Opinionista Moloto Mothapo 26 February 2014

Shouldn’t the public hold the punditocracy accountable?

They’re powerful, influential and they comment on every aspect of our lives. They’re the punditocracy. But, bizarrely, they seem to be exempt from the laws and ethics governing media. Why?

The post-1994 democratic dispensation, at the heart of which is the Constitution’s Bill of Rights that includes freedom of speech, has sprung an avalanche of opinions on every topic that finds its way into the public domain. These new voices, which have been encumbered for ages under Apartheid, have mushroomed in every medium – such as television, radio, internet, print media and public forums. They are the voice of authority on a variety of topics; and newspaper opinion pages, television and radio news reports stand and fall by them. They apparently, it is believed, infuse life into news items, break the monotony of hard news reporting and provide expert insights into complex stories of the day. They are the ‘voices of reason’, and the news consumers and scribes alike attach fairly massive weight to them.

These are the voices of the punditocracy – a clique of professionals who make a living by supplying media with quotable quotes on anything under the sun.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the punditocracy as “a group of powerful and influential political commentators”. Revered Irish economist and journalist David McWilliams refers to the punditocracy as “the commentariat… the aristocracy of commentators, opinion makers and editorial writers”. Eric Alterman, author of Sound and Fury – the Making of the Punditocracy, which chronicles an enthralling exploration of the role of political pundits in American politics, describes the punditocracy as a “tiny group of highly visible political pontificators who make their living offering inside political opinions and forecasts in the national media”. Whether these people bring any special expertise to their subject, argues Alterman, is wholly at the discretion of those doing the anointing.

Historically, the role of the punditocracy was assumed by veteran or retired journalists with extensive experience gleaned from years of intimate involvement in various fields of journalism, chief amongst which being political journalism. For instance, Walter Lippmann, United States’ pioneer of political punditry who earned himself the title of “public philosopher” in the 1930s, was originally a newspaper reporter. In South Africa, respected public commentators such as Thami Mazwai, Allister Sparks and Raymond Louw started as lowly reporters. This practice was not merely aimed at rewarding or giving recognition to the profession’s most distinguished members, but also to afford them a platform to apply their extensive journalism experience to the interpretation of the often complex world of politics.

However, this practice has since been altered – with the media “anointing” political speechwriters, press flacks, election campaign strategists, party spin-doctors or anyone with a known media record of criticising the government, as members of the punditocracy. Because of its tangled roots in personal journalism, political commentary and television production values – argues Alterman – the punditocracy never developed a recognisable code of ethics. This state of affairs is incongruous with the sector within which it exists, considering that punditry is generally regarded as a ‘journalism of commentators’ or, to borrow from political speak – a journalism of a special kind. In his essay, “The Irish Punditocracy as Contrarian Voice: Opinion Coverage of the Workplace”, academic at American University Declan Fahy laments this: “This has remained a lacuna (even) in media studies… (pundits’) work has received so little sustained critical attention that it has become something of a ‘black box’, even as the space devoted to opinion coverage in newspapers has expanded significantly over the past three decades.”

This situation has inevitably spawned an important sector of our democratic dispensation that is unregulated, unaccountable and thus susceptible to political influence or manipulation. While the media industry is accountable for what it publishes and how it generally conducts its business under regulatory bodies such as the Press Council and the Press Freedom Commission and laws such as those of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Film and Publications Acts, the punditocracy generally operates in a free-for-all environment. This suggests that the public, particularly the consumers of their daily political predictions, analyses and interpretations which at times sway their political opinions, may not hold them accountable for the damaging blunders they may commit. If the media can, the current improved regulatory framework notwithstanding, err from time to time, then imagine the effects of the mistakes of our punditocracy (which has the equal measure of influence) to our public discourse.

Members of the punditocracy, like those of other professions, are given to committing damaging mistakes, inaccuracies and misinterpretation whose impact upon the unsuspecting public cannot be taken lightly. One of the causes behind an increasing misinformation and misinterpretation in the political discourse, says Altermans, is the punditocracy’s “ever-expanding pretension to expertise in areas its members could not really be fairly expected to master”. The DA vs. ANC Constitutional Court dispute over the constitutionality of the rules of the National Assembly relating to the motion of no confidence in the President is one example of the punditocracy’s pretentious expertise in some issues. It was blatantly obvious that, although these prominent constitutional law experts were more than eager to share their ‘expert’ opinions on the case with the media, none of them had read the actual rules of the Assembly. The consequence of this is a misinformed public on an important matter pertaining to one of the key institutions of our constitutional democracy.

The recent development, which saw a two-way traffic movement of journalists joining political parties on one hand, and on the other, party hacks joining journalism, has resuscitated an age-old discussion on whether journalists should not disclose their political leanings in order to enhance media accountability. Author and broadcaster Eusebius McKaiser recently posed this question to the media in his weekly newspaper column: “Isn’t it pointless to beat about the bush about your political affiliation when, in reality, you have political convictions? My first appeal here…is that local media become more honest (regarding their political allegiances). ” McKaiser’s column makes a compelling case in favour of journalists declaring their political leanings to the public to deal with conflicts of interest.

Given the increasingly prominent space they occupy in our media and the role they play in the public discourse, shouldn’t the same case be made of our punditocracy?

With the election looming, the role of the pundits will be even more crucial, with some inevitably betraying their political and ideological leanings. In America there are pundits who are publicly known for their links to, for example, Democrats and Republicans, and they are identified accordingly by news channels and print media. The situation is different in SA, where television channels such as ENCA has an in-house commentator, Angelo Fick, who would make even seasoned DA spin doctors sound like amateurs with his pro-DA commentary.

The situation is so ridiculous that somebody like Prince Mashele, whose claim to fame is his schizophrenic revulsion for anything ANC and boasts well-known political links to Cope and Agang, has been anointed an ‘objective analyst’. Dr Mamphela Ramphele, whose media commentary bore all the hallmarks of an opposition politician, was regarded as an ‘objective’ pundit and her analyses enjoyed prominent media space until she herself came out of the political closet. Those who disliked the outcome of the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference did not only organise themselves into a political formation called Cope; they also regrouped under the auspices of the Midrand Group to pursue a sustained and uniformed anti-ANC propaganda disguised as intellectual political analysis. The space this clique had in media has been unparalleled.

There’s unwritten rule in the SA media that unless you brag a long and uninterrupted record of anti-ANC and government public bashing, you may not qualify or be anointed an ‘independent and fearless’ analyst. Because analysts owe the success of their careers largely to the platform the media provides, it is therefore probable that some of them would feel compelled to subscribe to the common narrative.

Therefore, in reality, the real independent and fearless pundits are those who defy the narrative and remain uncompromisingly true to the principles of fearlessness and independence.

It is encouraging that there still exist a good number of principled analysts who are neither beholden to politicians nor indebted to oligarch owners of media. Analysts such as Prof Steven Friedman, Aubrey Matshiqi, Ralph Mathekga, Prof Pierre de Vos, Prof Tinyiko Maluleke and Nomboniso Gasa are some of the analysts who belong to this category. I find myself in furious disagreement with these analysts most of the time. However, one cannot ignore the level of integrity, knowledge and fairness they apply to their analyses of various complex political developments.

Isn’t it therefore about time the media, as the ‘anointing authority’, considered developing guidelines to govern professional relationships with analysts, including managing conflict of interests within the punditocracy? This will further ensure that, in the same way journalists are held accountable through the ombudsman for the stories they write, the punditocracy (also known as ‘journalism of commentators’) is similarly held accountable for the daily political predictions, analyses and interpretations they make?

Given the powerful role played by the punditocracy in our media in particular and the society in general, the punditocracy should not be operating in an environment of impunity and lack of transparency. DM

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