/ 27 August 2013

Journalism’s phoney war

Journalism's Phoney War

The second most worrying thing about the article published in the Business Report on August 26, "M&G goes to war after Survé rejects title bid", is how easily people like Radio 702 and Business Day have accepted the headline and assimilated it into their reporting as fact. There really is no "war", all there is is an investigative newspaper (that would be the M&G) following a story. And the M&G has no interest in waging a phoney war designed to deflect attention from the real issues that readers want to know about.

Of course, once people start making wild allegations, you’re in an invidious position. If you don’t respond, you suffer the harsh judgment of chronologically delivered Google search results. But if you do respond, you’re giving spurious credence to the spin, and risk being sucked into an endless loop that cleverly manages to distract everyone.

So when Dr Iqbal Survé accuses the M&G of being funded by the CIA (who, if this were true, has clearly also been badly hit by the recession), it needs to respond with a resounding negative, and a subdued chuckle. I notice that his confident proclamation that the M&G is funded by the CIA becomes a little more uncertain in the Business Report article. From Survé having "high-level" and "factual" information that proves his assertion, we appear to have moved on to "[the M&G] running articles saying that Survé allegedly implied … that the Mail & Guardian was funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency". "Allegedly implied"? I invite you to listen to the podcast yourselves.

But war? No. Every time media egos get involved in a "war", journalism suffers. And when journalism suffers, civil society suffers. Which leads me to the first most worrying thing about the Business Report article. This is the blithe, unquestioned assumption that media owners have the power and authority to influence what appears in their newspapers. This is a breathtaking aporia at the heart of this piece of "journalism". We know, from a Business Day story, that Survé called up the M&G’s chief executive, Hoosain Karjieker, asking him to pull an M&G story last Friday, and that Karjieker attempted to explain that "this was not the way the media worked."

But the Business Report article is based on the premise that media owners can actually influence editorial policy. And while it proves itself an excellent exemplar of its own assumptions, it is nevertheless incorrect when it comes to reputable media (and by reputable media, I certainly am not ready to exclude the excellent Independent titles). If anyone who was not in editorial ever tried to influence the mangy diehards who inhabit the M&G newsroom, they’d find themselves the focus of a scathing exposé even before the kick hit their rump. It’s so inconceivable, that I fear we don’t even talk the same language as the journalist who wrote the Business Report article.

I don’t want to get too analytical about this, and I don’t want to make it personal. For an excellent analysis of the Business Report article, I refer you to Gill Moodie’s Grubstreet.

But I do want to highlight how worrying it is that a news organisation, or at least one reporter in that organisation, can blithely accept that media owners could influence editorial. Surely among the central tenets of a free press are editorial independence and objective reporting? When you read phrases like "the Mail & Guardian was incensed", and "the newspaper vented its anger", you have to wonder. Firstly, at the anthropomorphisation that assumes a newspaper has subjective and human emotions, and then at the apparently unconscious elision of owner with newspaper.

It seems we have entered the era of the rogue media owner, of businesspersons who believe that journalism can be bent to their own ends. This is disturbing and unconscionable. I would find this even more disturbing if we weren’t living in a golden age of journalism, the digital age. The days of newspapers being the unquestioned voices of society are long gone, and this serves as a safeguard against those who would control the diversity and independence of the media. The real story in the half-assed hullabaloo initiated by Survé is why on earth the M&G would even consider investing in legacy print titles with no discernible digital strategy. I shall certainly be having a stern word with our chief executive about this apparent lapse in judgment.