Yes, we’re not perfect: Ferial Haffajee

2012-03-17 09:10

‘Shabby.” “Lousy.” Takers of brown envelopes stuffed with cash. In need of a media appeals tribunal.

It has been a rather cruel year for my craft and colleagues as this narrative is played like a maddening loop on repeat.

“Shabby” is the term the ANC periodically deploys to describe journalism.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, if one considers the party’s own sobering assessment of its state as contained in various policy papers released last week.

Still, the party’s ability to self-reflect seriously and then to self-correct is key to its longevity. And it is catchy.

For more than two years we have been gripped by a debate on whether the media system of self-regulation works.

This ­debate predates the one Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya writes about, and was held through two rigorous and principled processes.

The first was a set of national hearings conducted by the South African press ombud, which resulted in the updating and strengthening of the press code of conduct. The second was the establishment of a Press Freedom Commission by the industry.

We await the commission’s report, which is likely to further strengthen the system.

The media is neither blind nor deaf to concerns of how we work. We are not defensive or arrogant and we have rolled with the punches as the accusations have flown. It has made us stronger, made us better.

Generally, the media runs a solid ship across platforms so different that we make up a kaleidoscope of laudable diversity.

Many of our platforms and products are world class. Business Day stands proud next to the Financial Times;
The Star is the equal of the world’s leading dailies; can give CNN national a run for its money; Beeld is more beautiful than most newspapers I’ve seen and we harbour hopes of making City Press as compelling as the New York Times Sunday edition.

One day.

And like it or not, we are a good watchdog. Without the media, you would not know about the corrosion that the arms deal brought to the delicate and fledgeling democracy.

Nor would police commissioner Bheki Cele be appearing like a shadow of his former self before an inquiry into an expensive but illegal lease deal.

Nor would his predecessor be sitting ill, cowed and humiliated, jailed for corruption. Nor would there be a whisper of hope that the rhino may be saved from extinction.

Nor would we know that the young economic freedom fighter now expelled from the ANC moonlighted as a businessman and made millions on the side.

Neither would thousands of public service announcements be made to inform citizens of everything from grant payments to water cutoffs and government services.

Look, for example, at last month’s coverage of the state of the nation address to see how seriously we take our public ­duties.

And let’s face it, on the allegations of brown envelopes, there is but one proven case outed by the newspaper itself.

There is one allegation that an Mpumalanga reporter was given beers (brown bottles, quipped ethicist and spin doctor Chris Vick) to bad-mouth a provincial overlord. This claim was exposed in a newspaper by a journalist.

We’ve also always been good at muscular peer review and keep each other on our toes.

To wit, Peter Bruce’s recent column in which, to dispute the theory that there is something called “the media”, he said we were all basically, shit, except for the Cape Times and, of course, Business Day.

So we too possess our governing party’s ability for robust introspection and for factionalism, and I am sure that if brown envelope journalism and churnalism (the term used for letting public relations people do the work of journalists) were as commonplace as Vick avers, you’d know about it.

That’s how much we don’t like each other.

Vick was the uber-daddy of South African political journalism when he ran Work in Progress, which is why we read his critique with care.

In our newsroom, his columns on ­ethics have been circulated and discussed. We are implementing some of his suggestions on ­keeping journalists straight and ethical.

It is wonderful that he has come back into the fold after years on the dark side.

It is a pity that it is entirely unclear whether he uses his insider knowledge of brown envelopes and of placed PR copy parading as the real thing to clean up the craft we love or as a marketing tool to let ­potential clients know how powerful he is.

I wish he would be as brave as his editor Bruce is, and name and shame the corrupt among us so that we can make the beloved ­institution a worthy beneficiary of the constitutional protections that give us this bountiful freedom.

To cover up corruption is to collude with it.

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