Editorial: As media we must manage our bias

When it is done best, it is done by curious, hard-working people who are neither bound by allegiances nor suffocated by existing narratives. Of all the qualities of good journalists, it is the ability to question our own allegiances constantly that is the most difficult to maintain. We are, after all, only human. But we would like to think that we are able to manage our personal prejudices in the service of the truth.

And it is exactly this quality of journalism — this awareness of its own prejudices, done within the framework of a free, independent media infrastructure — that ensures it remains a noble enterprise.

At present, South African journalism happens in the midst of a concerted campaign to free the state from the grasp of one family (or two, if you count the Zumas) that has been able to use a vast network of influence among members of the government to further its own business interests.

As we’ve noted in this space previously, the references in the State of Capture report by the previous public protector, Thuli Madonsela, show that the media have been an important force in uncovering the reach of state capture and the accompanying battle for the soul of the ANC.

On any given day, journalists in the Mail & Guardian newsroom, as elsewhere, poke at the evidence, accumulate facts, ask questions, cultivate sources, look at documents, win trust, receive rebuttals, start all over again and go on to report the news.

The ongoing revelations about state capture are a good illustration of the importance of a free press. But it’s not the first time the media in South Africa have caused discomfort to the most powerful among us. Over the years, the news media have consistently been central to revealing corrupt practices and maladministration that taints the state.

The real test of our commitment to a free press, however, lies in our ability to tolerate the information disseminated through the media that disrupts our prejudices.

Our real commitment to a plurality of voices lies in our ability to tolerate information that threatens the neatly tucked corners of our worldview.

Our real commitment to a free press lies in our readiness to defend editor Steven Motale and the Sunday Independent when that publication chooses to publish allegations about the deputy president’s apparent fondness for a varied sex life.

Most law-abiding, Constitution-defending citizens of South Africa can tell that these revelations are being used to colour the character of the deputy president in the minds of ANC supporters as he campaigns to become the next leader of the ruling party.

We can question whether an extramarital affair is news. There is definitely a dirty tricks campaign afoot to influence the outcome of the ANC’s elective conference. We must be aware of it and we must be able to guide our readers.

But we also cannot stand for the obstruction of the free flow of information, even if it comes from a camp that has been judged to be “wrong”, “captured” or too close to the Zumas (or the Guptas, or whoever it is that’s actually running the country these days).

Indeed, if some journalists or publications choose to back a particular faction or party and are transparent about it, the M&G certainly has no quibble with that. Objectivity is a myth that has long plagued the practice of journalism. We could just as well purport to be unicorns.

What is dangerous, however, is when we have a very definite narrative of “good guy/bad guy” that we put forward without question and still maintain this as objective journalism.

There was a certain level of hypocrisy and double standards at play last week in the manner some of us responded to Ramaphosa’s attempt to interdict the Sunday Independent.

Ramaphosa is so clearly entrenched as the good guy, because of his opposition to state capture and his willingness to take on the most powerful faction of the ANC, that we failed to call out his real crimes adequately last week. His attempt to muzzle the media must be condemned.

The deputy president’s counsel told the court that Independent Newspapers chairperson Iqbal Survé had assured Ramaphosa that the Sunday Independent would not publish the story. So, Ramaphosa actually called up a media proprietor and asked him to intervene in editorial processes? If it had been the other way around, if it was Zuma calling a newspaper owner, there would have been outrage.

The “good guy/bad guy” narrative is a trap we must resist.

Motale may well be the 2017 ANC elective conference’s version of what journalists Vusi Mona and Ranjeni Munusamy were in Polokwane. Of course Motale’s sources had an agenda. But then, all our sources have agendas. Let us not pretend that the sources of the Gupta Leaks emails obtained and disseminated them to news publications for the sake of puppies and rainbows.

Power is being contested here. And whenever power is being contested, it is ugly.

It is therefore imperative that all of us who work in the media remember what happened in the run-up to Polokwane. Journalists and publications chose sides, they were proxies for factional battles, and they were betrayed.

We are journalists. But we are not freedom fighters. Noble though our work is, we must abandon our self-righteous zeal. Truth, justice, puppies and rainbows are sure to follow if we’re able to report the news as we ought. 

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

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