News outlets often endorse election candidates. But even as they do so, there are practices and conventions around this to preserve the credibility of their news coverage.
The endorsement must be open, so that the audience can assess the rest of the outlet’s coverage critically, alert to potential bias. The outlet — if it is one with any degree of seriousness about its journalism — is still expected to cover both the candidate and their opponents fairly and accurately and respect the consumers’ capacity to make their own voting decisions.
Increasingly, though, there are outlets that throw out these conventions and go all-in in support of their party or candidate, twisting their reporting and news choices to fit a party-political agenda. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in the US is the prime example of this, aggressively pursuing a Trumpian political agenda. Fox even snubbed the recent congressional hearings into the attempted insurrection of January 6 2021 — a major news event by any standard — because the evidence emerging there did not fit its agenda.
It is apparent how Fox News’ willingness to bend the news to its agenda has poisoned the US political system, with about 25% of citizens still believing that President Joe Biden stole the election, despite the lack of evidence to support this. The channel’s systematic and relentless pursuit of this agenda has dangerously undermined US democracy.
You could say the same for Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers in the UK.
Closer to home, Independent Media’s strategy for coverage of the hotly contested ANC conference in December was leaked this week by rival group News24. What was a surprise was not that Independent’s leadership was opposed to the re-election of President Cyril Ramaphosa, but their willingness to cast aside basic journalistic principles in pursuit of this.
The Star editor, Sifiso Mahlangu, who is heading the group’s conference coverage, drew up the strategy and presented it to editors at a recent meeting in Durban. The document is adorned in the ANC’s green, black and gold colours and carries the party’s logo on almost every page. He frames the coverage plan around the view that Ramaphosa’s presidency was “a disaster” for Independent Media.
“Ramaphosa and his cabal have attempted every trick in the book to shut down [Survé’s] Sekunjalo Holdings,” Mahlangu wrote.
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the nominee of the Jacob Zuma faction, “may be the best candidate for the job”, he says.
Most revealing is that the editorial motivation is not Ramaphosa’s ideology, leadership, policies or record, but his alleged attitude towards Survé and Independent Media. Nor is any reason proffered for the choice of Dlamini Zuma. There is no attempt to serve readers or the public interest, strive for good journalism or offer balanced coverage. It is all bent into the personal service of the notoriously narcissistic Survé and his corporate concerns.
In its crudity, Independent Media is discarding journalism in favour of serving narrow, personal interests without even a pretence of achieving balance or fairness. The strategy outlined in the document is remarkably thin, showing little thought on how they would make their coverage interesting, different or impactful and adding to the impression that the point was to steer the team in a partisan direction rather than ensure rigorous coverage. It is presented as a top-down declaration of company policy, not one that is put up for discussion or debate.
This approach shows contempt not just for the reader, but for their own staff, who are instructed which way they need to lean.
Survé has taken issue with News24, which said the plan was secret and was intended to “topple” Ramaphosa. While News24’s choice of language might have stretched the point, Independent Media was clearly steering its editorial team against Ramaphosa’s election and has not explicitly told readers they favour Dlamini Zuma (though this can be read into some of its gushy, over-the-top coverage of her).
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Independent itself used rich language in describing the News24 leak as a “Stratcom report”, evoking the apartheid propaganda machinery.
As always, the super-sensitive Survé said that he was the target of a coordinated “terror campaign”. He said his group does not “have a view about any ANC candidate” (although the document expresses some clear views). But, he added, “we look forward to change in December and in [the elections of] 2024.”
Some of the worst and most destructive political coverage we have seen in recent years has come from reporters who favour not just a party, but a faction within a party, and who have acted as outlets for that faction. It is a style of reporting reminiscent of elements of the Afrikaans media under apartheid, and the SABC during periods when it was captured — so South Africans should be well warned about the dangers of journalism slipping into this kind of partisan propaganda.
Most of our media operates under the self-imposed constraints of the Press Council or the Broadcast Complaints Commission, which hold us to codes of conduct and standards of ethical and accurate reporting. Independent Newspapers broke from this system some years ago and set up its own internal — and wholly ineffective — ombudsman.
Since then it has been responsible for the now notorious “Tembisa decuplets” story, about a world record multiple birth. When the story was comprehensively discredited, Survé and his editors doubled down on it, saying the babies had been trafficked — without any evidence to back this up.
Recently, one of their “investigative reporters”, who published more vitriol than fact, was exposed as a made-up character.
Independent was long one of South Africa’s biggest media groups, its 16 newspapers dominating the daily newspaper market in the country’s major cities. The recent conduct of its owner and editors might explain the almost total collapse of the circulation of all its newspapers. DM