For two years our sister newspaper, the Guardian, has been chipping away at a media ethics scandal emanating from Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, News of the World.
Starting in 2009, a series of reports revealed that senior journalists and editors at NoW had been paying a private investigator to hack into the cellphone messages of film stars, footballers and members of the royal family, and that Murdoch’s News Corporation had given millions in hush money to victims of the hacking rather than disciplining its staff. Remarkably, very little happened at first.
The private investigator and one journalist were prosecuted, and Andy Coulson, who had been NoW editor, was eventually forced to resign as spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron.
There was no further action from law enforcement authorities and only the limpest of reactions from the Press Complaints Commission. Certainly Cameron, whose Tory party had been backed by News International papers during the 2010 elections and who is a personal friend of News International chief executive and former NoW editor Rebekah Brooks, had not displayed any appetite for further investigation.
This week, as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger put it, “some kind of mental dam broke”, with revelations that the newspaper had commissioned the hacking of the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and that its investigators had even deleted messages to free up space for new ones that might give News of the World a fresh scoop.
The scandal has now engulfed the entire British system.
Why should this matter to us? Surely it is the product of a tabloid culture run out of control that is quite alien to us and of the extraordinary sway Murdoch’s companies have over British media and politics.
In the narrowest sense that is true, but the story is a remarkable object lesson in how a failure in journalistic ethics, compounded by an absence of political morality, can harm the subjects of bad journalism, the news organisations concerned and the credibility of a profession that is critical to democracy.
The South African print media, under pressure from the ANC for political reasons dressed up in ethical arguments, is certainly not immune from such failures — although nothing on the scale of the phone-hacking scandal has ever been alleged here. It is critical, then, that the profession itself rigorously assert ethical values in getting the news, and in conveying it.
The initiation this week of the Press Freedom Commission, an independent panel chaired by former Chief Justice Pius Langa and composed of leaders from business, faith communities, labour, academe and the legal profession is aimed at helping us to do that.
The commission’s first task, as Langa said, “is to ensure press freedom in support of our democracy, founded on human dignity, equality and freedom”. In support of that aim, it will review global best practice in media self-regulation, examine the local situation, and propose improvements.
It is an answer, certainly, to the ANC’s anti-democratic proposals for a statutory media tribunal, but it is also an opportunity to deepen the ethical culture of a sector that lives and dies by its credibility.
It is worth pointing out, after all, that it was a newspaper that exposed the crimes at News of the World, when the political system was unwilling to confront them.
Mac makes a comeback
There was a ripple of surprise in newsrooms this week when President Jacob Zuma announced that he was appointing Mac Maharaj as his spokesperson in place of Zizi Kodwa. In general journalists have had an easy relationship with Kodwa, one of the more accessible and affable communicators in government, despite his relatively low profile.
Clearly, Zuma felt his media relations needed to be beefed up by a heavyweight politician who could be taken more seriously. And they don’t come much weightier than Maharaj, a South African Communist Party member since 1958 who is best known as the commander of Operation Vula, a secret Umkhonto weSizwe project that sought to co-ordinate the military and political objectives of the ANC as liberation beckoned. He was later to play a key role in negotiations before serving under the new democratic government in several capacities.
Maharaj was then investigated by the Scorpions for corruption, leading him to collude with Moe Shaik in claiming that the head of National Directorate of Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, was an apartheid-era spy — an allegation they notably failed to prove.
The fact that both he and Zuma faced Scorpions investigations strengthened the bond between them. So it is no wonder that in mid-2011, when Zuma is facing mounting opposition within the “tripartite alliance” and a second term as president no longer seems guaranteed, that he should call on someone of demonstrable and long-standing loyalty.
If Zuma’s motive in appointing Maharaj is also to reach out to the South African public, we approve. The heart of criticism against the president has been that he has failed to give leadership as he protects his political future by balancing interests within the alliance.
The appointment also takes place in the context of increasingly acrimonious relations between the media and the government. In contrast with certain recent appointees, Maharaj is politically sophisticated and media-savvy — and we hope that he will seek to bridge this widening gap.