The recent confession of The Citizen editor Steven Motale proves the ‘noble lie’ of print media self-regulation has failed. He tells us he led a deliberate onslaught against then deputy president and now President Jacob Zuma using The Citizen as his weapon. What is saddening about the apology is the revelation of the fact that many, if not all, newsrooms in South Africa are managed through careful manipulation aimed at creating a negative or positive picture of events. If we were doubtful about whether we are receiving accurately reported news before, the apology has confirmed that we are swimming in the sea of gutter and gossip journalism.
In a letter advising a friend about marriage and infidelity in the second century CE, Juvenal posed the question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (But who will guard the guardians?) He argued that since men were guilty of infidelity, they could not use marriage to police women into fidelity.
In around 380 BC, Plato had tried to grapple with this question politically in the Republic through his Socratic Dialogue. In trying to explain Socrates’s views on the question, he argues that the guardians will be manipulated into guarding themselves through a deception called the ‘noble lie’. We all know the dismal failure of the ‘noble lie’ or the ‘magnificent myth’ notion in guarding rulers against excesses in wielding power.
The recent confession of The Citizen editor Steven Motale is full proof that the ‘noble lie’ of print media self-regulation has failed. He tells us he led a deliberate onslaught against then deputy president and now President Jacob Zuma using The Citizen as his weapon. I knew this before his apology because many such people populate our media and we sit in the hope that they too will repent some day. But why shouldn’t their power be regulated?
What is saddening about the apology is the revelation of the fact that many, if not all, newsrooms in our country, are managed through careful manipulation aimed at creating a negative or positive picture of events. If we were doubtful about whether we are receiving accurately reported news before, the apology has confirmed that we are swimming in the sea of gutter and gossip journalism. Gone are the days of news reporting, we are now in the dark days of paparazzi reporting.
There is everything wrong with propaganda, even in the form of oppositional or sunshine journalism. I am advocating for well researched, balanced, factual and impartial news. Anyone who uses our views against the current unfair dispensation in order to advance an agenda of sunshine journalism is just as much an enemy of news as someone who inculcates a culture of negative reporting – it’s all agenda driven and thus propaganda.
The apology brought to light the reality of concentrated media ownership in our country. A handful of companies rule the industry. Naspers, Times Media Group, Independent Media, Primedia and the SABC reign with impunity, destroying any competition that dares enter the market. ANN7 and The New Age occupy a very small fraction of the market but they too have a flawed philosophy of propaganda as news.
Now if these five media giants can set an agenda as described by Motale it means they can make the entire nation a cog in their machines. Something that they can play with, without any penalty for they are self-regulating (with the exception of the SABC).
This is against the principles of freedom of the press, free speech and freedom of expression. We now live in an era of homogenous copy and paste reporting, in which every newspaper reports the same story without altering the angle, using the same inverted pyramid – for as long as it serve its intended purpose of attacking the government. This is confirmed by Stephen Grootes who this week said the media should attack any government that takes power in South Africa.
Perhaps it is important for our journalism schools to do research on South African newsroom cultures for I believe that in the current dispensation they do not guarantee a career path if a journalist does not write in accordance with the political campaign of the owners and editors. Those who do not conform to this culture are punished and relegated to oblivion if they are seen to be beyond rehabilitation.
The best example of this was the treatment of Mondli Makhanya who acted to mitigate the damage done by David Bullard after he called Africans uncivilised savages in a Sunday Times column. Makhanya got an increase in salary which was in fact a reduction in influence and, I believe, in job satisfaction. He was moved from an influential position as editor of the biggest weekly title in the country to editor-in-chief of all of Times Media Group’s titles.
This is was a classic case of cadre redeployment with the sole intention of weakening any hold Makhanya had on the Sunday Times. He headed centres of excellence and was the shop steward of all of the editors of the group’s titles. The principle of editorial independence meant he could not instruct any editor to do anything. He could simply be an advisor as he was doing no editorial work. If such a media boss, who conformed to the establishment for so long, could be punished so harshly, what of the junior reporters fresh from journalism school? It is for this reason that they are left with no choice but to assimilate into the existing newsroom culture – attack the government at all costs.
Whilst power corrupts, unchecked and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is an incongruity that while all three arms of our state keep each other in check, the fourth estate is left to bogusly self-regulate. The South African media is running amuck in a frenzy of self-destruction and collateral destruction with everyone not in the media a victim.
It is high time an independent regulatory mechanism is developed, which will move beyond the discussion of the Media Appeals Tribunal and the current self-regulatory regime. Independently appointed South Africans should constitute such an institution with representative quotas for all fields in the industry.
Such a body should be empowered by law so that its decisions become binding to the respective media institutions that might have flouted journalistic codes. It is time we rid ourselves of this culture of carefully coordinated fabrications by people who want to force their ideas into our heads only to apologise when they realise they have failed.
As South Africans and the media-consuming public, we should not allow ourselves to be condemned to docility by the alleged opinion makers who have made a killing by reinforcing a culture of lies and deceit. We can all want to destroy the African National Congress or its president but no lie is a ‘noble lie’.
The question, again, is: “Who guards the guardians?” DM
Luzuko Buku is a former Secretary General of the South African Students Congress(SASCO) and a former PEC member of the ANC Youth League in the Eastern Cape. He is serving on the Council on Higher Education( CHE), an independent statutory body charged with advising the Minister of Higher Education and being a quality council for the Higher Education sector. He works for the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs in the Eastern Cape.