William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

SA journalism: No agenda required

Newspaper editors aren’t much given to introspection. Whatever their political hue, they tend to have a virtually unshakeable belief that their particular interpretation of reality is the correct one.

It of course makes for spectacular miscalculations, such as when Peter Bruce, then Financial Mail editor, in 1999 urged voters to support the fledgling United Democratic Movement with a cover headlined “Put this Bantu back in his place (Parliament)”. South Africa’s voters pretty much ignored Bruce’s advice, and his cringingly infelicitous phrasing, with the UDM going on to draw just 3% of the vote.

Fortunately, Bruce’s career survived this debacle and he went on to become a very successful and influential editor of Business Day. He has since written of that being the most harrowing incident of his professional life. On balance, however, it is probably better to be remembered like Bruce for a cri de coeur, than for prevarication, as with Harvey Tyson, genial former editor of the Star.

In the 1983 whites-only referendum on the tricameral constitution, Harvey, uniquely among the nation’s editors, refused to endorse either a yes or a no vote, instead advising readers to abstain. The newsroom derision was swift, surfacing within hours in large letters on the editor’s noticeboard: “The Editor’s indecision is final”, it scoffed.

So when Steven Motale, editor of the Citizen, pens a lengthy mea culpa that apologises for having been part of a “sinister agenda” against President Jacob Zuma, it should command attention. For it not only goes against the ingrained historical stance of editorial infallibility but it also raises important issues of media accountability.

Motale writes that the media is as much to blame for the current parlous state of SA as are the politicians and economists. The media has been unfair to Zuma in its much repeated claim — contradicted by Judge Hilary Squires’ actual judgment — that he was corrupt. The media also has targeted Zuma simply because journalists find personally distasteful his lack of education and his polygamy.

“The hatred towards Zuma means that little he does or says is ever reported on positively,” writes Motale. Further, the opposition Democratic Alliance gets a soft ride from the media, which plays the role of “unelected opposition” and constitutional watchdog “to levels beyond what the Fourth Estate is meant”.

Motale argues that Martin Williams, his predecessor at the Citizen, was slavishly pro-DA. This was, in essence, no different from the pro-government stance of the New Age. Indeed, it was less honest because it was covert, while the New Age is at least open about its bias.

It would be easy to dismiss Motale’s remarks as yet another Damascene conversion from editorial independence to ANC puppetry. But Motale reassures his readers that he is by no means suddenly Zuma’s “biggest fan” and one should take him at his word, unless proved otherwise.

It is nevertheless surprising how little media response there has been to Motale’s critical barrage. That’s unfortunate, because there are some uncomfortable truths in his column that deserve reflection upon, not the least of them being a growing lack of journalistic professionalism.

Who can seriously deny that the DA is generally not subjected to the same critical press scrutiny as is the ANC? Or that the outrageous behaviour of the Economic Freedom Front was not, at least initially, tolerated and even encouraged by much of the media because of the discomfort it caused the president?

Where I differ from Motale, is that this is part of some kind of sinister agenda.

The Jaundiced Eye column has for some 23 years run in newspapers of all the major media groups, including in the Citizen under both Williams’s and Motale’s editorships. Cumulatively I’ve experienced a couple of dozen editors spanning the political spectrum in their views. With a single exception, all these editors have shared journalistically vital values — a tolerance of dissenting voices; a commitment to truth and fairness.

That is not to say that these traits were uniformly reflected in their publications. Reality is imperfect but mostly inadvertently so, not through conspiracy.

Not once have I as a sometimes acerbically critical journalist been pressured to follow an agenda — be it overt or covert — despite how infuriating or embarrassing my writing at times must have been to the individual editor or publisher. That’s an important journalistic litmus test. It indicates that perhaps our media is more robust and healthy than much of the Western media that many South Africans so instinctively and cravenly admire, where gross editorial interference paradoxically is rife.

Williams, whom Motale singles out for DA sympathies, tolerated without a word of rebuke Jaundiced Eye columns that enraged the DA and their leader. And if Williams was irked by my writing in 2008 that whatever his flaws, “Zuma has been elected by a substantial majority to the nation’s highest office and deserves a chance” he clearly must have bitten his tongue, for I had no inkling of displeasure.

It transpires then, as happens, Motale and I have both over time changed our minds about Zuma. Whatever the merits of our respective views, that’s how journalism should be. No agenda required. Just honest soul searching.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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