/ 3 October 2022

As crusaders for accountability journalists cannot fly under the ethics radar

#sabc8 'targeted' Because Journalistic Ethics At Odds With Sabc Policy, Court Hears
SABC8 'targeted' because journalistic ethics at odds with SABC policy, court hears. Photo: Supplied

“In the age when humanity is crying for facts, truth-telling, fair reporting and accountability, sometimes ethical journalism seems to be on the ropes. While there is a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism and recognition of how journalists committed to accuracy are doing good work and connecting with news consumers, there are times when ethical journalism appears rather bleak.” 

The above passage is an introductory observation by the panel that looked into media ethics and credibility as part of efforts by the South African National Editors Forum to improve journalism standards in the country. In 2019, the forum commissioned an inquiry chaired by retired judge Kathy Satchwell to investigate ethical standards at the country’s media houses following “investigative” stories covered in one of the country’s leading weekend newspapers between 2011 and 2016 which were later uncovered as propaganda and described as “fake news propaganda fiction” by three judges in the Pretoria high court. 

Although the newspaper in question later apologised for the serious ethical failures, what the indiscretion did was expose the serious shortcomings in our media regulatory regime and just how vulnerable the media is to outside interests, including manipulation. Secondly, the apology came after extensive damage had been done to individuals’ careers, and public institutions such as the South African Revenue Service, and lives had been wrecked.

What is sad about the entire Sunday Times saga, and its reputational damage to journalism and the media industry, in general, is that the journalists who were behind these “investigative stories” simply changed newsrooms and are still plying their trade as journalists at different publications. They are still on media mailing lists for press releases, have access to key events and still retain the journalistic privilege of soliciting opinion from newsmakers, including from government officials and the private sector.   

Shortcomings of the self-regulation system 

One of the key sentiments expressed by Satchwell and her panel members was their overall satisfaction with the current regulatory design as demonstrated by the following passage in their report: “All panellists wish to state that they have learnt in the course of this inquiry that the current system of self- or co-regulation of the print and online media and by the broadcasting industry appears to be working well and to the benefit of the South African democracy.” 

But a close examination of the self- or co-regulatory system reveals some serious inherent limitations that render it toothless or impotent.  

The first glaring shortcoming is that it is voluntary – players in the industry can choose whether they want to be part of the regulatory structure or not. To take just one example, one of the country’s big outlets operates outside of the ambit of the Press Council. Despite this, the Independent Group continues to print thousands of newspapers across the country and continues to have an online presence across various platforms including social media. 

As matters stand, it is not entirely clear whether the group has any internal or in-house regulatory mechanism to which its journalists are subjected. Some of the stories that have been carried in the group’s titles, including the “Tembisa decuplets”, are cause for concern and point to deep systemic problems as far as regulation is concerned. 

The second example that quickly comes to mind is the South African Jewish Report following the online publication’s expulsion from the Press Council or its decision to abandon the council (depending on whose version to go with). The expulsion or withdrawal came as a result of the publication’s refusal to obey the rulings of the council, including appeal rulings. 

At the heart of the matter was the refusal by the publication to abide by the ruling against it, which included publishing an apology, as is the requirement when there have been findings against offending publications. 

What this points to is the existence of space provided by the existing regulatory system for members or would-be members to simply fly out of the regulatory structure if they don’t like the rules. There is nothing that forces anyone to remain in the regulatory stable.  

We are hiring – come as you are 

I recently came across a job advertisement placed by a prominent weekend newspaper for a mid-level reporter to be based at its Durban bureau. What I found interesting about the advert and the job specification was the glaring omission of any mention of “ethics”, given the importance of ethics in journalism, especially given the relative seniority of this specific role. 

Under the heading dealing with responsibilities, skills and attributes, as well as qualifications, experience and knowledge, not a single mention was made of ethics or ethical judgment as a requirement. I am not sure why something so important for the industry and the profession of journalism was omitted. Perhaps the assumption was that those who would apply for the position would be ethically inclined or imbued and there was, therefore, no need to make such a public demand as a requirement for applicants and demonstrate to the public that ethics in journalism is top-drawer stuff, especially given this newspaper’s association with the tax services “rogue unit” and Cato Manor scandals. 

Admittedly, the fact that the advert in question was silent on ethics and integrity as a requirement does not suggest the publication places less value on this important aspect in journalism and media in general. But a job advert presents an important communication platform for any company on a recruitment drive to communicate its stance on issues such as ethics. 

After the local government elections in November last year we saw, for instance, how a former EWN reporter later emerged as a municipal councillor for one of the political parties in the Joburg city council, despite him having been a reporter during the same elections, and thus creating a serious ethical dilemma for his employer and his boss. 

I am not sure how this journalist was able to play his employer in such a cold-blooded manner. However, it points to weaknesses in the system where people can work as journalists during the day, and be communication consultants after hours, without declaring such conflicts of interest, despite the Press Code being clear on such matters. 

The code states that the media “shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest as well as practices that could lead readers to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism”.

One of the concerns expressed by the Satchwell report deals with the issue of training and how it is undermined by shrinking budgets, leaving most newsrooms, in my view, to rely on the goodwill of individual journalists to help with the training of junior staff. 

Law, control and self-regulation 

I argued in an article published in this newspaper last month that the media is a very powerful institution, especially in democratic societies. It enhances democracy through its mandate (given to it by society) to question power and its abuse. This socially-derived mandate becomes severely compromised and betrayed once journalists cease to serve society and instead focus on serving their own interests. 

One way of dealing with the ethical and credibility crisis facing journalism in our country is for the media to think afresh about ways in which the self-regulatory dispensation can be seriously enhanced or overhauled. 

One of the outcomes of this regulatory consolidation process should be the professional standing of journalism and how it compares to other professions, such as the law, engineering and accountancy. 

We saw recently, for instance, how the body regulating the conduct of lawyers initiated a process against one of their own who was involved in the Senzo Meyiwa murder trial, culminating in the deregistration of the affected individual as a lawyer owing to his alleged unprofessional conduct that impugned the public standing of the profession. 

As the Satchwell report correctly argues, engineers still do unethical, and even illegal, things despite there being a professional body regulating the profession. Accountants and auditors still behave badly despite there being professional bodies regulating their conduct. 

The difference though is that those engineers, accountants and lawyers who dip their fingers into clients’ trust funds or accountants who falsify financial reports do so knowing full well that if they are found out they will never be able to practise in those professions again.  

As matters stand, journalism has no protection against charlatans who not only discredit the media as a vital pillar of democracy but also pose a threat to society’s stability through deliberately spreading lies. Most worryingly is that such individuals enjoy privileges that should only be the preserve of journalists with acceptable professional standing.

We are not the only country in the world faced with the dilemma of how to regulate the media without encroaching on public liberties and press freedom. The urgent task, however, is to bring into the regulatory stable those who operate outside of any such regulation at the moment.  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.