Guest Column

Print media: Readers have the final say

2015-05-07 08:39

Joe Thloloe

I appreciate that Mr Lumko Mtimde made the effort to study the Press Council of SA before rushing to pen his guest column headlined SA print media self-‘regulation’ remains ineffective for News24 last week. He was decidedly not like the people who frequently rush to criticise the council without knowing the first thing about it.

Sadly, however, Mr Mtimde arrived at conclusions that don’t match his premises because of his convoluted logic. If you’ll allow me, may I help untangle some of the knots?

Mr Mtimde concludes that print media self-regulation remains ineffective, and if I understand his reasoning well, this is so because newspapers and magazines continue to violate the Press Code.

He agrees that the Press Council does find fault with the newspapers that breach the code and quotes several examples, but says the most we do is order them to say sorry for the “blunders”. And in his view a system “that does not affect the bottom line of publishers or the performance bonuses of editors and journalists” will not ensure that journalists adhere to ethics.

And in the end he seems to imply that harsher sanctions than those currently imposed by the Press Council would “discourage the compromise of the integrity of the journalism profession”.

The major flaw in Mtimde’s argument is that the bottom lines of the publications are not affected by the sanctions that the Press Council currently imposes. May I remind him that he only thing that any publication has to sell is its credibility. Without credibility, there is no viable publication. Readers quickly lose respect for a publication that is constantly ordered to apologise for its lead stories. Those readers move to more credible fare.

I was therefore not surprised when the then editor of the Sunday Times, the country’s leading newspaper, roped in a task team of media experts to review the newspaper’s gatekeeping systems after we had ordered big front page apologies in quick succession. He had to protect the credibility of that newspaper.

It is the reader who has the final say because he or she regularly forks out the money for the paper.

Last year, 2014, we received 461 complaints, down from the 537 of the previous year and the Ombudsman ruled on 108 of these as against the 142 rulings the previous year. The rest were settled amicably between the publication and the complainant after the intervention of our Public Advocate, a champion of the complainants.

For me, one complaint is one too many, but we need to look at the big picture: 461 complaints looked at against the millions of words churned out by print journalists every day is a drop in the ocean.

In any case, if I may draw an analogy, one does not measure the effectiveness of our criminal justice system by the number of crimes committed each day in this country. Other criteria are used to measure the effectiveness of the system.

The rant is against print media, but it is only fair that we look at broadcasting, where the Broadcast Complaints Commission of SA has fairly heavy fines in its aersenal of sanctions. The number of complaints against broadcasters in one year exceeds 2 000. That should tell us volumes about the value of monetary sanctions as a deterent.

It is therefore not surprising that many are trying to find a sinister motive for this fixation on print regulation.

And finally, Mtimde throws in what he believes is the suspect independence of the Press Council.

I’d urge him to look again, carefully this time, at the architecture of the Press Council and he will see that it stands alone, independent of the publications that subscribe to it. The council is led by Judge Phillip Levinsohn, formerly the Deputy Judge President of KZN, and consists of six public representatives and six press representatives. If you count the judge and the six public representatives against the six press representatives you will realise that the non-industry voice is bigger than the industry voice in it. I should also mention that another retired judge, Judge Ralph Zulman, formerly of the Supreme Court of Appeal, is one of the public representatives.

The same pattern holds for the Panel of Adjudicators: it is headed by Judge Bernard Ngoepe, formerly Judge President of Gauteng. It has eight public representatives and six press representatives.

The Chair of Appeals and the chairperson of the Press Council were recommended by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Any of the parties to a dispute may take the rulings of the Ombudsman on appeal to Judge Ngoepe.

And the rulings of the Press Council may be taken to the courts for review.

Yes, we are funded by the industry, but we have created a strong wall between ourselves and the industry to guarantee our independence. At the end of each year, the Press Council draws up a budget for the coming year and submits it to the industry body, PDMSA, which is obliged to fund the reasonable expenses of the council. At this point, we do debate the budget until we get to an agreement. If we can’t reach agreement, the dispute is to be settled by an independent arbitrator. So far, we have not had to use an arbitrator. The amount we agree on is divided among the more than 1 000 publications that subscribe  to our system. It’s a well crafted wall between us.

All this information is available on our website: www.presscouncil.org.za, that Mr Mtimde quoted so liberally.

Disclaimer:
News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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