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Reader Blog

Fighting the Good Fight?

By Christopher Clark

Over the past year or so, the profession of journalism has been under heavy attack from different sides.

Even before the Protection of State Information, or secrecy, Bill crept on all fours into the South African Parliament, there was trouble. In the UK, the News of the World‘s scandalous phone hacking of a murdered teenager and the subsequent Leveson enquiry opened a can of worms on the immoral behaviour of numerous journalists in Britain.

The issue sent shockwaves throughout the entire world of corporate-owned media. The idea of journalism as a noble profession was chewed up and spat out by an angry public. The same people who had been greedily swallowing News of the World‘s gossip for years were suddenly outraged and made a dash for the moral high ground. The media world, they had decided, was dominated and controlled — manipulated even — by corporations like Murdoch’s that prioritised business over ethics or impartiality.

Meanwhile, back in South Africa the ANC were continuing their mission to stop the public knowing about their nice new cars or spaceships or tanks and gain greater state control and censorship over the local media through the suffocating secrecy Bill. This is a piece of apartheidesque legislation that would allow the government broad-sweeping rights to classify “sensitive” information and leave potential whistle-blowers unprotected if accused of culpability in leaking information, even if in the ‘public interest’.

There has, predictably, been considerable outcry against the Bill, albeit perhaps belated. From balding Democratic Alliance politicians to barefoot University of Cape Town students, the feeling is that a free press is a pillar of our young democracy and our highly progressive Constitution. And rightly so. It has, until now, marked a significant and celebrated break away from the propaganda-riddled, indoctrinating apartheid-era media. Wanting to be a part of this revolution was what first brought me here from sunny England. The idea of contributing to the lively, youthful and increasingly open dialogue of free press in South Africa was so exciting. And, above all, so important. And everyone seemed to see it.

So, the pertinent question might be: Where does journalism go now upon these rough and uncertain seas? As far as I am concerned, it’s not time to drown in methylated spirits and existential funk yet. Journalism has always had its ups and downs, its flaws, its critics, its users and abusers. But read David Randall’s 10 points on what fundamentally defines a good reporter as listed in his much-fêted book, The Universal Journalist, and there is still a resounding relevance to the role of media in South Africa today, regardless of all the crap:

  • Discover and publish information that replaces rumour and speculation
  • Resist or evade government controls
  • Inform, and so empower, voters
  • Subvert those whose authority relies on a lack of public information
  • Scrutinise the action and inaction of governments, elected representatives and public services
  • Scrutinise business, their treatment of workers and customers and the quality of their products
  • Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, providing a voice for those who cannot normally be heard in public
  • Hold up a mirror to society reflecting its virtues and vices and also debunking its cherished myths
  • Ensure that justice is done, is seen to be done and investigations carried out where this is not so
  • Promote the free exchange of ideas, especially by providing a platform for those with philosophies alternative to the prevailing ones

Read them again. Then let’s consider a few stories from South African media over the last couple of years.

There was Andries Tatane and the uncensored exposure of terrible and lethal police brutality as controversially aired on South African Broadcast Corporation’s news in April last year. The coverage of this story resisted and evaded government attempts to suppress or subdue it on the basis that it was insensitive to Tatane’s family. The “public interest” won. It was also scrutinising the police — a prominent public service. Other articles on police brutality soon followed and wider coverage became a “mirror on society” that reflected the national “vice” of violence within the police force.

Then back in February 2011 there was the story of former police chief Bheki Cele and the R500-million police headquarters paid for without the necessary legal tenders. The acquisition of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s significant property assets also came under similar scrutiny a little later in the year. And even in the past few weeks there has been the scandal involving Kgalema Motlanthe’s partner and sanctions-breaking deals with Iran over US helicopters.

Underhand deals such as these have repeatedly been made public, subverting important figures who often rely on and seek to profit from “a lack of public information”.

It is telling that the journalists who broke the story on Cele in the Sunday Times were voted the Vodacom journalists of the year in 2011 for that very story. It was the Sunday Times that also broke the recent story on the deals with Iran. It is worth remembering that the Sunday Times is owned by Avusa, a corporation which, like Murdoch’s News Corporation in the UK or Australia, owns numerous publications in South Africa, from quality papers, to tabloids and lifestyle magazines.

It is clear then that quality investigative journalism with the public interest as it’s raison d’être remains a prominent and important part of our media world, still managing to beat up all the drivel with its righteous fists, whether the various Rupert Murdochs out there are rigging the fight or not.

But it is the way that our media is dealing with, and will continue to deal with, the secrecy Bill itself that is perhaps most relevant here. Whistleblowing and the release of classified information that might be in the “public interest” are critical to any semblance of a free press in South Africa and, thus, to the existence of Randall’s principles for good journalism.

But whilst Randall’s principles are threatened, they are equally the best means by which to combat the Bill. They should be chanted like a war cry. And by many, they are. Journalists are continuing to speak out, inform, empower; to “resist or evade” the control of a corrupt government that wants to shut us all up.

So, for all the negative attention that journalism can sometimes receive, I am reminded of what William Bernbach once wrote: “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise that society. We can brutalise it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level”. Enough said.

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