I am afraid 2016 has not been the best of years for the journalism industry. In fact, it’s been too terrible for words. I say journalism industry deliberately because commercial companies make up the broad term “media” and journalism is a subset of this.
Media companies have been brutal in their attack on journalism – in the form of widespread newsroom retrenchments, particularly of senior staff. In some instances publications have subsequently been closed. This started in 2012-2014, as recorded in the State of the Newsroom publication, and has continued into 2016. Just last month, the Independent group announced it was retrenching 72 journalists. That’s just one company among a few doing the same but the numbers are being hushed up.
Advertising revenue is down and so are sales. Media companies are making less profit and the first place they home in on to reduce costs is the already thin newsroom. Exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. It should be obvious that if you sell a quality product at a reasonable price, people will buy it.
Newsrooms were depleted in the 2012-2014 bloodbath when more than 1 000 people were retrenched. You can’t have overstretched, underresourced newsrooms and expect quality products. As company techies try to work out how to make money from “content repurposing” – online journalism and social media – the journalism industry suffers as the consumers become used to getting online news for free. That’s the first issue – no money.
Then, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Hate Crimes Bill looms like a stormy grey cloud.
Freedom of expression under attack
The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill has been released for public comment. Just about everyone is clapping because we think there is finally some way to deal with the racists, misogynists and xenophobic and gender bigots but the implications for freedom of expression are extremely serious. How are we going to ensure freedom of expression?
The Bill is too broad and contains no exceptions for journalists, who need to critique and criticise and comment in their work without fearing that they could be thrown in jail for a few years.
The Bill encroaches on the Constitutional givens for freedom of information, access to information and freedom of expression, analysis and satire. The public participation process ends on January 31 2017. Hopefully the Bill will be withdrawn in its current form and amended.
ANC wants to revive Media Appeals Tribunal
As attacks from the private sector and government kicks in, the ruling party decides it should join the party. It’s going in for the kill with a Media Appeals Tribunal. Last week, the ANC decided it’s time to release a statement on the untransformed media in terms of ownership, control and management.
A tribunal would see Parliament, and ultimately the party, control the media because the majority of MPs are ANC members. Take note of how voting already goes every time there is a motion against the president.
The ANC statement goes: “Honesty, accountability, fairness and editorial independence are meant to be the hallmarks of our media but it is increasingly clear that certain sections of the media continue to adopt anti-transformation stances and remain unaccountable to the general public.”
The ANC noted at its 52nd national conference that the press ombudsman/Press Council is not adequate to protect the rights of “individual citizens, community and society as a whole”.
To cut a long story short, the ANC “calls on Parliament to accelerate the implementation of the resolution to establish” the media tribunal.
Meanwhile the Press Council’s co-regulation system is working at its best ever. Logic for having a media tribunal?
Faking it: Journalist violates ethics
But the year also ends with a horrible case from within: a journalist made up an interview with a famous football star. It was published in the widely distributed Soccer Laduma, which was then instructed by the Press Appeals Panel chair Judge Bernard Ngoepe to publish a huge front-page apology to its readers who are still fuming mad. The freelance journalist, one Patrick Baloyi, made up an interview and even proffered a voice recording of an interview with Lucky Baloyi (no relation).
This is one bad case among thousands of good cases of journalists’ integrity – following the code of ethics. Unfortunately rotten eggs give journalists a bad name and the whole bang shoot get tarred with the same brush.
Yet, it was actually a journalist at Power FM who discovered that the interview was a fake. This case shows that co-regulation and peer pressure works. No one is protecting this fake journalist, who is apparently in hiding.
Sad day for diversity and plurality
The Times Media Group is in the process of buying Primedia. If this deal goes through it would be a sad day for journalism because the diversity of views will be reduced.
And watch out for more retrenchments. Monopolies are not good for media. Ask the citizens of the United Kingdom and the United States.
Altogether, clearly it’s been a bad and a sad year for media and journalism: retrenchments, mergers and freedom of expression under threat.
Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s media studies department and chairs the South African National Editors’ Forum’s ethics and diversity committee