Save self-regulation, stop the watchdog turning into a turkey
In a response to my critique of their earlier editorial comment, senior journalist Jan-Jan Joubert wrote on behalf of the paper to repeat the prior argument that, in principle, it is equally bad for the ANC, parliament and journalists to self-regulate.
This position is problematic. It plays directly into the politicians’ argument that because the press is not elected it has no right to criticise the ruling party – which in contrast is held in ultimate check by the voters.
The “parity” argument ignores two things:
* There is no constitutional stricture that you have to be elected in order to practice newspaper journalism (as opposed to if you wield state power). The constitution does not even require newspapers to self-regulate.
On the contrary, the constitution gives the press (and individuals) the right to criticise – or praise – as they see fit. (The New Age newspaper for instance is likely to exercise its press freedom differently to the Mail & Guardian).
* While freedom is the norm, South Africa does regulate at the boundaries – for those exceptional cases where press freedom intrudes on other rights. The systems here are:
- the law (which regulates everyone equally, not specifically journalists), and
- the Press Council (which can entertain complaints and keep the press accountable to its own code of ethics).
These parameters of accountability for the press, however, are not good enough for Rapport. It does not register that these arrangements are under opportunistic political attack, let alone defend the system and encourage aggrieved parties to use it. Instead, an objection is directed to the Council’s current incarnation, and its position is based on a sweeping ideology of accountability.
Yet the paper’s specific alternative, as re-stated by Joubert, also partly contradicts its own rejection of self-regulation. Thus, the headline on the original piece proposed an “independent” tribunal; what Joubert now underlines is that the Rapport position provides for the press to veto who gets onto the tribunal.
In other words, the Rapport position would still leave a degree of appointment power in the hands of the press – something that does not exactly square with the paper’s in-principle critique of newspaper self-regulation.
Reducing the press (controversially) to the SA National Editors’ Forum, Joubert says this industry group should be able to pick and choose from a slate of names suggested by a group of “universally-respected” individuals.
So, it’s clearer now that, for Rapport, rather than envisaging an exclusively external regulation system, the position amounts to a radical reform of a self-regulatory one.
What the newspaper’s proposal would mean, however, is much less self-regulatory power for the press than is currently the case. This contrasts with the present system where press stakeholders call for public nominations, and then choose from amongst these to create a Council of 50:50 public-press representatives.
The distinction, then, between the two set-ups is that in the Rapport scenario,
* firstly, a different process would serve to nominate, and
* secondly, (presumably) there would also not be press representatives ex officio on the Council.
What Rapport therefore seeks, in effect, is the press agreeing to (a) dilute its appointment power, and (b) relinquish its operational power in regard to self-regulation.
This prescription reflects a lack of confidence in both the appointment and operational professionalism of the press to act in good faith through the existing Press Council structure.
Thus, no matter the evidence – that the track record of the Council shows completely otherwise – Rapport offers a system that undermines the much of the heart of self-regulation.
And, dangerously, this defeatist logic opens the door to those forces with interests in replacing press autonomy with completely outside intervention. After all, if you flatly dismiss self-regulation, why leave the press with any influence in regard to appointments?
Joubert concludes his case by saying that a rigid commitment to the current self-regulation system will mean that the press is dead in the water. One wonders, however, whether his proposal isn’t a case of a turkey volunteering itself to be stewed.
Against Rapport’s slippery slope of external press controls, stands that of a steadfast and strongly self-regulatory watchdog. A creature that currently shares some of its voluntary authority with citizens in the proceedings, but is not marginalised from the gamut of responsibility for its conduct.
The gulf between these two models suggests that the current contestation over the press is not something that is easily resolved by Rapport’s “universally-respected” persons to appoint a tribunal.
It is symptomatic that the paper says that the detail of selecting these people, and other questions, should be “negotiated”. With whom we are not told, but the implication is obvious: the press must negotiate with the ANC.
In short, Rapport’s position is to surrender self-regulation for the apparent, and expedient, reason of a political gun to the head.
That stance forgets a key thing: namely, that the Constitution protects the freedom (read: autonomy) of the journalistic profession within the law.
Why not fight for this, Rapport?
Rapport’s article 3 October:
By Jan-Jan Joubert
The kernel of our proposals is captured in the following paragraph that Prof Berger ignores in his critique:
“The answer may lie in the establishment of a body in which all stakeholders are represented. That body can propose the members of the tribunal, and present it to Sanef as representative of the media, who can accept or reject it. So there is balance.”
What we propose with this is to acknowledge that the principle that self-regulation is not a good thing. No one likes it if the ANC or the government regulates itself. The golden rule is: as little possible self-interest in the appointment of people who hold you accountable. Why are journalists different?
To spell out our contribution: a group of universally respected people in society propose names for the media regulator (call it what you will if “Tribunal” is unacceptable). These names are put before the newspaper editors, who chose the names they want and reject the rest. Society will not propose lackeys of the media, and the editors will not accept enemies of press freedom. This is an attempt to get balance.
This is Rapport’s current contribution to an unresolved debate. It is not a final or elaborated proposal. It is extremely important how this group of respected people is appointed, and we give no conditions here, because stake-holders can negotiate it.
The kernel of the contribution is quest for balance. Others can also put forward proposals.
Last week the ANC significantly modified its stance on the media tribunal. Before last week, it was that parliament should appoint a tribunal, which would come close to ANC censorship. Now it is that parliament should consider the appointment of a tribunal, with contributions from society and if this body is desirable, create it free of political or economic interests.
This is an important development, and a (timely?) defeat for extremists. How do we assess it?
Of Prof Berger’s questions, the first is laughably sarcastic, but all three nevertheless valid and must be discussed.
The two things that he wrongly accuses Rapport of missing, are further points for refining, with the prior question: How do the constitution’s ideals work in practice to the advantage of all South Africans?
Rapport is not naïve about the dangers of state censorship, and will fight this to the end. We also believe that people should not be blind to justifiable criticism, or fixed in your views. Then, you are dead in the water.