What’s our agenda?

2010-05-06 00:00

THIS week, we commemorated World Press Freedom Day and, true to form, the media went ballistic about how free the press is here at home and in the rest of the world.

As happens with these occasions, a few people accused the media of having an agenda. Any journalist who has never been accused of the shameless crime of “having an agenda” has clearly not been in the business long enough.

Along with being agents of the ruling classes, having an agenda is a stock response for many who are unable to raise an alternative argument. That’s not to say we don’t have an agenda, because we do.

This accusation is in many ways similar to the anti-apartheid language of accusing someone of “causing confusion”, which in some cases was a serious charge evidenced by the treacherous offence of asking questions such as how burning a school would advance the revolution.

I might be incriminating myself here but what the heck, I have an agenda. There, I have said it. My agenda as a South African and as a journalist is to be a patriot.

This I understand to mean to protect my country from my government or powerful commercial interests whenever necessary. It also means leaning on the side of the values and aspirations enshrined in our Constitution.

Newspapers have agendas, just like political parties, social movements, lobby groups and other interested parties. Many of us are partial to one cause or another and are deeply opposed to others.

The Witness’s agenda includes being a Pietermaritzburg newspaper that is proudly South African and embraces the change that is taking place in our country.

So there, now that I have denuded myself in front of you, what is your agenda as a reader of this paper and a citizen?

Embracing the American Pulitzer­-Prize-winning playwright and essayist Arthur Miller’s view that “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself” I extend an invitation to any of you who have an agenda to give me a call and on a regular basis meet with my colleagues and me to sell us your world view.

Let us converse about what moves and excites you. Let us hear what you would like to see on the agenda.

I believe it is time to rescue this little “a” word from the shame it has come to be associated with, causing many to think that it is a term that belongs in smoke-filled rooms where people speak in codes and whispers.

Such has been the negative connotations of the word in our country that it is seen as something to steer clear of.

Having said that, it would be naive to think that the media is unlike any other tool that can be used equally for good and ill depending on whose hands it finds itself in.

It would also be ignorant of well-known practices around the world where newspapers commit themselves to political causes and sometimes to parties. I don’t think that it is a bad thing in itself.

In some cases powerful institutions, families and concerned social groups have started or sponsored media groups or blogging sites.

We know that the National Party started the Citizen as a government mouthpiece, while non-governmental organisations such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference countered this by starting and funding organisations such as the New Nation­.

In recent years, the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report have started and flourished as a result of individuals who had strong opinions about the agenda in their societies.

We also know that the African National Congress and its sympathisers are talking about starting a newspaper that will advance its agenda. And why not?

Except for ensuring that the ruling party does not use state resources to keep it afloat — like it has used Eskom to sponsor its front company Chancellor House — the ANC must be free to use any outlet to spread its agenda that the law and decency allows.

It should be an open secret that newspapers, as all media, are contested terrains.

This contestation should, however, not be deemed negative. We should rather look at it as an opportunity to infuse the public space with new ideas and create new thought leaders.

Press and media freedom are by their very nature elements of a pluralistic and open society.

We cannot pretend that we will like all your ideas. We know you don’t expect us to. We will respect your view even if we differ with it. Such is life.

You may realise that having an agenda is not such a bad thing. So go ahead, share your agenda with us. We mean it when we say we are “part of your day, part of your life”.


• We invite lobby groups to meet with us and discuss their views. E-mail speakup@witness.co.za

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