The Press Council’s report to the nation

As the plough turns row after row of soil, it’s important that we lift our heads to see how much we have covered thus far and the impact we have had and to determine what still lies ahead.

As we do, our attention is drawn to our core business, adjudicating complaints by readers against the editorial content of print and online publications: in 2017 our Public Advocate Latiefa Mobara received 499 complaints – a steady decline from 591 in 2015 and 536 in 2016.

This number of complaints is worrying because one complaint against the media is one too many, but looked at from another perspective, 499 is tiny against the backdrop of the millions of words journalists in this country churn out daily.

In our system, the public advocate is the champion of the complainant. She was able to resolve 107 of the complaints with the publications even before they went for adjudication. Only 145 complaints were referred to Press Ombudsman Johan Retief.

On average, the ombud rules on three complaints a week and he reports that the most common complaints, by far, are:

- Not having given the subject of critical reportage the right of reply;

- As a direct result of this, complaints about accuracy and fairness usually follow (although these complaints often stand on their own as well); and

- Reporting allegations as facts. This is prevalent especially in headlines. Information from anonymous sources which was not verified (often publications merely repeat what others have published, arguing that a matter is in the public domain, or they take an anonymous source’s word as gospel, without any attempt to verify the information).

The appeals panel received 35 applications for leave to appeal against the ombud’s rulings from both readers and the editors. He dismissed 25 of these applications.

Only two rulings by the ombud were overturned this year.

Forty-eight of the complaints received by the public advocate were against publications in the Independent Media company, which has hived off from the Press Council of SA (PCSA) and established its own in-house system.

The irony is that despite the public’s and the presidency’s acceptance of the bona fides of the Press Council, the ANC continues to spread its propaganda against it. At its elective conference in December, the ANC was again urged by its national executive committee’s subcommittee on communications and the battle of ideas to push for a parliamentary inquiry into the desirability and feasibility of a media appeals tribunal. This sword has been hanging over the media since the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007 – 10 years! – with no action. All these years, the Press Council has said it is ready to make a presentation to such an inquiry because we believe our system bolsters freedom of speech and democracy, as enshrined in the country’s Constitution. One wonders: Who benefits from this ever-present threat?

Another twist of irony is that the Press Council and our Code of ethics and conduct for SA print and online media is acknowledged by the legislature in laws such as the Films and Publications Act, in the draft bill to amend it and in the Protection of Personal Information Act (Popia). The ANC has, in its threats, largely ignored this recognition that the legislature has granted us.

The council has participated actively in the lawmaking process, making presentations to Parliament and other organs of government and working alongside the SA National Editors’ Forum, amaBhungane and Media Monitoring Africa on a submission on Popia and the regulations published by the Information Regulator for public comment.

The structure of the PCSA is tailor-made to advance the freedom of expression clause in the Constitution.

The Press Council, which in another organisation might be called the board, is chaired by retired Judge Phillip Levinsohn, formerly deputy judge president of KwaZulu-Natal. It has six media representatives and six public representatives. The public representatives and the judge make the non-media voice in the Press Council the bigger one.

The same is true for the panel of adjudicators, which is chaired by retired judge president Bernard Ngoepe, and has a pool from which the chair and the ombud get people to hear complaints and appeals with them. This pool has six media representatives and eight public representatives – again amplifying the non-media voice.

The council is a not-for-profit company and membership by publications is voluntary. Publications pay a membership fee to support the costs of running it. Above all “the constituent associations … explicitly guarantee the independence of the PCSA, so that it can act without fear or favour in the interests of a free and ethical press”.

It is truly a “co-regulatory” system managed by the media and the public and excluding politicians. The public members are appointed by a panel led by retired Constitutional Court justice Yvonne Mokgoro. After vacancies have been published widely, the candidates are short-listed and interviewed to test their commitment to quality journalism, freedom of expression and freedom of the media, and their knowledge of the media industry.

The three senior judges would not be active in the Press Council if it didn’t live up to the standards of the Constitution.

It costs the complainant nothing to lodge a complaint – unlike the courts that cost an arm and a leg – and time – to hear cases against the media. We give the ordinary citizen a chance to clear his or her name quickly.

Thloloe is executive director of the PCSA

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