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For a better Press Council – don’t leave out the little guy

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.

It's not surprising public attendance at the Press Council hearings around the country has been so poor – not when awareness of the organisation's existence is so low, and the definition of those people entitled to submit complaints so narrow. Addressing these constraints shouldn't be difficult and the current review process makes it the perfect time to do so.

As regular readers of this website will no doubt be aware, a series of public Press Council hearings have  been held around the country. The purpose is to listen to public opinion on revisions to the Press Code, the complaints procedure to the Press Ombudsman and the constitution of the council.

Ombudsman Joe Thloloe says a number of organisations, such as civil society groups and academics, have already made submissions for improvements to the Press Council and code. “We have achieved great depth in the review process, but now we are looking for breadth,” said Thloloe. This is the chance for the general public to have its say in how the council should operate.

Disappointingly, public attendances at the first hearings has been low. On the first day in Johannesburg last week only three individuals were from the general public, while the rest of the small group of attendees were journalists, academics and representatives from civil society groups. The second day of the hearings boasted an even lower attendance. News reports said the next leg in Port Elizabeth was just as poorly attended. Because the Press Council’s current review process is widely seen as a means to stave off attempts by the ANC to institute a media appeals tribunal, the poor public attendance concerns media professionals and the Press Council.

Thloloe was at a loss to explain the poor turnout, and likened the matter to voting. “How do you explain why people don’t vote? We can’t explain why people are apathetic,” he said. According to Thloloe, the low public attendance could not be attributed to a lack of communication about the hearings from the Press Council. They had been advertised widely in all media. Thloloe said, “Any South African who claims not to know about the Press Council hearings has not been in South Africa recently.” I do not agree.

I am an avid newspaper reader, television news watcher, Twitter-holic and actively involved with various media organisations. Apart from a very small article in the Times newspaper a few weeks ago, I have not encountered a single advertisement of the Press Council hearings over the past few months. As one journalist complained, the dates of the hearings were not advertised on the Press Council’s website. I only found out about the dates of the hearings through sending a series of emails to the Press Ombudsman’s office. The contradiction between how Thloloe describes the public’s awareness of the hearings and the reality is obvious.

It brings me to my first suggestion of how to improve the Press Council: Advocacy. Some commentators have said the lack of public participation indicates the public doesn’t have any grievances with how the council currently functions. But realistically, one can’t help feeling that the “ordinary man (or woman) on the street” does not know anything about the Press Council, has perhaps never even heard of it, and also, simply does not care. And here I ask, why should he or she care?

A select few civil society groups and academics had their say at the hearings, giving varying, contradicting and intricate suggestions on how to improve the complaints procedure. These well-researched suggestions must be taken into account. Nonetheless, all this still ignores the absence of the voice of the “man on the street”. All intellectual concerns about whether or not to drop the waiver, monitor the press, distinguish between the law and ethics, or giving the Press Council more “teeth” by instituting fines for newspapers that breach the code, ignore one simple point: The public is effectually excluded from the entire process by the very code itself.

I am referring to the complaints procedure of the South African Press Code, Part B, point 1.1, which defines the complainant as “any person or body of persons which lodges a complaint, provided that such person or body of persons has a direct, personal interest in the matter complained of”. Does anyone else see the problem with this definition?

Let us assume for a moment that we are talking about an ordinary member of the public who does actually know about the Press Council and is aware of the complaints procedure. If this individual sees something in the press which they feel is a case of poor quality journalism, according to the Press Code’s definition of complainant, they may not lodge a complaint, unless they are personally implicated by the press story in question. The result is that largest majority of South Africans would feel that the Press Council’s complaints procedure is only relevant to well-known public figures who are reported on by the press. If I know that I am never going to be in the public eye, I also know that I will probably never have the need to lay a complaint with the council, so why would I be concerned with the hearings? The process simply is not relevant to the largest portion of South Africa’s citizens. But it should be, and can be.

Because the Press Code’s definition of “complainant” is so limiting, newspaper journalists effectively get away with a lot more than television or radio journalists do. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA defines the complainant as: “…any individual or any association, body, corporation, institution, political party, organisation or movement, society, union, or any office-bearer duly nominated in writing to represent such association, body, corporation, institution, political party, organisation or movement, society or union for the purposes of pursuing the complaint”. Basically, that means that anyone can complain about anything that they see on television or hear on radio. The Advertising Standards Authority puts things more simply, but with the same meaning: “Any person can lodge a complaint with the ASA regarding the content of an advertisement”. So if I can complain about what I see on television, what I hear on radio, or the content of an advert, why can’t I complain about what I read in the press?

I posed this question to Thloloe when he mentioned there had been calls for the Press Council to play a monitoring role. But, he asked, how does the Press Ombudsman’s office, with a limited number of staff and resources, monitor the content of almost 700 publications every day? Simple, I said. Get the public to do the monitoring for you. There may be only a few people working in the ombudsman’s office, but thousands of people read the newspapers every day. By increasing advocacy and changing the definition of complainant, you effectively make the newspaper readers the monitors of the press. This would increase press accountability exponentially. If a journalist knowingly disregards ethics and writes a shoddy piece about a particular individual, the journalist currently knows without a doubt that there is only one person in the country who can complain about the matter to the ombudsman. That is not terribly scary. But if the same journalist receives widespread public complaints, the situation changes. This journalist and the editor may be more careful, thus improving the quality of journalism. It’s a natural cycle.

We can start to contextualise the craziness of this hiccup in the Press Code by looking at the those of some other countries. The New Zealand Press Council Complaints Procedure states that the “…Council may consider a third party complaint (i.e. from a person who is not personally aggrieved) relating to a published item”. The complaints procedure of the German Press Council states: “Anyone is entitled to complain generally to the German Press Council about publications or proceedings in the German press”. In Australia, “only directly affected individuals can lodge a complaint under the Privacy Standards for the Print Media”. But that’s understandable because it operates within the context of personal privacy having been breached by the press, which is not necessarily the case with regard to the South African press code, which in turn, offers no explanation to the limitations on the definition of the complainant.

The definition of “complainant” in the South African Press Code excludes the little guy. At one of the hearings a Twitter user tweeted the following question: “Where is the poor in all of this?”. Although I did not want to say it at the time, the answer is: Nowhere. 

On 22 February the National Council of SPCAs announced that an LG advert showing a young girl spraying a spider with shaving foam in order to “rescue” her terrified parents from the offending spider, had been withdrawn from television. This happened after ASA had received the organisation’s complaint, and those of 10 individuals, regarding the concern of the cruel killing of living creatures. (I am glad the SPCA does not see what I do to spiders.) The individuals who lodged a complaint in this scenario illustrate the point that advertisers are accountable to the public, while newspapers are accountable only to those whom they choose to represent. If ASA had to operate according to the same logic as the Press Council, only the spider-actor that appeared in the offending LG advertisement would have been able to lodge a complaint about the advertisement.

When journalist Mandy de Waal exposed how Sunday Times, AFP, Sapa and TimesLIVE grossly misrepresented the content of an interview with U2 singer Bono, I was furious about the obvious display of shoddy journalism. I was also disturbed by how the story had been picked up by the BBC, because the story that was subsequently carried to an international audience contained misrepresentations constructed by a South African journalist who had it wrong, which is embarrassing. I was so upset, I was even tempted to email a written complaint about the matter to the Press Ombudsman. But I did not because I could not. I am not Bono.

In a more serious scenario, at the Johannesburg Press Council hearings, only two members of the public attended on day two. They complained about the representation of the Muslim community in the press and cited a number of examples where journalists had unjustifiably linked South African Muslim communities to terrorist groups and criminals. Deputy press ombudsman Johan Retief asked them to complain to the council so that the matter could be investigated. But if we are going to play by the rules of the Press Code then these men can not actually complain, because of the limiting definition of complainant.

In response to such arguments, the Press Council says it has accepted limited third-party complaints in the past, for example from Media Monitoring Africa. But in doing so the council has effectively broken its own rules. Also, MMA is an “in-the-know” organisation designed specifically to deal with media-related issues and, therefore, is not necessarily representative of the “man on the street”. In South Africa we are going through a complex period of identity (re)construction. This applies for almost all ethnic, cultural and social communities. Why can’t groups or members of particular communities have a say or lay complaints about how they are collectively represented in the press? From a semiotic perspective, this is a very sensitive time in our history, and the press has an important role to play.

Thus, I propose a two-step solution to improve the Press Council and the way it works. First, increase advocacy and raise public awareness of the council, what it does and how to lay a complaint with the ombudsman. Second, remove the limitations on the definition of complainant in the press code.

The Press Council’s office is accepting written submissions for suggestions of how to reform the Press Code, complaints procedure and the Press Council’s constitution until 15 March 2011. I will be submitting this column. FAM

Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the department of communication science at Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly at @jbjreid


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