For a profession that is so reflective on the state of the world, South African journalism is sadly remiss in being reflective on the state of itself. This is a spin doctor's perspective on the current - probably temporary - crisis of conscience.
In the past few years – ever since I was accused of selling out on journalism and crossing some weird ethical line to become a spin doctor for the great and the good – I’ve sat on a number of panel discussions where journalists have debated the “dangers” of spin as if it were a viral aberration of global warming.
I’ve addressed seminars on how to see the telltale signs of spin doctors, how to decipher the truth and avoid being “spun”. I’ve even addressed a conference on “Confessions of a Spindoctor”, where participants paid R12,000 a day to hear people like me own up to telling a journalist or two that the truth we’d like them to hear wasn’t exactly the whole truth or nothing but the truth.
I have several Exclusive Books vouchers, which seem to be handed out to guest speakers in the hope that we will buy and read more newspapers, as confirmation of this.
I’m sure there must be a reason, but there seems to be a real shortage of panel discussions on journalistic ethics at the moment. Or a seminar on how to ensure integrity in the gathering, checking and reporting of information. Or panel discussions on why self-regulation of the media is a good/bad idea.
There’s lots of introspection, yes. Plenty of wringing of hands and gnashing of journalistic teeth. And no shortage of opinions on what has happened to journalism in Britain, in particular. I’ve seen more tweets on this topic among South Africa’s media elite than I’ve seen on that other offshore distraction, the ghastly wedding in Monaco.
But that doesn’t really address the fact that journalists are currently much, much lower on the Global Sleaze Index than spin doctors. And I’m not gloating – just saying.
Sure, Britain is another country, and the practices on the newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch may be confined to the newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch – an aberration, if you like, of the globalisation of the media industry.
But if mass media is global, so is journalism. And it would be naïve to think that journalists on the News of the World are the only ones in the world who have fallen victim to ethical indiscretions.
The South African media, for example, has had more than its fair share of ethical challenges of late.
Take the situation facing Mzilikazi wa Afrika, recent victim of police harassment and recipient of a number of awards for courageous journalism. Not so long ago, the hero was a villain. Mzi, remember, was bounced out of the Sunday Times just a few years ago for ethical shortcomings relating to how he obtained information for the same Travelgate articles which won him those awards.
I like Mzi. I feel he deserves to be both awarded and protected, and I truly admire his courage. I also totally prefer his journalism to his music.
But he’s living proof of the sometimes contradictory world in which brave journalists – and the not so brave – operate: they take chances, they push boundaries and they have intricate and complicated relationships with their sources and how they obtain information. And sometimes, they may stray across the line – just like the people they are pursuing.
Mzi’s employer, who broke the Travelgate story with such success and impact and had one of the best investigative teams in the world, was later forced to run a string of embarrassing front-page apologies for inaccurate reporting on, among others, the Land Bank and the supposed extension of the V&A Waterfront deep into the Atlantic Ocean. Remember?
As a result of all these cock-ups, his employer was prompted to appoint the “Harber Commission”, whose report found deep-rooted problems in the functioning, structure and quality controls of South Africa’s biggest circulating newspaper. The Sunday Times, at least, appointed a commission even if it showed the same reticence as the SABC in releasing its findings (remember the Sisulu Commission?).
But the conflicts between source, integrity and ethics are not confined to the Avusa flagship.
Why, I wonder, do I keep bumping into businesspeople and politicians who say that spin doctors are no longer necessary – you just buy a journalist? Why do so many of them boast that they have journalists in their pockets, whether they give them shares as gifts, or pay them retainers to either report positively or kill any negative coverage?
Why do they consistently claim that there are so many South African journalists on the take and claim to have bank statements to prove it? And why, crucially, is it so easy to sail past the internal accuracy tests and fly a few kites about pending arrests of key public figures – protectors, investigators, or politicians.
Trust me, I’m a spin doctor.
But as with the News of the World, it seems it is only when South Africa’s journalistic community is busted – when society, government, business or someone else finds out what it is up to – that the soul-searching begins, the hands are wrung and the introspection begins.
Why is it that what should be constant processes of improving quality, of increasing controls, of tightening accuracy tests only arise when someone is caught? Why do we only appoint ombudsthingies and “Public Editors” when public confidence has been eroded?
Has the media adopted the Toyota approach to quality, where you only worry about the brakes on your car when 120 people have died because they don’t work?
Why, to use the language of spin doctors, does it take a crisis to prompt a change? And, crucially, why does the media profession think it can get through these crises by telling South African society to leave it alone to fix itself?
I’ve been saying this for years, but our journalists and media could learn – and gain – so much by positioning themselves as part of civil society rather than by clinging to the presumptuous and arrogant notion of self-appointed (and, consistently, self-regulated) guardian of little more than itself.
You’re owned by people who are in it to make money, for goodness sake, not because of some old-fashioned commitment to the greater good. So why try to hold the moral high ground when you’re alone in thinking you hold it in the first place? Why not get the public behind you, instead of thinking about them as a profit centre (or, in the case of New Age, a cost centre)?
Mobilise support from others, not among yourselves.
You would think South Africa’s intellectual elite – for those of you who may be lost, I’m talking about our editorial decision-makers – would be a bit smarter and a bit more strategic about this.
You would think they, as people who claim to be close to public sentiment, would be sensitive to the possibility that public opinion questions the credibility of their products. And that they’d seek to change that by adopting a more socially-responsive posture, by listening rather than preaching.
You would think the looming presence of a Media Appeals Tribunal — whose authors must love the meltdown that is taking place in other countries, where self-regulation is proving to be nothing more than self-serving – would force the brightest among us to get brighter.
Instead, the best response that the South African media profession and media industry can come up with to criticism of a self-regulatory body is, well, another self-regulatory body.
Exit the South African Press Council. Enter the South African Press Freedom Commission.
As my hiphop-singing friends would put it: “Nigga, please.”
Those nice people at Sanef (and the recently re-invented Print Media South Africa) might not like it, but this really feels like rearguard action at its worst. You don’t like our current self-regulatory system? Okay, rather than having a decent conversation about the principle – that is, does self-regulation work, or should we be looking at a more independent process – we’ll come up with another self-regulatory body.
Exit Joe Thloloe, enter Justice Pius Langa.
Haven’t you guys learnt anything?
Well, I guess you’ll get what you deserve. After all, you keep telling us society gets what it deserves when it comes to pretty much everything else (government, leadership, education, healthcare, housing, Youth League leaders.). So why not media and media regulation?
In conclusion, a final spin doctor’s reflection.
One of the most consistent comments on the meltdown of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is the description of it as “a PR disaster”. Help me here: Even after you’ve hacked the telephones of dead and dying people, after you’ve cracked the medical files of politicians’ dying children, after you’ve tampered with the contents of people’s bank accounts, you still see it as “a PR disaster”.
You’re crazy. It’s a media disaster, chief. Get used to it.
Or, in the South African context, let me say it to Sanef and PMSA the way a good spin doctor would say it to a client: “When you fuck up so badly, so often, you must be crazy to expect society to let you carrying on regulating yourself. It would be like letting teenage gun-owners regulate themselves.”
Personally, as a spin doctor whose clients are often the victims of journalists who are not always committed to truth and whose motives are occasionally at odds with genuine public interest, I think I’d prefer an independent group of people to constitute a regulatory body for the South African media.
I’d rather try to convince such an independent body of the facts than a group of self-serving people appointed by the people who are most reluctant to accept another version and are most affected by admitting they messed up.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the media appeals tribunal the way the ANC sees it. But I do believe that independent regulation is the only way to go. Sanef, PMSA: I’m not sure we can trust you guys anymore. Who elected or appointed you, anyway? DM
Chris Vick has been a spin doctor for the past 17 years, and has tremendous faith in most South African journalists. He apologises for gloating.