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Who’s watching the watchdogs?

This is an acid test of media integrity, of being brave enough to face the uncompromising truth.

Our media, whether online, print, radio or television, have a pathological aversion to candour and transparency about their own behind-the-scenes attitudes, practices and policies. Oh, they love ripping into political parties, other companies, organisations, prominent individuals, sportsmen and women and, indeed, any other miscreant unlucky enough to wander into the crosshairs of their ethics snipers.

But honest and open disclosure about their own often-suspect hiring and firing policies, their unfair labour practices and their sexual, mental and other abuse are as rare as Teddy Bear turds. And if the spotlight ever swings on them, legions of powerful and highly paid attorneys storm in like a zombie apocalypse threatening termination and the assurance you will never work in media again.

The flagrant hypocrisy, abuse of power and downright injustice of most South African media employers is legendary. But being the mighty and self-appointed controllers of information invariably means the truth about unscrupulous and unethical shenanigans rarely emerges. And if it does slip through the cracks, the full juggernaut of public discrediting and character assassination is switched to DefCon5 against the hapless individual who has dared to hang a media employer’s filthy laundry out to dry.

Editors, editors in chief, managing editors and corporate chief executives make the wolverine look like a cuddly kitten in their fight to hide the truth and shore up shattered integrity. The absence of any specific professional court of arbitration — aside from the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) — means the unfortunate victim is crucified, hung, drawn and quartered and his or her remains scattered to the winds of the wilderness. True tales of horror are legion amid the greatest concentration of journalist — the realm of us freelancers.

Editors and heads of programming in SA are unsurprisingly thick as thieves, irrespective of their public avatars as competitors. The closed ranks of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and its exclusive focus on noble though abstract causes such as freedom of expression and the rights of the greater public to be fully informed, bears eloquent testimony to an underlying duplicity and disingenuousness. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Sanef does great work, despite its general notoriety as a somewhat incestuous club of good old boys and girls. Where it fails dismally is in protecting the individual rights of journalists, reporters, photographers, researchers and subeditors from workplace exploitation, harassment, abuse and being forced into untenable working situations by its own members. Unprotected by a robust journalists’ union, employees are quite literally subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

What about the SABC, you ask. Ah well, the lumbering, mismanaged, megalithic SA Broadcasting Corporation is the one member of SA’s media pantheon everyone rips into like starving hyenas? In the eyes of the rest of the media, Aunty Auckland Park is always fair game — if not obligatory whipping boy. This is ostensibly because it is “the public broadcaster”, though, truth be told, it does provide a convenient always-on, always-wrong smokescreen to cover up nefarious goings-on at Independent Newspapers, Times Media,, Media24, Naspers, The New Age or even relative newcomers such as the financially funky Daily Maverick.

Many instances of unfair dismissal do end up before the CCMA where unofficial statistics suggest between 60% and 70% of cases involving editorial staff (my own case included) end in judgement in favour of the fired worker — and a hefty pay-out.

One of the most damning accusations against media bosses is their in-house stance towards people with mental health problems. Estimates by the World Health Organisation are that one in every four people in the world — more than 1.5-billion people — suffers from one or other mental health problem. In the media world that estimate is as high as one in three, with journalism ranking fifth on a list of the most stressful and psychologically unhealthy jobs, ahead of both police and the military.

Nonetheless not a single media house in SA has any kind of policy for dealing with mental health disabilities, nor is provision made for training editors, news editors and programme directors in managing staff suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and panic attacks and a host of other common conditions. As a result of the deep stigma still attached to mental illness, affected journalists are forced into silence about their “secret shame”. This feeds the prevalent culture of discrimination and stigmatisation, pushing sufferers further and further onto the margins, calling them hurtful names such as “nut-job”, “crack-pot” and “loony-toons”. Like me, they are ostracised and usually categorised as troublemakers, not team-players and boat-rockers. This means they’re frequently called into the boss’s office, disciplined and eventually fired — all quite legitimately.

And this happens despite the media outwardly presenting the image of a caring company through features and even supplements on mental health.
Add to this toxic mix the notorious racism of media such as the Sowetan, the elitism and ageism of the Mail & Guardian, Primedia and City Press, the overt management interference and dictatorial methods of The New Age, the personal fiefdoms of the Sunday Times, the Star and the Citizen and the personality cult of news channel, and you have decks heavily stacked against anyone with even a slightly fragile emotional state. And if firing is as easy as it is, not hiring the best-qualified but stigmatised people is even easier. You don’t even have to explain your prejudice. Ask The New Age, Caxton or the Mail & Guardian.

It is little wonder that SA’s media is an industry sector with one of the highest suicide rates after the police and emergency services. I know. The untenable situation at the Sowetan pushed me to a (thankfully failed) attempt in 2008. Eight of my friends in other places at recent times were not as lucky.