Guest Column

The media's spectacular own goal

2018-10-21 09:00

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In the week that South African journalism marks Media Freedom Day, the profession faces a serious crisis of confidence and trust.   

On October 19, 1977, the apartheid government swooped on the Black Consciousness movement, its leaders and organisations, closed two black newspapers and a church newsletter, detained activists and writers, including one editor, Percy Qoboza, and banned another, Donald Woods. Much water has flowed under the bridge, and the day has become an occasion to celebrate the fact that we now live in a country with constitutionally entrenched rights, including those of expression and the media.

Rather than celebrate this year, it seems like there is a need for some serious introspection. The discrediting of a series of important stories in the Sunday Times has inflicted significant damage on public trust in the media. The paper has made apologies and retracted the stories, and promised to return prize money. In the last few days, the Nugent commission found reports on an alleged rogue unit in the SA Revenue Service (SARS) to be without foundation and blamed them for enabling serious damage to this key state institution.

The damage is considerable.

The problem can't just be dismissed as one of sloppy journalism; of a few mistakes made under the pressure of a deadline. The scale of the damage caused, the fact that the problematic reporting continued over dozens of separate articles, and the odiousness of the political project that it benefited, all turn the affair into the biggest media scandal South Africa has seen, certainly since 1994.

The scandal could not have come at a worse time, when the media need the support and trust of the public perhaps more than ever before. Journalism is under serious financial pressure, with print media seeing their audiences move online and advertising budgets follow them into the pockets of internet giants like Google and Facebook. As a result, newsrooms are wasting away. Political pressure on the media has abated just now, but could return at any time.

Rebuilding public trust

The most important question now is what is to be done to begin to rebuild public trust.

The Sunday Times and its editor Bongani Siqoko deserve credit for having acknowledged mistakes made, even though it all happened before he took over. His thoughtful article accepted that the newspaper allowed itself to be played, without realising what was happening. But if the damage is to be repaired, more will need to be done.

Various suggestions have already been made. The SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) has announced that it will launch a probe into the affair. However, details are still to emerge. Investigative journalist and author Jacques Pauw has called for the journalists responsible to answer before the relevant judicial inquiries into state capture. The Sunday Times itself has disbanded the unit blamed for these mistakes, and has parted ways with two journalists involved.

Ironically, a previous set of much less serious missteps led to an inquiry into Sunday Times processes in 2008, which made a number of recommendations. With former editors Anton Harber and Paula Fray, and media lawyer Dario Milo, I was part of that exercise. Clearly, those recommendations were not implemented, or at least not sufficiently to prevent the more recent problems.

I want to suggest that there are three interlinked areas that need attention.

First, there is an urgent need for the public to understand clearly what happened with these particular stories. It is important to understand how the paper was misled, and by whom. It is also important to understand the specific mistakes made, to separate them out from elements of reporting that may well stand scrutiny. In the Cato Manor story, for instance, it is clear there were unexplained deaths that caused alarm among human rights groups. A probe of the investigation is a task for investigative journalists, perhaps from outside the paper, as has been suggested.

There is no space for gloating

Second, there is a need to investigate systemic issues at the paper that allowed this to happen again. If, as Siqoko says, systems have been changed, that is well and good. But the newspaper needs to take the public into its confidence about exactly what was done.

Third, there is a need for a broader discussion in South African journalism about how to deal with information that is offered in support of a particular agenda. It is true that such information can't simply be excluded – if it turns out to be valid, it should be published. 

But journalists need to be more sceptical, more transparent about their methods and any agendas that might benefit, less willing to accept anonymity and more willing to consider and present alternative explanations. Otherwise, we will be manipulated again.  

It would be a mistake to regard this affair as simply a problem of a particular team, or for the Sunday Times. There is no space for gloating. It affects all of the media, much as scandals like the phone-hacking scandal in the UK caused huge damage to the whole press there. In that case, the affair led to the closure of a newspaper, lost jobs, criminal charges and the reshaping of the entire regulatory landscape.

There's a great deal at stake.

- Adjunct Professor Franz Krüger is the head of the department of journalism at Wits University and a former member of the SA Press Appeals Panel.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    sunday times  |  sars  |  media freedom  |  rogue unit
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