Media sets new standards to defend self-regulation

A new architecture for the Press Council of South Africa, an extensively revised code, a clearer process for dealing with complaints and a more proactive approach to journalistic standards: these are the key elements of the council’s review that was released on August 18.

The review, conducted by a task team headed by press ombud Joe Thloloe, took about a year and involved public hearings, extensive submissions from a range of individuals and organisations, as well as research on international practice, other self-regulatory structures in South Africa — of which there are several — and other issues.

The exercise came in response to ANC arguments that the media is out of control, self-regulation has failed and a statutory media appeals tribunal needs to be put in place.

The report spends some time considering whether self-regulation is still appropriate and concludes, not surprisingly, that it is. After discussing a range of international examples, declarations and issues of principle and practice, the report concludes: “The task team is of the firm view that state involvement of any kind in press regulation is incompatible with the constitutional value of media freedom.”

Where it is not simply politically expedient, much of the criticism of the council arises from a sense that it is ineffective in preventing ethical lapses in the media, and the report concedes that its traditional role as simply a mechanism for handling reports is no longer enough.

It sets out a number of ways in which it could adopt a more proactive approach, including a limited option to initiate its own complaints. Others include “guidance notes” on potential problem areas for journalists; regular and more public reporting on trends, including an annual survey of the state of the media; and building a much higher profile.

Another suggestion is the creation of a new structure, with a director at the head, which would not be involved in resolving complaints but would concentrate on “public engagement around issues of standards and media freedom”. A new post of “public advocate” is suggested, which would be a complainant’s first port of call.

This office would attempt to find a solution through mediation. But if it fails, the public advocate can represent and assist the complainant as the matter is arbitrated by the ombud. An appeal can then also follow. “This proposed structure creates a useful distinction between the council’s various functions: mediation, arbitration, appeals and public engagement. In the office of the public advocate, it creates a position whose function is unambiguously on the side of the reading public,” the report states.

The press code is extensively revised and has a new preamble, new sections on children’s rights, more detail on issues of dignity and ­privacy and a new section on independence and conflicts of interest.

The task team received a great deal of input on the question of sanction, but in the end decided against fines or other sanctions beyond the moral censure now used. Another major point of criticism has been the waiver that complainants have to sign. The team recommended a revised formulation, but argued the waiver remained justified as the council offered an arbitration solution that was an alternative to the courts. The report will undoubtedly be criticised on these counts.

The report will now be pored over by the Press Freedom Commission, recently appointed by the South African National Editors’ Forum and Print Media SA and chaired by former chief justice Pius Langa, which will do further research and reach its own conclusions. It is unlikely the report will satisfy the critics. But, for now, the body at the centre of the debate has put before the public a set of coherent ideas on ways to improve journalistic standards without sacrificing self-regulation.

l Hassen Lorgat, writing on behalf of the Barcelona Supporters’ Club, drew my attention to the fact that the Mail & Guardian has misspelled the shortened version of the team’s name as “Barca”, which means boat in Spanish. He has directed similar complaints at other newspapers and also written to the press ombudsman.

The accurate spelling is “Barça”, with a cedilla. Lorgat writes that the misspelling “does not report the news accurately, in fact distorts a powerful, global brand, by calling it something that it is not”.

The point is evidently valid and the M&G‘s chief sub-editor has updated the paper’s style guide. The paper will in future make use of the cedilla to ensure accurate spelling in this respect.

Of course, as the owner of an umlaut, I might be seen as biased in the matter of non-standard letters.

The Mail & Guardian‘s ombud provides an independent view of the newspaper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact Kruger at [email protected]. You can also phone the newspaper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message.

Full disclosure: Kruger is also a member of the Press Council’s appeals panel and was part of the task team that conducted the review

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