Defend Truth


The media truly is its own worst enemy

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

By coming across as disjointed and monotonous, the media has relinquished the moral high ground to the ANC in the “sound and fury” over freedom of expression.

One of the strengths of the ANC’s push against media freedom is its ability to group all news agencies into the broad term “media”. The party’s created a collective where none exists. The truth is, the media have never really acted collectively, nor have the public (the media’s true watchdog) required them to do so. The ruling party has exploited this little trait excellently, counting on the media’s reply to the charges laid at their feet to be raucous, blindly ferocious and anything but coherent. The ANC has come off as the rational party, and the media have become the scaremongers, the fear-stokers and the impediments to democracy and freedom. A brilliant ploy and a generous tip of the hat to whoever came up with it at Luthuli House.

The strategy is based on a lie. The fourth estate is a collective only to the extent of its philosophical purpose, as well as the privileges afforded it by democracy and the Constitution, and no further. Beyond those considerations, the different newspapers, magazines and news publishers that compose the “media” are effectively in competition with each other for your attention. There is no single mass as envisioned by the ANC’s lexicon. There are no controlling puppeteers sitting in panelled chambers in London, using newspapers to run a counter-revolutionary campaign against the ANC.

Nonetheless, the lie has been told, and each broadsheet has replied, in its own way. It helped the ANC that they have not had a comfortable relationship with the press of late. Resorting to furious name-bashing and vacuous bluster was easy for certain segments of the media. It was exactly what the ruling party was hoping for, and by also playing on incidents where papers had their facts wrong, they’ve managed to come out as the good guys. The media are the bad people.

Without going into all the reasons why that narrative is broadly speaking, a load of crap (if you read this publication at all, you will know), this situation can’t be allowed to continue. The media have been collectively accused. For once, the media should be acting as a collective by providing a single, coherent and reasoned answer.

Given the nature of the news business, a single co-ordinated retort was never going to happen. Some newsrooms are faster than others at publishing or broadcasting the news. It was, therefore, not unreasonable for papers to issue their first reaction to the media appeals tribunal and Protection of Information Bill at different times. But a few weeks later, some are still stuck in the “SHOCK! HORROR!” phase. The public, I believe, are fully in the picture as to where the ANC stands, and where assorted news agencies stand on the media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill. We need to move on to the next phase, where the ANC’s proposal is analysed and a reply is prepared and presented. 

Generally, the ruling party has said the reason why the media reports lies and tarnishes reputations with reckless abandon is because they have free rein to do as they please, knowing that nobody will punish them. It contends that the Press Ombudsman is weak and ineffective. It’s also raised concerns about the state of transformation in newsrooms.

The solution is a statutory body that must have oversight over the press, with the mandate of checking that reporters don’t unjustly trample on the rights of others in the execution of their work.

So, instead of the mud-slinging that’s been going on, and as cynical and untrusting as we in the news business can be, we do need to sit down with the ruling party and set out exactly where and how its proposals infringe of Constitutional freedoms and can, therefore, not be countenanced in an open and democratic society based on freedom and equality.

As Adam Habib suggested, we need to speak with each other, and not past each other as has occurred over the last weeks. A proper debate is possible.

Neither side is completely wrong or completely right. So, the media can say to the ruling party: There are areas where we can discuss issues, but on certain key points, there can be no compromise. For instance, on all points where the freedom of expression is endangered (as with a media appeals tribunal that reports to Parliament), there can be no compromise. However, if the ANC wants a conversation around the issue of the quality of journalism or transformation within the industry, constructive discussion may be had there.

But, for the love of all things good and righteous, can we please get over all the shock and outrage? It’s worn thin, and is doing more harm than good right now.


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