Saving the world

2011-07-27 00:00

I WAS once with a group of fellow journalists when we were asked why we had chosen our profession. Most said it was because they enjoyed writing. One man said he wasn't even sure if he was a good writer, but that he had become a journalist to save the world. Well, not quite save the world, but play his part in doing so.

He reminded us that besides entertaining and informing, the media is an important institution in a modern democracy. It traditionally played a role as a watchdog of the activities of government, calling the powerful to account, acting as a guardian of public interest and trying to be the voice of the voiceless.

His words came to mind with recent events. This week we are at an interesting juncture. There's the ongoing News of the World hacking scandal, in Cape Town a special parliamentary committee is processing the controversial Protection of Information Bill, and last Sunday, the City Press exposed how ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema is bankrolling his lavish lifestyle through a secret family trust. The exposé may just have the effect of spurring anti-democratic forces within the ANC to push harder at curbing press freedom.

On the face of it, all of this may seem like a story of the media in crisis. But it is more, so much more. It is about democracy, it is about values and ethics. Like the intensifying European debt crisis and faltering global economy, there is a message in all of this about our world and the way we live now.

It seems all but forgotten that newspapers were once described as the fourth estate, a title believed to have been coined by philosopher Edmund Burke, who saw the press gallery in the British parliament as being there to act as watchdog over the actions of the government so as to serve the public interest.

Well, the hacking scandal has revealed that far from serving the public interest, what we had was a media empire taking care of its own private interests by being firmly embedded within the British government. Our own media history is not all that different and we've had newspaper corporations closely tied to the ruling party, both in the past and present.

There is also the fact that for newspaper owners, being noble seems to affect the bottom line. Newsrooms have changed over time with investigative units shut or scaled down and experienced journalists replaced by more junior staff who cost less. There has been the shift to the more profitable tabloids and even mainstream newspapers sometimes appear schizophrenic and unsure about whether to go with that old formula, "if it bleeds it reads", by sensationalising every murder. Who can blame profit-driven corporations? Judging by media sales there is definitely far more profit to be made from tabloids with pages of celebrity gossip, scandal, and shock and horror. Over time, we seem to have become such voy­euristic people, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for more gossip, more sensation. The result is a profit-driven organisation so determined to meet those demands that it stoops to the level of hacking phones. A colleague reflecting on the current media saga said that just as we get the government we deserve, so too do we get the media we deserve.

Into the mix we have governments who want to protect their own turf. In South Africa, the concern over the proposed Protection of Information Bill, despite recent government concessions, is over how the classification of documents can be used to hide corruption.

In a world of quick profit and instant gratification where the powerful do not want to be held to account, now more than ever there is a need for intrepid journalists who want to save the world. Whether they will be able to continue doing this in the profit-driven mainstream media is a debate that is currently under way.

First, we had the global economic crisis that saw banks dishing out home loans to families that could not afford them, deepening the debt cycle. Now we have the current media saga that once more involves big corporations. If we look beneath the surface, parallels can be drawn. The socialists call it a crisis in capitalism. Political analysts talk about a crisis in democracy. At heart it is a loss of old-fashioned ethics and values. Perhaps the current global dramas being played out may eventually lead to a re-examination of both the corporate and political worlds. Until then, we will depend on our few brave activists who care enough to want to save the world.

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