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.