, he merely proves my point by suggesting that my aside that the Springboks losing to Argentina before a World Cup is the only thing we could agree is “bad news” is also wrong, because some people would not see it that way, as they believe rugby has not transformed. Well, yes Mtimde, nothing can be considered wholly good or wholly bad, it is always bad for somebody. So, then, what is “good news journalism” anyway? I have seen no examples of this, even on the SABC.

This idea of “solution-based journalism” is also misguided. It is not up to journalists to find solutions to problems. That is what academics and researchers are for, media organisations simply don’t have a mandate, or even resources, to find solutions. What we can do is provide a platform for academics and researchers. Just because the government and the ANC don’t like the advice an expert may give (such as make it easier to hire and fire workers, or not to impose draconian visa regulations, or to privatise state-owned enterprises, and a ton of other good advice that gets waived away by the government) doesn’t mean we aren’t doing our job. It only means the ANC doesn’t like the solutions being proposed.

Actually, journalists can “assist in constructing a better life for all”. They do it by reporting the news, by telling the truth. Clearly the point has to be made again that news is the unexpected, not the expected. Corruption is unexpected, a housing project being finished on time is expected. That is why we spend more energy and time on corruption. Williams takes issue with this, asking if that is case why do we not report on the inequality in our nation, as that is surely not “normal”. Well, we do report on it, constantly, in different ways and through different stories. Virtually every discussion about the economy, jobs, mining, Marikana, electricity, water provision, protests, violence and race is about just that, inequality. One does not need to expend much mental energy to understand that it is exactly what some South African media brands, this one included, have dedicated themselves to. Day in, day out, we report, analyse and opine on the staggering inequality that plagues this country and threatens to pull us back into the hell we all thought we escaped in 1994.

On Wednesday night, I took part (briefly) in a debate with Williams and Mtimde on ANN7 (they were in the studio but, due to a prior commitment, I was on the phone). Williams said I had been “ad hominem” in my response to him, and that he was going to do the same to me by asking what I knew about the history of the ANC. He suggested that I didn’t know enough about the history of the organisation, and thus I did not properly understand it. Well, perhaps. But the history of the ANC under OR Tambo has very little bearing on the behaviour of the ANC today, it is a different party. It also has little bearing on the current deep crisis this country is being pulled into, in great part thanks to the leadership. Thabo Mbeki’s ANC was different to Nelson Mandela’s, Zuma’s ANC is different, and many are struggling to recognise the party that brought freedom to millions.

As just a brief illustration of this, the one fundamental structure of the ANC that one needs to understand now to have any hope of predicting the outcome of leadership and policy debates in conferences, is how the provincial structure of the party works. Before 1990, the ANC did not have provinces.

Mtimde also suggests it is wrong to claim that this anger at the media is only the result of our reporting on Nkandla and other scandals. He points out that Zuma issued a proclamation to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to investigate what went wrong there. Well, no, firstly Zuma sat on the proclamation for some considerable time. Secondly, that proclamation was worded in a way that meant the SIU could only investigate the way contractors inflated their bills. In other words, the SIU did not investigate who designed the upgrades and who made the decisions that there be a “firepool” or a cattle culvert. It is a good example of Zuma controlling the process. But Mtimde misses the point: of course no one is going to openly say “we are angry at the media because of Nkandla”. But it is transparent what the main reason is for the discussion we currently have.

Mtimde also takes issue with my claim that the views of media organisations are often “the sum of the people who work there”. Well, of course editors and sub-editors have louder voices in these organisations than junior reporters. That is obvious. But many of those editors and sub-editors are black. I am still failing to understand WHO those all-knowing evil white geniuses that are so effectively muzzling the entirety of South African media and stoping it from development and transformation are? Mtimde’s entire argument would be much stronger if he let us have those names.

And as for the white owners, my primary employer, Primedia Broadcasting, is owned by the National Union of Mineworkers, very much part of the ANC alliance.

Interestingly, a sub-argument that often comes through from people who agree with Mtimde (and Williams), is that black journalists are prevented from publishing their own views, even when they are the editors themselves. It’s an argument that states that they are either too junior, or too poor, to resist the opinion and the culture of the organisation they are working for. It is surely an insulting claim to make: you’re essentially saying that some journalists are unable to speak up just because they are black. It also assumes that people must agree with those making this argument just because they are black, in other words all black people think alike.

Really? So Mondli Makhanya, Ferial Haffajjee and Mpumelelo Mkhabela say what they say because they are scared? Okay then. I would really love to be a fly on that wall when you tell them that.

Mtimde points out that there are many errors made by media organisations. Yes, that is true. Of course no-one, including the media organisations, wants that. How would any kind of government regulation fix that? It would not. It would simply leave journalists worrying about what they need to leave out, for fear that their publication could be shut down. Which would mean there would almost no coverage of scandals, or anything controversial at all. Perhaps that chilling effect would be the best solution for many in power today.

Mtimde concludes by saying that the big question is who decides what we will see, hear and experience and what we don’t. Of course that’s true, and that is the big question. There is no evidence whatsoever that any government, or any politician, or anyone appointed by any politician, can be trusted to answer that question for all of us. A strong, responsible, honest, independent media is the fourth pillar of every healthy society. We all should strive towards it. DM

Photo by Stacie DaPonte.

Read More:

  • Steven Motale on why he’s apologising to Zuma, in Citizen;
  • The Judgement of the Supreme Court of Appeal in the Shaik case;
  • The Constitutional Court ruling on Shaik’s criminal appeal;
  • The Constitutional Court ruling on the forfeiture of Shaik’s assets;
  • Op-Ed: Dear Mogsien Williams, it is about truth, in Daily Maverick.
  • Lumko Mtimde’s response, in Daily Maverick.

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