When the Mail & Guardian began life as the Weekly Mail in 1985, it would go on to become the most trusted chronicler of the brutalities of the twilight years of the apartheid regime. It was fearless and irreverent, bold and opinionated. It was celebrated across the world as an example of the value of good, courageous journalism in the face of a violent regime.
The Weekly Mail, or the M&G as it subsequently became, never espoused a mechanical act of storytelling, divorced of the humanity of the writer, or the reader. The peril in which it existed in the 1980s made it impossible for the M&G to function as a wash, rinse and repeat operation. It was journalism as it is always meant to be — truth telling as an act of activism, an act of compassion.
Because above all, the M&G is an idea. It is the idea that excellent journalism empowers the confrontation of a world that is horribly unequal and unjust. It is an idea that bore fruition in the strong culture of editorial independence that has characterised this paper all these years later.
The single biggest threat to media freedom in South Africa is actually not government — though we must remain vigilant of attempts to regulate the media. It is not the crookery of the corrupt who offer to pay the mortgage bonds of the journalists investigating them — though this is happening with increasing frequency. Nor is it the agendas of media proprietors who impose their political biases on newsrooms — though the sorry state of Independent Newspapers stands out as warning enough, without us delving into the circumstances surrounding Songezo Zibi’s departure from Business Day.
The challenge facing news media today is the financial pressures caused by the growth of the internet. Internet giants such as Google and Facebook, which lack transparency themselves, have escalated the commercial pressure on news publishers leading to yet more retrenchments and more cuts in investment, depriving us of our most precious assets, experienced journalists.
The biggest threat to the independence of a small publisher like the M&G is its financial well being.
It’s time we drop the pretence that all is fine and well in the lands of news publishers. Because it’s not just the M&G.
We’re still mulling the shocking details of the allegations of the corrupt nexus between the Gupta’s ANN7 news channel, Multichoice and former minister of communications Faith Muthambi. Then there’s Multichoice’s equally dodgy dealings with the SABC. When you consider that it is Multichoice that is subsidising the print and internet assets in Media24, then you realise the Faustian pacts made to keep publishing the news.
Unfortunately, or fortunately really, the M&G does not have the buffer of a listed company to insulate it from the upheaval in global media.
Our own resident capitalists are guilty of some really bad decisions that have certainly not helped our current financial standing in a depressed economy, where print circulation continues to dwindle and digital revenue models struggle.
But we refuse to be demoralised.
Writing a programme for the Resistance newspaper Combat in 1944, the French author Albert Camus spoke about the ideals of a free press. “We thought then that a country is often worth what its press is worth. And, if it is true that newspapers are the voice of a nation, we were decided, in our place and for our feeble part, to elevate this country by elevating its language.”
Many, many years later Camus’s words ring true for the struggling newspapers of the world and their digital descendants.
So as the M&G prepares to usher in a new era, with a new proprietor expected to be announced in the coming days, it is great comfort to us that this new dispensation regards editorial independence as sacrosanct. It is our fervent hope as well that we are able to ensure the further development of our journalism.
In the meanwhile we remain devoted to the pursuit of justice through the act of seeking the truth and telling it as best we can. We will never cede our editorial independence — and we’re certain we will not be expected to.