Amid the rise of fake news globally and following the recent revelations about “media capture” and the manipulation of journalists by less than credible sources, as exemplified by the Sunday Times saga, there have been calls for a commission of inquiry. This is to restore the public’s trust in the news media by establishing what has gone wrong and what to do to strengthen ethics.
In thinking through these issues and, if it calls for an inquiry, we should heed some of the lessons from previous post-apartheid South African inquiries into the news media, starting with the media hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and how unresolved issues from the hearings have resurfaced in later inquiries, such as the South African Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into racism in the news media and the Sisulu commission of inquiry into political bias at the public broadcaster, the SABC.
The TRC has been widely lauded for the way in which it is thought to have aided truth and justice in South Africa and for serving as a model for many other similar processes around the world.
Central to any truth and justice process is the dissection of the role of social institutions in a previous state and their subsequent involvement in a new state.
The TRC media hearings set out to explore the role that media organisations played in upholding the apartheid state and their complicity, directly or indirectly, in human rights violations. Although the TRC succeeded in documenting the role that the news media played, it did not go far enough in addressing fundamental issues that have come to underpin and inform the post-apartheid role of the news media. It also neglected the fundamental structural and organisational changes that were needed to break with the past and to furnish a new ethos and role for the news media post-apartheid.
The TRC itself was reliant on the media, and particularly the broadcasting media, to provide a public platform for the victims of gross human rights violations to lay bare the atrocities and secrets of apartheid.
This shows that the link between past and future is of absolute importance; it shows that the media does not simply stand trial but also has a role to play in the transition to an emerging democracy, as both a platform and an agent of transformation.
The latter is crucial to an engagement with the multifaceted and often precarious role that the news media play in transitional, post-conflict and postcolonial societies.
We have much to learn from the factual history of the media in South Africa. Among other things, it showed us the perils of how legislation can restrict the free flow of information and how the news media played a crucial role as a propaganda machine for the National Party (NP), which put a great deal of money and effort into selling apartheid both at home and abroad. To this end, media institutions and journalists were targeted; government spies were placed in the media and journalists were recruited to spy on their peers.
John Horak was one of many spies placed in the media by the apartheid regime. During the TRC media hearings, Horak said that half of South Africa’s newsrooms were populated by spies and government informers providing intelligence to the NP. He also said almost every newspaper in South Africa had informers promoting apartheid and NP policies.
But he also said it was not necessary to place government spies in the SABC or at The Citizen of that time, because they supported the NP. Thus, the TRC showed the collusion of both broadcast and print media in upholding the political agenda of the ruling party of the day.
Post-apartheid, the debate about the role of the news media and who it serves is still alive and well, and the recent questions raised about fake news and sources punting particular agendas that harm the country have reinforced this.
So, is a media inquiry desirable and feasible? Yes; dissecting what has happened and where things have gone wrong, as well as checking the guidelines that safeguard ethics in the news media will go a long way towards forging a new ethos for the news media.
To do this, the process must be seen to be free from any government interference. In this regard, the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into racism in the news media faltered because it was seen as being strong-armed by the government. Equally, the Sisulu commission, essentially an internal investigation conducted by the SABC itself, lacked credibility and, by extension, effect.
We are going to have to tackle these issues on a broad front, and partnerships between and the involvement of news media, civil society and professional organisations will have to address the ongoing challenges facing the news media in contemporary society. Media houses and journalists from the broader media sector, as well as organisations and interests groups such as the South African National Editors’ Forum, the South African Communication Association and a wide range of media advocacy groups, such as the Right2Know Campaign and the Support Public Broadcasting Coalition, will have to partner to start a real conversation about the role of the news media.
With the increasing political battles and debates about the role of the news media worldwide, partnerships such as these might just provide a model for other areas of contention.
Ylva Rodny-Gumede is a professor in the department of journalism, film and television at the University of Johannesburg