Opinionista Solomon Makgale 24 August 2015

Dissecting South Africa’s media debate

The current media debate offers us an opportunity to reflect on whether we are taking the gains of media freedom forward. We must check if we have taken a path whereby, due to our assumptions, we are no longer vigorously pursuing the achievement of journalistic truth by being fair and balanced.

Recent revelations that beef boerewors contained traces of, among others, pork, sheep, donkey and chicken sent the lovers of South Africa’s favourite sausage into a fury of vicious debates, led by the Twitterati and other social commentators. Soon after that, life carried on and we are still avidly consuming our national braai delicacy.

The current scintillating debate about the role of the media is similar to dissecting boerewors to establish the specific ingredients because the debate takes us into the newsroom to discover how the ‘news boerewors’ is made.

Although not new in this country, this debate is necessary and healthy (maybe not the boerewors) in any democracy. During my observations, something caught my eye in the Daily Maverick article Dear Moegsien Williams, it is about truth by 702’s Stephen Grootes: “In South Africa, the two main functions of the media are to tell the truth in providing relevant and important information about current events, and to provide a platform for debate.”

I don’t think Grootes meant the ‘truth’ in a philosophical sense. He meant it in a journalistic sense. So what is journalistic truth? For me, it means information has been taken through a certain manufacturing process to produce a news product. The public is not entirely familiar with this process.

The process includes gathering, filtering and deciding what information is important. The journalist would then decide how best to present this information in a persuasive manner, in line with his or her media house’s standards and style.

As you will note, this process is rather subjective. It means journalists must realise that what they have heard, read and obtained from sources, together with their own personal views, influences how they gather and filter information and decide which information is important.

More critically, journalists choose a perspective from which they are going to report. This issue of perspective is very important because there are always two or more sides to a story. How does a journalist decides which side represents the truth?

That is why it is absolutely vital that a journalist exercises the utmost care in deciding where and how they source their information. As a news gathering tool, journalists often rely on confidential ‘sources’. Whilst sources can lead to unearthing information about wrongs committed by those in power, for example, the use of sources can also have drawbacks – in that it can make journalists lazy. It can make the journalist, in chasing that ‘scoop’ and front-page lead, dependent on the source. Often, the source has his or her own agenda and sources can manipulate journalists.

This is particularly true in the case of the current South African Police Service (SAPS) leadership issue. There is no doubt that the Marikana tragedy is the big story of our time and journalists are falling over themselves for any ‘scoop’ emanating from the Farlam commission. Prior to the release of the report, the Sunday newspapers, especially, speculated about the findings and recommendations.

They surmised that National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega and some of her generals were going to be charged with murder, that she was going to fall on her sword and that the president had offered her a job at the Department of Public Works or as an ambassador. No corroborating facts were ever presented and it is highly unlikely that those who speculated incorrectly would go back to their readers and say ‘oops, we got it wrong’.

What is also interesting about the reporting on Marikana is that the media reports primarily from the perspective of the evidence leaders, lawyers representing the mineworkers and opposition political parties or unnamed sources.

Before you think I’ve smoked something, read: Marikana’s Deep Throat: Charge Brigadier Malahlela, unravel police lies and deceit, by Greg Marinovich. Is this a news story or is it his own opinion and has the information he presents been verified? If so, what verification process took place? If it is news, is there a reason for the SAPS not being contacted for comment? Perhaps therein lies the problem with current journalism – the line between opinion and news is blurred.

Furthermore, in October last year, an announcement was made that a reference group had been established to look into several human resources issues such as promotions, suspensions and criminal charges, particularly relating to those at senior management level.

Again, while we are waiting for the report, there is speculation about its contents. Morale is low, no confidence in Phiyega, Phiyega at war with management team, and other things. Again, the allegations from the sources are not corroborated with objective facts. This has led to some media reporting some of these allegations as a matter of fact.

One senior journalist described these articles as ‘smear stories’. “And with newsrooms turning into ghost towns, these kinds of stories keep the doors open. Editors push for these stories,” she said. Here, you are at the mercy of the journalist. For as long as they follow the steps, they practically write whatever they want, even if it is not true.

It is clear the SAPS has entered into negative territory. There are merely a few media outlets which reluctantly publish positive stories about the achievements of the SAPS. The journalists and editors with whom I have engaged tell me that they are worried their peers will view them as doing public relations for Phiyega.

Equally, those who have positive things to say are not called and asked for their opinion and little of whatever the SAPS says in response is used. Asking for a response from the SAPS is compliance issue, so the media can say “we gave SAPS an opportunity to respond”. There is over-reliance on the Institute For Security Studies and the South African Policing Union for comments about issues relating to policing in this country. Part of getting to that journalistic truth means getting more voices.

Yes, just like any other organisation, people may have different ideas as to how things are supposed to be done. Those who may not enjoy certain levels of power, as they had before, might feel aggrieved. But the question is, does their dissatisfaction mean that theirs is the only view – or the true view – with regards to what is going on at police headquarters? When one asks journalists how it is possible that a department which is regarded as leaderless and dysfunctional is able to perform at above 80% against set targets, all you get is a blank stare.

There is no more appropriate comment on the treatment the SAPS is receiving from certain quarters in the media than this quote from Winston Churchill: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” You can choose to ignore it.

There is seemingly no interest in reporting about the huge transformation which is taking place within the SAPS. If there is to be a sustainable change, the SAPS has to be administratively sound because, with that, one is able to tackle the core business of fighting crime.

By administratively sound I mean one wants oversight bodies such as the auditor-general, the public protector and the Special Investigation Unit to be satisfied with your organisation and its performance. It also means you have to aggressively tackle crime committed by police officers, reduce civil claims and improve infrastructure and service delivery at police stations, among other things. Tackling some of these will create some enemies internally.

Yes, crime is high. Regrettably, it is just the one thing I believe to be standing in the way of demonstrating that the gains made in turning the SAPS around administratively are benefitting communities. In this regard, I’m confident that the crime statistics which are to be released next month will offer a flicker of hope that better times lie ahead. This is further verified by the past four months’ crime statistics, which show significant decreases across all crime categories.

The current media debate therefore offers us an opportunity to reflect on whether we are taking the gains of media freedom forward. We must check if we have taken a path whereby, due to our assumptions, we are no longer vigorously pursuing the achievement of journalistic truth by being fair and balanced.

Just like the discovery we made about the shocking contents of our boerewors, we can take the revelations made by the editor of The Citizen, Steven Motale, and do something positive, or we can carry on as if there is nothing wrong with our media just as Grootes wants to. DM

Lieutenant-General Solomon Makgale is SAPS chief spokesman.


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.


#EarthCrimes – Limpopo’s dirty white elephant: The dodgy designation

By Sam Sole for amaBhungane