OP-ED

Journalism plays a critical role in the scrutiny of public life

By Anton Harber 16 July 2020

Illustrative image | sources: (Photo: EPA-EFE/CAROLINE BLUMBERG) Press Freedom / Media Freedom / Journalism

At a time when there is devastation in the news media industry, what gives us hope are the pockets of excellent coverage, whether it is in coverage of the pandemic, or investigative reporting. We get faith from those few individuals who remain dedicated to journalism as the Fourth Estate, and who see it is, above all, a public service.

We live in a time when crises seem to be piling up on top of crises. Who would have thought the existential threat of climate change could be pushed down the agenda by a more immediate threat, as the Covid-19 pandemic has done? And on top of this, we have a second pandemic, that of mis- and dis- and mal-information. In the midst of these great challenges swirling around us, we are experiencing the rapid shrinking of our journalistic world, as advertising disappears, print titles close or are threatened with closure, hundreds of our fellow journalists face the threat of losing their jobs, a number have had their pay slashed, and worse seems likely to come. 

According to the SA National Editors’ Forum, SANEF, during the pandemic, at least 80 small, local publishing houses have closed their doors, around 700 journalists have lost their jobs, the Freelancers Association reports that 60% of their membership had lost around 70% of their income – and now we face further retrenchments at Media24, SABC and Primedia.

This is a picture of devastation in the news media industry. We know this is not local – in the US, as many as 25% of newspapers have closed in the last decade, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

And we know it is not caused by Covid-19. The pandemic has accelerated what was happening, cutting short our time to adapt, to move to online, digital media and find a way to sustain journalism when the traditional business model of news media has collapsed. 

But the overall result is that at a time when the flow of reliable news and information, debate and discussion is more important than ever to deal with these multi-layered crises, we in the news media find ourselves with fewer resources to deal with these issues. That means we leave the space open to those who peddle disinformation to disrupt democracy, to sow discord, to mislead.

It is timely to evoke the memory of Barry Streek. Different people will have different memories of a multi-faceted person like Barry Streek, but what I recall – and want to emphasise today – are two elements of his legacy. The first is that he was nothing more and nothing less than a dedicated, professional reporter, committed to the task of finding the news, getting it out there, and explaining it as best he could, the hard slog of everyday reporting and the scrutiny of public life that is the basic public service of journalism. It was his lifelong calling, and one he answered with rare consistency and reliability.

I recall Barry ploughing through the tomes of parliamentary reports to find the titbits that made news, those bits that bureaucrats tried to hide amid the volumes of paper and which we needed to know. He wasn’t motivated by money or fame, but by the public service of good, solid, accountability reporting. I know it well because apart from the work he did for his employer, he did it for us at the Weekly Mail on the side. We could barely pay him, but he wanted the news out and was not concerned that he could not put his name to it. It was public service and that is what defines journalism at its finest.

I evoke this because we are seeing now – as a result of the shrinking of newsrooms and the loss of titles – less and less of this regular daily reporting of the critical elements of our society. The information we need to nourish our democracy and repair our economy – what is happening in Parliament, the courts, the factories, the streets, local government, the schools, the hospitals – these critical minutiae that breathe life into citizenship and empower us to be active citizens and not just live as subjects, this reporting, this work by people like Barry, is diminishing. 

Smaller newsrooms mean less reporting and less good reporting. And it means that citizens may not have the reliable information they need to be active and engaged citizens.

Barry was a political reporter at a time of heightened conflict. I can’t remember Barry writing a report that wasn’t balanced, fair, fact-based and as complete as possible under the circumstances. Yet one had no doubt where his sympathies lay, where he stood on the big issues, what his values were. 

Social media might often alert us to events that happen in public, but what we have less and less of is the reporter who scrutinises the minutes and financials of their local town council, and warns us that the numbers don’t add up, or the water system is being neglected. Now we learn of the collapse of effective local government after the fact, when the auditor general reports it, or the water stops running. Journalism should play the absolutely critical role of society’s early alert system and we can no longer do that.

We know also that disinformation is not new, but that it has become much more rampant and destructive through social media. By disinformation, I am not talking about errors of fact or gossip, but the deliberate and malign manipulation of news with the intention of sowing division and conflict in our society and undermining our democracy. 

It is rife and we know that it was a significant factor in the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote. We also see that untruths about Covid-19 have helped it spread and cost lives. Never has the work of journalists – to research, to verify, to edit, to select, to separate fact from fiction – been more important. And never have we been in as weak a position to deal with it.

There is another aspect of Barry’s legacy that is important to remember at this time. Barry was a political reporter at a time of heightened conflict. I can’t remember Barry writing a report that wasn’t balanced, fair, fact-based and as complete as possible under the circumstances. Yet one had no doubt where his sympathies lay, where he stood on the big issues, what his values were. 

We saw then and we are seeing now, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and worldwide, that journalists are forced to confront their own positions, views and biases. This is a good thing, as we cannot claim to be magically and uniquely free of bias or racism or prejudice. And hopefully being more self-aware will help us cut through prejudice and bias. At the same time, we can’t be neutral on matters of principle, we are not and should not be neutral on racism or inequality, for example. We have values, and we hold them – and allow them to inform our journalism – proudly.

This is important to remember at a time when we see many of our political reporters playing not just a party-political role, but a role in intra-party factionalism. It seems to me the successful skill of a good political reporter is to be fair and balanced and dedicated to truth-telling, but also to imbue one’s work with a sense of fundamental democratic and social values. Not to pretend to be objective, or value-free, but also not to play party and intra-party politics. 

We don’t see enough today of political reporters whose first obligation is to truth-telling and public service, who are there to serve fundamental values rather than partisanship. It is a difficult path to tread, and tempting to veer off it, but it is the root of good, solid, fact-based reporting, and that is what Barry is remembered for.

Recently, my colleague Max du Preez, delivering the keynote address at the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Reporting, said that in the face of these challenges, the best thing to do was to produce great, high-quality journalism, to show its value so that it gets public support. He was right, and it was what Barry would have done. Find the story, verify it, complete it, get it out there, move to the next important story.

We have to ask ourselves, where does hope lie for our troubled industry and profession?  We are seeing some of the gaps in our traditional media coverage being filled by small, specialist, non-profit outfits, backed usually by philanthropists. It is to the great credit of some of our business and foundation community that they have recognised the importance of stepping in to fill a gap that the market cannot fill on its own. 

I love the irony when people say that philanthropy is not a sustainable way of backing journalism, when it is the normal market forces, the standard commercial system that is proving unsustainable. At this time and place, philanthropy sometimes seems like the only sustainable solution.

My current book, due out in October 2020, deals with the role the media played in State Capture, and I can tell you that parts of that picture are pretty dark.

And these journalistic outfits, small and specialist as they are, are doing some of the most important and valuable reporting in our society, and feeding it into bigger outlets. I think of GroupUp, of amaBhungane, of Bhekisisa, of Scorpio/Daily Maverick, of Oxpeckers, of New Frame, for example. I am reminded of the 1980s, when there were individuals and groups of journalists who – both in mainstream newsrooms and in the “alternative” media – who continued to find ways to do the journalism that needed to be done under difficult circumstances.

Globally, we see hope in those news publications that have continued to invest in good, trustworthy, unique journalism and have been able to attract online subscribers or members. The frustration for us in South Africa is that this seems to work best in global, high-end publications, like The New York Times, the FT, the Guardian and the Economist. But the fundamental lesson is there: if you produce great content, people will pay for it in one form or another. 

There is a greater hunger than ever for credible, verified, trustworthy, quality information. A good example is the Washington Post: that great paper had been reduced to a money-losing rag, producing very little interesting journalism. When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought it, he had the wisdom to be hands-off on the editorial, but invest in both journalists and technology – and has turned it back into a profitable, respected and important voice.

I am afraid I have lost faith in the capacity of our existing South African media owners to show the kinds of flexibility, innovation, courage and commitment to do what has to be done to turn our industry around. Sadly, our ownership is dominated by short-term cost-cutters who serve themselves rather than the public. Where we need vision, we have myopia.

The rise of the fact-checking industry is heartening, whether it is within newsrooms or in independent organisations like Africa Check. We have to work hard to re-establish the primacy of facts and truth in the wake of an onslaught from social media, dangerous political leaders and second-rate journalists. My current book, due out in October 2020, deals with the role the media played in State Capture, and I can tell you that parts of that picture are pretty dark.

I take hope too from the rising tide of pressure for the social media giants, like Facebook and Twitter, to reform themselves and to start acting against disinformation, hate speech and the capacity of malign autocrats to undermine democracies. I think we often underestimate the danger of a platform like Facebook in the hands of a chief executive who resists taking responsibility for the dangerous abuse of his platform. 

Hopefully, the defeat of an enemy of media freedom and good journalism in the US presidency will lead to greater scrutiny of these platforms and subject them to some socially responsible norms and regulations.

In these difficult times, I believe we must reassert the fundamentals of our calling as journalists: that we seek truth, that we aspire to balance and fairness, that we hold all those who wield power up for scrutiny, that we speak for all of our fellow country-people.

Media Freedom observers have cautioned about the evidence of populist leaders using the Covid-19 pandemic as a cover for action against our media. In our own country, we have accepted emergency media restrictions and will have to be vigilant to ensure there is no temptation to carry these beyond the emergency.

I have emphasised the role of our media in daily coverage, in providing the information we need to operate as active citizens. But there are other roles that are equally important, such as representing all elements of our society and all views in our national debate, and in bringing people together to exchange and share these views, to create a marketplace of the best ideas that we need to shape our economy and our democracy. In all of these things, though, under current pressures, I believe our media is falling short, reflecting and failing to rise above the racial and economic divisions in this society.

What gives us hope, though, are the pockets of excellent coverage, whether it is in coverage of the pandemic, or investigative reporting. We get faith from those few individuals who remain dedicated to journalism as the Fourth Estate, holding the other three up for scrutiny, and who see it is, above all, a public service. We saw it in the extraordinary shortlist for this year’s Taco Kuiper Awards, for example.

I am concerned that the deteriorating condition of our media is viewed as a media industry and market problem. We need to find a new digital business model and things will come right, we are told. But the flow of information is too important to our economy and our democracy to leave to the market and to the existing industry to sort out. They are failing, let’s be clear. We need to recognise that the state of our media is not just a sectoral problem, but a social problem, a national problem, and one that we need to address on a much larger scale. We need to pull together the best minds of the country to find the way to enable journalists to continue their important work.

In these difficult times, I believe we must reassert the fundamentals of our calling as journalists: that we seek truth, that we aspire to balance and fairness, that we hold all those who wield power up for scrutiny, that we speak for all of our fellow country-people. Most of all, we need to reassert journalism as a public service, for it is in that role that we bring value and can hope for that value to find its proper place and recognition in our society. DM

This is the text of Harber’s speech to the Cape Town Press Club in conjunction with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, on 15 July 2020, held as the annual Barry Streek Memorial lecture.

Anton Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. He was a founding editor of the Mail & Guardian, editor-in-chief of eNCA, executive director of Kagiso Media and director of Africa Check.

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