Public interest is our lodestar

2015-08-25 13:44

In the trenches and long-gone mahogany rows of the fourth estate, I have worked with anarchists, social democrats, neoliberals, centre-right conservatives, socialists, radical leftists and journalists of other ideological bents and quirks.

There have also been unethical fellows I would rather forget – notably crime reporter Craig Kotze, whom we suspected was a police spy in The Star newsroom in the late 1980s, and who confirmed as much later.

Extremes notwithstanding, a newsroom of journalists who represent the country’s diversity and don’t necessarily share the same world view is worth cherishing.

A clash of ideas and ideologies ignites a newsroom. It keeps journalists on their toes. It encourages balance – a sought-after and elusive quality.

Another must-have is a fired-up team that values its role as the fourth estate, with a news editor on a mission to get the best stories – good or bad. The news editor is not in place as a cheerleader for sunshine journalism or to slavishly execute the boss’ agenda – or that of their sources.

The goal is to seek the truth without fear or favour, encouraging reporters to generate their own ideas and yes, dammit, to dig in places that the rich and powerful hope to conceal.

Thanks to the ANC, the development of this culture of journalism was encouraged and South Africa has enjoyed 21 years of media freedom in a self-regulatory environment under a press code of conduct that is guided by the country’s Bill of Rights.

Certainly, “the media” don’t do enough to speak for the marginalised and there has been some cowboy journalism and abuse, but the recently strengthened ombudsman is in place to expose those who let the side down.

Yet, instead of nurturing this system amid a punishing climate of cost-cutting and shrinking newsrooms, there has been a lockdown of intolerance by the state, the threat of a media appeals tribunal ever-present.

And now, “the media” has been faced with an assault not only from government, but from within its own ranks. If nothing else, this gives the lie to the tired finger-pointing misconception that “the media” is a homogenous oppositional bully.

There is a patronising tone to this “big media debate” – cheered on by media-bashing politicians. An ugly divisiveness is building, putting pressure on journalists to make an artificial choice between being “for us or against us” in the name of patriotism and the “national interest” – the very same argument the Nats used to justify the draconian curbs on the media during apartheid.

Co-option is not peculiar to South Africa – it is everywhere. In an article on The Conversation website about the Australian media’s treatment of the Edward Snowden revelations, Deakin University Associate Professor Martin Hirst warns that when the media starts to put “national interest” before “public interest”, it is time to be worried. Hirst points out that when an Australian newspaper defended its government’s right to keep secrets from its people, it betrayed its fourth estate principles.

The guidelines that govern these principles are outlined in the soon-to-be-revised South African code of ethics for print and online media. The code enforces transparent, accountable journalism in a transformed and inclusive environment. When unethical rogues or amateurs transgress it, the concomitant consequences are publicly exposed.

Despite all the ideological differences within “the media”, there is surely a commonality – rallying around the craft’s code of ethics, safeguarding independence and putting public interest first.

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