Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Is this really freedom of the press?
The Mail & Guardian reports on media organisations' rebuke of governments inferences to pursue regulations allowing for punishment of journalists over false stories that create unnecessary panic. The media organisations say that this is a unwelcome infringement of their press freedom. I don't want to comment on the radiation story, as the organisations claims on press freedom are not made specifically on this story, but rather have more far reaching ramifications. Centrally, is press freedom the freedom to make unsubstantiated claims without reproachment?

The media organisations claim that self-censorship is strong enough to act as a deterrent. "There are enough bodies in place for the media to self-regulate", states Herman Wasserman, a journalism lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch. The FXI states that if journalists concerns prove to be false alarms, then they will be discredited in the eyes of the public, which will be the ultimate deterrent for organisations making baseless statements. A noble thought, but one that seldom occurs in this country, which is what I want to explore.

In commenting, let me first make it clear that I am not in favour of any attempts by government to limit the reporting abilities of respectable journalists. Any law suggested by government would naturally have to be incredibly clear on this point, and avoid opportunities for abuse by government over ANY legitimate criticism. In addition, I am not commenting necessarily on government criticism, it reaches to any stories that do have the ability to impact on the population. In fact, I highly doubt that anything like this type of legislation will come to pass. I think that government is simply trying to give media groups a well deserved warning. There has to be a balance between effective investigative journalism and salacious stories that do not attempt to find truth. I do believe that we need to encourage better standards of reporting in this country, and most importantly, better fact-checking of investigative stories. The media is a very powerful communicator in South Africa, where most people do not have access to a wide variety of media sources, and are not very cynical about journalistic integrity.

In more developed countries, self-regulation works because the reputation of a newspaper matters to consumers, as there are a wide variety of competing media. If an investigative story surfaces, there are various checks and balances that the story must go through to prove itself before publication. Random allegations made by smaller media vehicles are simply not given any credibility, and are not communicated to the wider populace audience. On the flip side, if the story proves to be untrue or uncredible in any way, there are major repercussions. For example, Dan Rather's "resignation" is largely due to the fake documents regarding Bush's military service. Two NY Times editors have been fired or quit in the past few years over plagiarism or false claims by their subordinates. In the UK, the very public spat between the BBC and the Labour government led to the firing of the reporter making the allegations, Andrew Gilligan, as well as the BBC's Chairman, no less.

This is not necessarily the case in South Africa. Very rarely (if ever) do you see repercussions on journalists making outlandish claims. In contrast, newspapers are encouraging huge attention-grabbing headlines to sell newspapers, often with scant respect of the truth. This happens in foreign media markets, but in the majority of cases, only when it is backed by basic facts. The lack of media choice means that consumers cannot effectively 'punish' a media outlet by not purchasing the paper, there simply are too few alternatives. For hypothetical example, here in the Cape, the Argus is an horrendous paper with incredibly dodgy journalism. The Cape Times is better, even though they're in the same media stable, carrying the more heavyweight local journalists, and pulling more stories from reputable international sources. However, if I don't like a story loosely reported by the Cape Times, I have no avenue for my daily newspaper.

I'm not sure that government intervention is the best vehicle for change, but media organisations themselves have to be much more forceful on self-regulation and the eradication of sensationalist journalism when it comes to matters confronting the nation at large. If they do not, they will only have themselves to blame if government does follow a legislative path.