Responsible media think deeply about their role in society


Nobody has a natural right to have their utterances broadcast raw into people's homes. It's the job of journalists and editors to decide who and what should be covered as news and with what prominence, writes Max du Preez.

There is an old problem with the media in South Africa that is again apparent now that the media are under the spotlight: we don't think deeply enough about what role we really play or should play in society.

We hardly debate media ethics. We're not honest about concepts such as objectivity, fairness and balance. We don't philosophise about our impact on public opinion or our role as an instrument of democracy in a traumatised, divided and diverse country.

Actually, most of just care about scoops, how much our audiences like what we do and how much money our media houses make. And what our colleagues think of us.

This lack of introspection has been bothering me for a long time, but it came to the fore again this past week.

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I criticised the media's handling of the EFF in last week's column. Most of us have helped a 6%-party to dominate the national discourse purely because they scream the loudest and threaten and intimidate the most. We rewarded enemies of democracy and free speech by presenting their politics of spectacle as headline news. We allowed ourselves to be used by people who have declared us the enemies of the people and threaten to use violence against us.

One after the other journalist reacted with mock outrage, accusing me of proposing censorship.

Not one of the many debates around my column got further than my suggestion that it would be wrong to again do a live broadcast of an EFF rally or press conference after the last experience when the EFF leadership used the occasion to peddle blatant lies and slander and threaten the media and the Zondo commission. There was no live fact-checking or panel discussion to provide perspective.

Nobody has a natural right to have his/her events or utterances broadcast raw into people's homes.

One senior journalist even asked me why I wanted to give the editors at the SABC or eNCA the power to decide what we should see or not.

Well, they have that power already and they use it every hour of every day.

Journalists and editors make hundreds of value judgements every day on who and what should be covered as news and with what prominence it should be treated. Switch between television or radio channels or newspapers and you'll notice how differently media outlets often treat the same events. The real question is not whether journalists should have that power, but how they exercise that power. When a party or group has repeatedly proved that they abuse live broadcasts, I suggest it is better to report on their events, with context, fact-checking and possibly commentary, without silencing their voices.

Most mainstream media in the world have decided in principle not to give prominent coverage to denialists of climate change, HIV/Aids or the Holocaust, or to the anti-vaccine or xenophobic or homophobic lobbies. Sometimes there is "no other side of the story", or that "other side" is so clearly against the public interest that we dare not give it extra oxygen. When we reported on Vicky Momberg's racist tirade on video, we bleeped the k-word she used dozens of times.

Are these examples of censorship, or of responsible journalism?

Every journalist should be an activist for free speech, human dignity and democracy. That's the lifeblood of our profession.

We can debate how exactly one should interpret these concepts, but we cannot compromise on the principle.

I am thus a proponent of a more muscular, pro-active role of the media to defend the openness of our society and properly inform citizens. These values don't fight for themselves, they need to be protected and journalists are in the best position to do so.

We are not parrots or stenographers, we are the public's eyes, ears and noses. We always have to give background, context and explanation and we always have to check facts. We have to be sceptical and ask questions. We have to expose abuse by the powerful and look after those with no power.

Nobody can ever be completely objective. Every journalist is the product of his/her socialisation; every one of us looks at the world through our own lenses, no matter how hard we try not to.

But we have to be honest, fair and balanced at all times and towards everybody, even those we despise. And we have to make it clear when we are doing pure reporting and when we are doing analysis or giving our opinion.

Every media outlet focuses on some sort of target market and that will influence its style and approach. But this should never be allowed to undermine the media's core task of painting a comprehensive, balanced picture of the world around us and all the people in it, poor and rich, black and white, rural and urban.

(How many people in the urban middle classes know about the work of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a movement of activists looking after the interests of shack dwellers?)

I was happy to see that MK hero and prominent business leader Mavuso Msimang also criticised the media's handling of the EFF last week for "giving undue publicity to destructive causes". He referred to the EFF's rally outside the Zondo commission that was broadcast live and said: "The media needs to tell the nation they are there but don't give them the oxygen they need to engage in destructive activities. It's a question of the right balance but it is for the media to make the judgement call as part of its own contribution to the consolidation of our democracy."

I was savaged when I made a similar point to this about the disproportional prominence the Afrikaans newspapers have been giving the Afrikaner nationalist lobby group AfriForum. 

A few years ago I was accused of censorship when I refused to share a public platform at Stellenbosch University with the white supremacist Dan Roodt. I didn't want him to be silenced, but I refused to be complicit in giving him the respectability of an academic platform that a racist doesn't deserve.

Fighting for free speech and an open society isn't for sissies or fake politically correct cowards. I have criminal convictions on my record under three acts of the apartheid state for reporting on the liberation movement, the goings-on in the townships during the states of emergency and the dirty dealings of the intelligence community.

And so, as they say, the struggle continues.

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.

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