Anton Harber

Generally corrupt

2006-11-17 08:50

Anton Harber

Judges and journalists - of all people - should understand human frailty.

You would think that these two groups of professionals see enough of the raw, dark side of life to take on board the understanding that people, even the good and clever ones, make mistakes.

Both judges and journalists have working systems built to acknowledge and deal with the realities of human error. The judiciary uses a series of appeals to higher authorities, an acknowledgement that even a skilled, learned and respected judge will err.

Journalists have strict professional rules about correcting mistakes quickly and effectively, in the knowledge that the demands of our profession, the amount of material we have to process at great speed, means that mistakes are inevitable.

But this week, neither judges nor journalists seemed able to deal with a series of errors. Judge Hilary Squires took the media to task for misattributing a quote to him in his judgement on the Schabir Shaik trial. He did not, he says, say that Shaik had a "generally corrupt" relationship with the former deputy president, Jacob Zuma. The phrase has been repeated and repeated, ad nauseum, and has now cropped up in the Supreme Court of Appeals findings on the case.

Journalists were amazed that Squires had taken months to point out the error. He appears to have allowed it to perpetuate to the point where it has caused embarrassment to both the Bench and the media.

A difficult relationship

The root of this problem is the fact that these two pillars of our democracy have always been wary of each other and have not found a proper way to relate to each other.

They are increasingly inter-dependent. Journalists need judges to protect their freedom to operate. Whenever the rights of journalists are threatened, their last and best defence is the Constitution and the courts.

On the other hand, judges need journalists to convey and explain what they do and why they do it. If justice has to be seen to be done, journalists provide the eyes to do the seeing.

I know that our Constitutional Court judges feel that the lack of in-depth and consistent coverage of their important decisions in most of the media means that the public are not always as aware as they should be of the importance and value of the work of the court. The judges need their decisions to be known and understood, and can only do this through journalists.

But most judges are scared to deal with, talk to, or explain things to the press. Squires had a traditionally cautious approach to engaging with the media, and the result was the repetition of an error which could have serious consequences for the country as a whole.

If one thing became clear this week (if it hasn't been clear for years), it is that these two bodies need to find a way to communicate better with each other. Judges need to be able to explain their pronouncements to journalists, help them understand and analyse it, and correct their errors when they get it wrong. Journalists need to grasp both the complexity and importance of the work of the bench, and the importance of conveying this to the public. And they need to get the facts right.

One day, when journalists need the protection of the courts, they will be sorry they did not do everything possible to build up public understanding of the Constitutional Court and its crucial role in our democracy.

Judges and journalists are both pillars of our democracy, and a good architect would ensure that these pillars are not too close to each other, nor too far apart. This week, they were too far apart.

  • Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
  • His blog can be found at www.theharbinger.co.za.

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