Whither the newspapers?

2011-08-23 00:00

THIS year the English Academy of Southern Africa celebrates its 50th anniversary. It began at a time when the English language was under threat from the Afrikaans-speaking Nationalist government, but like many NGOs the English Academy has adjusted its activities to changing times and challenges, while maintaining its original thrust.

Behind the language conflict of the early sixties there lurked two very different political philosophies, and it is the liberal democratic ideal that the Academy always cherished (though it didn't always put it forward with sufficient vigour) that lies behind a number of its current activities.

Now that the English language has become so strong in South Africa, does it really need an academy to promote it? In fact it does. The Academy has supported the rights of South Africa's other languages, and it positively encourages bi- or tri-lingualism. But if English is to be used, as it clearly is, by almost all South Africans, the language needs to be maintained and developed in a sensible, coherent and imaginative way. For this reason the Academy, assisted at times by sponsors, has over the years laid on numerous lectures, publications and literary awards.

On the morning of Saturday September 3, at St Nicholas Diocesan School in Pietermaritzburg, there is to be a public seminar that aims to embody many of the Academy's values. It is entitled "Newspapers Today — their role in society". The speakers are Angela Quintal, the editor of the Mercury, Deon Delport, the editor of the Independent on Saturday, Yves Vanderhaeghen, the acting editor of The Witness, Professor Elwyn Jenkins, an ex-president of the Academy, and Professor Martin Prozesky, the well-known ethicist. The addresses will not be long, and there will be plenty of time for discussion and debate. Indeed discussion and debate are essential to the occasion.

The organisers of the seminar have formulated what they see as the aims of the seminar. They are to:

• promote the vision of the English Academy, of "South Africa as a democratic society in which effective English is available to all who wish to use it, where competent instruction in the language is readily accessible and in which the country's diverse linguistic ecology is respected";

• emphasise the vital role that newspapers can play in promoting the values and imperatives of the South African Constitution;

• involve editors, other journalists, and writers of newspaper articles and letters, as conspicuous users and practitioners of written English;

• increase awareness of developments in the so-called "information age" and "knowledge society", across the various activities reflected in newspapers; and

• encourage teachers to use newspapers as a learning resource for language activities.

Newspapers are immensely important within the life of South African society. The issues likely to come up for discussion are many and various: political, social, cultural, economic, linguistic and technological. The freedom of the press is threatened by legislation that the government is contemplating. What is the latest news and what are the latest opinions on that front? Why is a free and informed press such an essential element in a democracy? And have South Africa's newspapers contributed creatively to the transition from one sort of society to another?

Some people read only newspapers: for such people papers provide their only education or their continuing education. How effectively do they do this? Are there problems about the way newspapers collect their news? Most of us know about the phone-hacking scandal which has led to the closing-down of Britain's most popular weekend tabloid. Do we have such problems here?

Are there issues of taste? Sometimes readers complain about certain headlines or articles or pictures. How often are these complaints justified?

But what lies beneath all these questions is a single powerful one: to what degree do the mainline newspapers that we know, which are so significant in our lives, promote and enhance civilised thinking and acting and open-hearted nation-building?

There are further questions and problems to be faced. As advertisers are tempted to move towards other media, will newspapers find it hard to survive? And indeed are these other media — television and the Internet, for example — likely at some point to supplant newspapers altogether?

Few events could be more important than a seminar of this kind.

• Those who wish to attend are advised to assure their place by telephoning 033 345 1566 or e-mailing stnicholas@stnicholas.co. za before August 31. There is no charge for admission.

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