While the media can get it wrong, it is needed if there is going to be accountability, writes Thuli Madonsela.
A little over a century ago, Louis Brandeis, who later served as a justice of the US Supreme Court, penned the now famous adage, "Sunshine is the best of disinfectants".
Sunshine's disinfectant power seems to be corroborated by preliminary scientific observations on its disempowering impact on Covid-19.
Scientists have so far theorised sunshine is an ally in the fight against Covid-19. This, they advise, is because this virus thrives better in cold environments. The harsh impact it had in many European countries was partly attributed to the fact Covid-19 hit that part of the world in winter. That winter challenge is currently confronting South Africa's Covid-19 containment efforts.
But it was not sunshine in the literal sense that Justice Brandeis was referring to.
His full statement was: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
He was referring to the importance of openness and transparency in keeping in check those who exercise entrusted power. This and related thoughts on the importance of publicity to integrity were shared in an article that appeared in Harpers' Weekly in 1913 and later published in a book titled Other People's Money - and How the Bankers Use It
The sunshine adage today has found a home in democracy discourses on transparency as an important pillar of public accountability.
Transparency International, for example, is founded on the importance of transparency in combating corruption while fostering global integrity. In this regard, the media is considered an important facilitator of publicity, particularly the use of public resources and the genesis of policy directions.
An article I wrote in 2017 mentioned some American states have laws referred to as "sunshine laws". The origin of those laws, I understand, was a citizen's push back against state capture.
A story is told that the first sunshine laws was a reaction to policy capture by big corporations through electoral financing.
It is said a public representative was withdrawn from office by his party in reaction to him voting against a policy that had been lobbied for by a company that had financed his party's electoral campaign. The people reportedly took things into their own hands and demanded transparency on party funding, open municipal meetings and disclosure of all meetings held by persons exercising public power.
You will agree with me though transparency in the modern world is impossible without the media. Given that we no longer are inhabitants of small villages and towns, the most consistent and comprehensive way most of us can find out what is being done with our democratic power and collective resources is through the media.
That the media often gets it wrong is indisputable. But it is my considered view it is much better to have a media that often gets things wrong than to live in darkness where government and corporations do as they please without answerability.
Indeed, the culture of justification that Etienne Mureinik aptly said was ushered in by the current Constitution, in his seminal administrative justice article, would be impossible without a free press and broader media. In my view, the publicity role of the media is the greatest enabler of the open and transparent democracy envisaged in our Constitution.
My experience as Public Protector and democracy defender has led me to conclude that publicity is both a vaccine and an antidote against improper exercise of entrusted power and resources in government, business and the social sector.
The vaccine relates to the fear of negative publicity as a deterrent while the antidote refers to publicity being an enabler of swift action to combat corruption, ineptitude and other improprieties in the exercise of entrusted power. The media is also a relatively accessible important education platform at minimum cost.
From what then should the media be defended? Calvin Coolidge once said: "Whenever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under control."
Democratic South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where the muzzling of the media has never reached crisis proportions.
There were concerns about the security of information bill a few years ago and more recently about the criminalisation of fake news relating to Covid-19 and using advertising spend for control. None of it has exceeded the constitutional avenues for pushing back through civic action, political dialogue and the courts.
The media is facing an existential threat though. Many media offerings are closing down.
The enemy is dwindling revenue, primarily due to dried up advertising spend and sales. The Covid-19 lockdown has not helped the situation. Some have been agile enough to go online.
However, others, mostly in small towns, could not be saved through going online as the patrons are not yet ready for the online consumption of news. The sad thing is by the time there is enough online uptake, a rebound may not be possible for some of the newspapers and magazines.
Online also has its hazards.
News24 for example has been online for a while and for this reason it has captured a significant portion of the digital natives that millennials and Generation Z are. But this is not a cohort that is used to paying. I personally have been sad to see women's magazines such as Marie Claire, Destiny and Cosmopolitan tanking. There is a lot I learned and data I gathered from these offerings.
Can social media fill the gap? To a certain extent it has. However, when it comes to matters of information integrity, including limiting fake news, the formal identifiable and accountable media remains essential.
What is to be done?
I believe media houses should club together to encourage online subscriptions. Advertisers too should support the quest even if the readership is initially unsatisfactory. Crowd-funding should also be retained for supplementary income.
The motivation should be investing in the future we want by nurturing our democracy and integrity ecosystem. If we believe, as Justice Louis Brandeis did, that sunshine is the best of disinfectants, then let us anchor democracy through enabling the media to continue its role of publicity. To improve integrity within the media itself, the diversity of voices in this space is paramount.
- Professor Thuli Madonsela is chair of Social Justice at Stellenbosch University and founder of the Thuma Foundation.
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