Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Why press self-regulation trumps ‘independent regulation’

What’s wrong with “independent” regulation of the press, as distinct from “self-regulation”? The answer: lots.

Instead of treasuring self-regulation, and improving it where possible, some voices are now making a case for “independent” regulation in its place.

This a solution in search of a problem. Contrary to unsubstantiated claims by the ANC, the existing Press Council system is not “ineffective”. Far from being a self-serving charade, the institution has been strongly chastising instances of ethical shortfalls. The real problem is the ANC’s unhappiness that the council has not effected a cover-up of leadership abuses.

In this context, “independent” regulation is being sold as a compromise — it’s painted as being a “third way” and a palatable position that avoids pitfalls of either industry or political regulation, and potentially acceptable to all sides.

Even the ANC’s recent conference proposed that the envisaged tribunal should be “independent of commercial and party political interests”. Such a sweet-sounding position is akin to the argument in Rapport last month.

In the ensuing edition of Rapport, I wrote a critique of this position. The newspaper had invited my article after a strong piece I did in an earlier blog response to Rapport‘s relinquishing of self-regulation. Here’s the English version:

Sacrificing press self-regulation short-changes the readers
Someone had fun on Twitter recently after Steve Hofmeyer said he favoured the ANC’s media tribunal.

“I will happily support the Tribunal if it bans any newspaper from quoting him,” quipped the joker.

Politicians and celebrities forget that newspapers have to serve their readers. If people don’t like the journalism on offer, they stop buying the paper. That’s precisely why our newspapers don’t want — or need — any vested interest group to determine what they do.

At the same time, the press fully accepts that there is not complete carte blanche for what can be offered to readers, and also that citizens need easy recourse against unfair journalism. Hence, our newspapers have voluntarily agreed a code of ethics that is overseen by their Press Council.

The only other institution that can interfere with the press is the judiciary — for example, when a complainant approaches a court to decide on defamation.

That’s how it is today. But tomorrow, if the ANC and Mr Hofmeyer have their way, the press will be singled out for superior regulation by a statutory tribunal. That spectre would end the freedom for newspapers to decide how to serve their readers within the law. It would negate self-regulation.

Rapport last week suggested a middle way between the ruling party (probably via Parliament) calling the regulatory shots, and current situation where the industry self-regulates.

The paper’s editorial column proposed “independent regulation”, where a panel of stakeholders from outside both the media and the state would appoint a “tribunal”.

But we need to ask:

* Who would appoint the envisaged “independent” panel? Should churches and vice-chancellors unions elect these people? Chiefs, the Bar Council, sports associations, etc? Where do you stop?

* Who would pay for this “independent” tribunal? If it’s the state, can political temptation really be held at bay?

* Lastly, would this “independent” tribunal have state power to enforce its rulings? And if so, isn’t this — in principle — a dangerous tool that violates the professional autonomy of the press?

Rapport proposes that “independent” regulation is better than a self-regulation system in which the players control their own refereeing. That misses two things:

* Peer-based ethics enforcement is the first prize for any institutional practice. There is certainly no shame in self-regulation.

* Journalists practise the general right to freedom of expression (under law), which makes the profession different to lawyers and doctors. Journalists can’t be licensed or struck off a roll in a democracy — that would violate free speech.

Free speech, within parameters of law and self-regulation, is the reason why outside “independent” forces shouldn’t have a superior power to curb the press.

If self-regulation is replaced with external regulation, of whatever form, then interests other than the press will decide what complaints are valid. And therefore what readers may or may not read.

In contrast, self-regulation means that newspapers have to make a self-correction system work. If they don’t, the ultimate sanction is their readers’ disapproval and desertion.

South Africa’s press won’t be able to serve its readers, or exercise freedom of expression under law, if we back down on self-regulation.

  • Siobhan

    @ Rapport’s so called compromise is in fact craven self-protection and a perfect example of self-censorship.

    Here is why SA–and every country–needs a free press:

    We citizens are answerable to the government in thousands of ways: income tax, UI contributions, keeping our vehicles road worthy, obeying all laws, etc. But think about this: The Government IS NOT ANSWERABLE TO US at all–EXCEPT THROUGH THE PRESS.

    Because of the majority of largely poorly informed and sub-literate masses, the ANC knows it has no real threat to its hegemony. The only critical voices are the press, the Judges (indirectly through their ability to strike down laws that are un-Constitutional), and those involved and informed citizens who speak out in fora such as this.

    The Press is Constitutionally obliged to monitor the performance of the government so that WE THE PEOPLE of SA are able to make an informed decision when we cast out votes. Without information about what the government is doing, our votes are meaningless. In fact, without a free Press, there is really no need for elections at all.
    THAT is the danger in restricting both access to information held by the government and restricting the ability of the press to report it.

    The POI and the MAT are designed to act in tandem: classify any documents that government deem ‘not in the national interest’ (undefined, of course) and to prevent the press from doing its job of reporting such information to the people.

  • inkpowa

    In regard to Steve Hoffmeyer – you cannot have a battle of wits with an unarmed man.

    Look up the word “tribunal” – you will see it followed by words like “Rwanda”, “Guantanamo” and “Kossovo”.

    A “tribunal” is also not constitutional – since it would take the place of a legal proceeding and deprive journalists of defence according to their constitutional rights.

    Going ahead with a “tribunal” basically means SA has no constitution and no democracy.

  • Dave Harris

    Man, talk about beating a dead horse! LOL
    Face reality Guy Berger, our media circus is a disgrace! Ample proof that self-regulation is unworkable was watching the media elite scoring an own goal during the 2010 World Cup when they hyped up crime in SA to scare away international tourists that resulted in a significant hit to our tourist industry and created more damage to our international image than in all the years combined since our liberation!!!
    Furthermore, who will most South Africans trust with our free speech rights? The media elite – that relic of the apartheid propaganda machine, or the ANC – the party that brought us our liberation and free speech rights at great sacrifice, for the first time our history?

    The new proposals, POI and MAT, are designed to protect our free speech rights on the long run and raise our journalism standards to international levels as South Africa assumes its rightful place on the international stage.

  • Kwame

    @ Guy, I don’t know when last you read the MAT document but it does’nt propose the replacement of self-regulation. Instead it proposes that after all mechanisms of self-regulation have been exhausted only then can there be a provision for a body such as MAT, to cater for those who are dissatisfied with self-regulatory outcomes.

    You have to concede that our democracy can be greatly when all persons can voice themselves through a vehicle such as MAT. More so it would be cheaper as not everyone can afford the court process as in the Mcbride vs The Citizen.

    What I do not understand is how the media continuously makes the assumption that what they have satisfied themselves with, is necessarilly good enuff for the public? I suggest you do an honest survey on public views.

    As for your fear of a ‘superior regulation in the form of a statutory body’, I think you need to revisit the MAT document and you will pick up that it makes emphasis that the body has to adhere to the constitution and a free press, hence it does’nt propose pre-censorship.

  • Julian Frost

    @ Dave Harris,
    It has been pointed out to you NUMEROUS TIMES that it was the international press that hyped up our problems, not the local press. Yet you persist in your lies that the local press was responsible.
    You say that the ANC brought us freedom. Enough already! The ANC was merely one of many organisations that fought apartheid. Ironically, the ANC is now attempting to take away some of the very freedoms that you claim it fought for.
    As for your last sentence, LOL! The UK, US and EU don’t have anything like the MAT and their press is fine.

  • WTF

    Why worry? The Constitutional Court will kill the MAT stone dead.

  • Ziggy

    @Dave Harris – Am curious as to when the media “elite” of South African media forecast gloom and doom at the World Cup. Am fully aware of some of the foreign stories that did this but I seemed to miss the ones from the local media. Am curious to read these articles as am sure they would make interesting reading , care to post a few links?

  • Mark Sainsbury

    @GuyBerger, @Siobhan, @Inkpowa: Great analysis and arguments against the tribunal.

    @Dave Harris: likening today’s media with that under Apartheid is ludicrous. The very reason that Apartheid media was mostly propaganda was because of state interference and influence and threat. As Siobhan says, the Government is only answerable to the press. How do we the people get to know of abuses and corruption without the press? How do we then choose well to change our leaders if we don’t know what they are doing? Political rallies/conferences etc will only tell you what those parties want you to hear. Only the press can be independent of all parties and report (relatively) objectively on issues.

    Power corrupts and while the ANC was one of the primary movers to bring change and democracy to our country, it, like any party, is susceptible to corruption and abuse (as the media has so ably shown us). Allowing the ANC (or any party) the sort of freedom that you suggest simply removes more and more “independent” checks on that party. If Apartheid taught us anything it is that there should always be limits in place to restrict the actions of governments!

  • Mrs Dullabh

    Which of our commentator’s texts always remind us of ‘a 1949 dystopian novel by George Orwell about a degenerated workers’ state. The novel depicts an oligarchical, collectivist society where life in the Oceanian province of Airstrip One is a world of perpetual war, pervasive government surveillance, and incessant public mind control. The individual is always subordinated to the masses, and it is in part this philosophy which allows the Party to manipulate and control humanity. ‘ The similarities are interesting.

  • Rory Short

    @Dave you say “The new proposals, POI and MAT, are designed to protect our free speech rights on the long run and raise our journalism standards to international levels as South Africa assumes its rightful place on the international stage”.

    What more protection do our free speech rights need than our constitution and the courts?

    The surest way to raise journalism standards is when there is free press competing for readers. A so called Independent Tribunal will never be able improve on the natural discipline that arises from the market, you and me. Readers decide which publications flourish and which go the wall by where they spend their hard-earned Rands. News reporting is a consumer product, like any other. Why should our right to choose which products to purchase be removed through the back door by some body other than ourselves deciding whether a news product is suitable or not?

  • Siobhan

    @ Mark Sainsbury Very well said!

    @Julian Frost I fear you are ‘casting pearls’ before… trolls (to put a current spin on an old adage). But it’s good to see more voices of sanity just the same!

  • http://mail&guardian m hancock

    Once again Dave Horrors, all you can contribute to intelligent discourse is another regurgitation of ANC disinformation. once you’ve made a dump of the same old, tired, drivel, you have become so well known for, you leave, never to return with any hard facts when challenged!
    You are entitled to your opinions, if they can be subtantiated i will be the first to listen…it’s called free speech by the way, not for much longer if your masters have their way.

  • EA Blair

    I commend all those bloggers that have the energy to respond to Mr Dave Harris and show up his baseless arguments for what they are.

    I wish that one day he would provide references for his sweeping statements that seem to fly against common sense, general observation and common knowledge.

    I would not mind changing my point of view if Mr Dave Harris would provide a sensible argument, but alas.

  • Dave Harris

    @Mark Sainsbury
    “..the Government is only answerable to the press”
    What insanity!
    So you mean that the governmental is only answerable to those owners of our media conglomerate – those ringmasters of our media circus that primarily serve the interests of the previously privileged?
    Whatever happened to democracy, where government is answerable to the PEOPLE – the same majority that put them into power!!!

    @Rory Short
    “What more protection do our free speech rights need than our constitution and the courts?”
    The efficiency of judiciary is mind-boggling!!!
    2008 – Zapiro publishes Jacob Zuma engaging in gang-rape cartoon
    2009 – Zuma sue Zapiro for R7mil
    2010 – case is still ongoing.
    Now if President Zuma is struggling for justice for so long, what chance does anyone else stand??? Our judiciary is overdue for a major overhaul to flush out the deadwood judges appointed during the apartheid era through white affirmative action.

    @EA Blair
    Show some initiative and learn to use Google for heavens sake and Google my comments to find ample proof of my claims! Must everything be SPELLED OUT for you?

  • Mzwandile Dlabazana

    We cannot continue to pretend that media is a special kind of instrument that is above society, that is aoutonomous and free from being exploited by those who own it and whose sole purpose is to make maximum profit and advance liberal agenda.

  • Ziggy

    @Dave Harris

    So in other words you have no proof? Have searched google and can find no evidence of your claims that the SA’n media forecast gloom and doom for the world cup so was hoping you could provide some evidence. If you cannot at least provide us with some links to back your claims up then why should anyway believe what you have to say? If the evidence is so obvious then surely it would be a simple matter to direct us to the site? If you don’t I think most people will come to the conclusion that such evidence does not in fact exist..

    Also using Zuma and justice in the same sentence is laughable considering the abuse of power that got his corruption charges dropped.

  • EA Blair

    “Whatever happened to democracy, where government is answerable to the PEOPLE”, Mr Dave Harris, how will “the PEOPLE” know what to ask without information?

    i.r.o. Google I will accept Ziggy’s research.

  • http://mail&guardian m hancock

    Don’t ask Dave Horrors to come up with back-up facts. As soon as you do that he runs away!
    Give us something to chew on Dave.
    You can’t though because your masters haven’t programmed you to respond intelligently – it would expose to many of the ANC’s lies!

  • Phillip Newmarch

    @m hancock – You are right in a way, but ‘runs away’ would be good, and I don’t like old dog bone to chew!

  • V3

    Actually, Dave Harris, as the representative of ANC “thinking” [sic] is the strongest argument against the MAT. If his lies, groundless propaganda and faulty logic represents the way the MAT will be motivated, imposed and run, it is clearly undesirable.

    The recent “hacking hacks” News of the World debacle showed the politicians and Scotland Yard were useless and as keen to cover up crony-capitalists as the ANC with the Arms Deal. The scandal only broke because of investigation by other journos – a better example of self monitoring and failure of the regulators is hard to find. This is actual, not theoretical.

    Whatever theoretical arguments are put forward, it is indisputable that the current crop of regulatory bodies in SA, including Parliament, Scopa, Athletics SA, the Estate Agents’ Board, NPA, SAPS, HRC, judiciary, Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors and ICASA are crooked, ineffective, or mired in controversy. The City of Johannesburg Billing System and Cipro being case studies in dysfunctionality, with many other municipalities not too far behind. Clearly, it is the regulators and politicians that need regulation and oversight, far more than the Fourth Estate.

    Ironically, those who shout the loudest about the Big Bad Media never seem to have a problem with the corrupt, maladministered and partisan SABC monopoly.

    Despite the shrieks of the ANC and kleptocracy, the number of complaints against the media that have stood up at the Ombudsman or courts remain “surprisingly” insignificant.