Simon Williamson

Criticise the news

2014-02-28 07:31

Although we've covered Premier Helen Zille's Sunday Twitter tantrum to a fair degree, it is worth noting that the broad principle of politicians - or anyone - critiquing news is a fundament to healthier democracy. My beef with Premier Zille is that she was being churlish, not that she dared criticise a journalist. I really have no issue with a politician arguing about the news with a journalist (or vice-versa).
Although the Western Cape premier could very well have been trying to score some votes from the Freedom Front Plus by attacking the media (that's just a joke - obviously she isn't or Dan Roodt would be the party's presidential candidate) or just had a Sunday Night Blues extravaganza, she has as much right as any to say what she thinks about news reporting and specific articles.
The media, quite correctly, holds itself as the guardian of democracy against the government. It's easy to see the job it does. Without it we wouldn't know that we gave President Jacob Zuma a house worth one Free State website and 7.5 new Cape Town logos, or that he puts out fires with a pool. We wouldn't know that Barack Obama's freedom-hating cyber-thug henchmen are vacuuming up all of our internet history and noting the deets of the world's phonecalls because terrorism.

We wouldn't know the depths to which the South African government nearly enabled itself to keep things secret at the passage of the Freedom of State Information Bill. Nor would the British have known that its MPs were using taxpayer money to expense jobs for their family members, "pay" mortgages that were already paid off, and repair R25,000 "duck houses". There can be no contesting the media's use to the general public, as much as it might get up the noses of those in power (and those who support them).
Good for the public

But this only works if the media is, too, held accountable. If Premier Zille and her team bashed every article critical of the Democratic Alliance, journalists would be forced to fact check themselves prior, knowing their work was going to be contested. (If Mac Maharaj did the same for the ANC he would need 40 hours in a day and twelve days in a week.) This is not to say journalists don’t already do this, but anything motivating our news folks to be more precise is a good thing. The famed “billion rand” Western Cape communications tender is an excellent example of where the party was able to put right what the Sunday Times got wrong. (Notably without claiming that then editor Ray Hartley was only reporting in this manner because he was “damned by his own complexion”.)
Defending views and research in public: when it comes to news, that is good for the public.  

In a debate beneath a Daily Maverick column earlier this week, columnist Ivo Vegter commented beautifully, in response to the ANC's Moloto Mothapo: "The public has unparalleled means of holding pundits accountable. Every article is judged by its readership and shareability. Most articles have a comment option, which is usually unedited and unmoderated. Every citizen can start a blog [or a Twitter account], and earn themselves a readership by critiquing the media. Journalists routinely challenge the punditry of those they disagree with. And meanwhile, pundits and bloggers remain legally subject to defamation law and other statutory limitations on the freedom of speech."

He is quite right.
There are plenty of ways for everyone who wants to critique the news to do so. Premier Zille is one of those people. While she was justifiably judged for letting her fingers do the walking yards past any sort of civil engagement last Sunday, the principle of her disagreeing with a news article, or the views of a journalist, is quite permissible.
In fact, we should all be encouraged to do it. And also expect to take flak if we're wrong.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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