Democracies wrestle over media regulation
As the new year creakily gathers steam, press standards and regulation are under scrutiny in both South Africa and the United Kingdom.
And there are surprising similarities and sharp differences between the debates in the two countries.
Here, a new Press Council system of "independent co-regulation" is due to get under way, with the old body's five-year term having expired at the end of last year. Appointments need to be made: a judge or two, a new press ombudsman, public members and new functionaries, including a director and a public advocate. A revised code and several changes to the rules have already been accepted and the intense debate about press regulation has died down for the moment while the public waits to see how the new system will work.
In Britain, the process of regulatory reform is not as far along. After a lengthy and sometimes sensational inquiry, a report running to nearly 2 000 pages on "the culture, practices and ethics of the press" was released by Judge Brian Leveson in late November. The probe was sparked by revelations of industrial-scale invasions of privacy by journalists, notably through the hacking of cellphones by the News of the World. These were transgressions far worse than anything the South African media can be accused of, and have done enormous damage to journalism in the UK and around the world.
Leveson was harshly critical of the intimate relationships of leading politicians with publishers and editors, and of the police failure to investigate them and their interactions with journalists. He slated the Press Complaints Commission, which had dismissed the reports of phone hacking when they first appeared.
Leveson's recommendation for a replacement revolves around a new regulator, more independent of the press and recognised in law – a dramatic shift for a country where media freedom from state involvement has been jealously guarded for centuries. The press would participate voluntarily, although a new system of arbitration would create significant financial advantages for those who come on board.
Since then, there has been fierce debate about the recommendations. Prime Minister David Cameron immediately rejected the notion of statutory underpinning of the regulator, although the opposition Labour Party and Hacked Off, the organisation representing victims of phone hacking, have come out strongly in favour of it. Compromise suggestions have included the creation of a body by Royal Charter that would "verify" that the new press standards body meets a set of criteria.
A new regulatory regime
As in South Africa, the issue of concentration of media ownership has come up strongly. Rupert Murdoch's giant News Corporation, whose News of the World was at the centre of the scandal, dominates the British landscape. It owns more than a third of the country's newspaper circulation, and the company used its close relationship with the political elite to further its own commercial agenda, and a sense of impunity allowed the outright criminality of large-scale phone hacking.
Some critics have said the discussion about a new regulatory regime threatens to obscure the underlying issue of an unhealthy concentration of ownership. Opposition parties and others have come out in favour of a cap on market share, most commonly pitched at 20%. Ricken Patel, head of the advocacy group Avaaz, writes: "What allowed these transgressions to take place was not a lack of rules against them, but a media empire that had grown so large as to feel immune from them. Without a 20% ownership cap, any new regulator or regime will ultimately find itself as cowed by the new behemoths as the Metropolitan Police were by News Corp."
In South Africa, for some years the focus has been transformation, a buzzword that takes in a range of issues from business concerns such as ownership and employment equity to the diversity of voices heard and news values.
Print and Digital Media SA, the industry body, has appointed a task team to investigate these issues and has invited input from the public. A final report is promised for April this year. It is an important exercise, and the lack of public discussion and coverage of the task team's activities is disappointing.
There is no question that diversity is an important challenge for the South African media. The sharp social divide that runs through the country is reflected clearly in the media landscape: there are rich media that serve the middle classes, whereas the rest of the population has little access to news media, if any.
So far, there have been attempts to improve diversity by supporting community media, chiefly through the Media Development and Diversity Agency and certainly community radio has taken a significant share of the radio audience. But, in print, attempts to add voices to the mainstream have struggled.
The task team faces the challenge of finding practical solutions to increase diversity in the news media, despite a difficult economic climate.
One hopes the team and the industry sponsoring it will have the imagination and vision to find solutions that can add significantly to the quality of our democracy and thereby safeguard media freedom.
- It was embarrassing to find an incorrect headline on my last column, published before the festive season, which dealt with misleading and incorrect headlines. One of the Mail & Guardian editors called it a Kafkaesque moment. So, for the record, I did not say the headline on a story about Cyril Ramaphosa was "more embroidery than accuracy" – I said it pushed the limits but was still acceptable.
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