Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
There is no doubt that the craft of journalism – and I believe, when practiced properly, it is a fine craft – is a vital part of a healthy democracy.
The indisputable belief that a free press and the free society go hand in hand has an old precedent. The notion of the profession of the journalism, specifically the print media, as the fourth estate is derived from an old English idea, which, because of our historical association with Britain, also entered into the South African lexicon of journalism.
For interest’s sake, the first three estates were the Lords Spiritual – those members of the clergy, mainly bishops, who are members of the House of Lords, the Lords Temporal – those members of the House of Lords who are either hereditary, Law Lords or Lords appointed for life and the House of Commons – the lower house of the British Parliament, which is the seat of government.
The notion that the press is the fourth estate rested on the premise that the media’s function is to act as a guardian of the public interest and as a watchdog on the activities of government. Now, depending on one’s view of the media, this can either be interpreted as a self-serving rationalisation or an important component of the checks and balances that form part of a modern democracy.
I subscribe to the latter view with the caveat that journalism must be responsible and, preferably, self-regulating. This is no easy task, if we do not share an attachment to a common set of values or ethical principles. There are also the complex and interrelated ethical questions pertaining to rights to privacy, fair and accurate news reporting, censorship and, more problematically, to matters of decency and taste.
Furthermore, I recognise that genuine freedom of expression, as envisaged in our Bill of Rights, for journalists requires that there must always be scope for editorial discretion and, wherever discretion is exercised, errors of judgment are bound to occur. Humans err.
As I mentioned in my letter last week, many journalists demonstrated raw courage and forensic information-gathering to expose the atrocities and human rights violations of the apartheid government. I can remember many great journalists who battled with us during the dark days of apartheid.
People, like Laurence Gander, the editor of the Rand Daily Mail, stood out. He remained my friend to the end of his days. The names of Tony Heard, Helen Zille, Henry Nxumalo, Es’kia Mphahelele, Percy Quboza, Can Themba, Casey Motsitsi and John Kane-Berman also stand out in a roll call of honour too long to list.
I recall that on the only occasion that I had a one-on-one meeting with Mr John Vorster, then prime minister, that he invited me to explain why I allow myself to be used by the Rand Daily Mail. I enquired of him in what way were they using me. He responded by asking why did they always come to me to ask for my comments on the issues of the day.
I recall, for example, that the media did a lot to publicise my work. In fact, by example, I wrote a regular article which was syndicated in all the morning newspapers for quite a long time. The Society of Journalists awarded me the Newsmaker of the Year award in 1973. In 1985, I was similarly honoured when Financial Mail awarded me as their ‘Man of the Year’. I recall this to pay tribute to the positive role that the media played in my life during the liberation struggle and for which I will always be grateful.
Since 1994 journalists now operate in a relatively free environment and a society that is, undoubtedly, much more tolerant and open. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, I fear that the quality of journalism has dipped over the last decade or so. As a frequent and favourite object of misinformation in the South African media, I have two principal charges to lay about the nature of journalism in this country. It is, in my opinion and with all due respect, neither very responsible, nor entirely fearless.
I would like to cite the reporting, as an example, pertaining to comments about the renaming process in my recent online letter dated April 13. Within the context of my letter evaluating the merits and drawbacks of name changing, I wrote:
"I genuinely fear that a new name for the Mangosuthu Highway could re-open the many old wounds in KwaZulu Natal which we have striven to heal for many years (my italics). More than 20 000 died in the internecine violence between the ANC and the IFP. I hope the people of Umlazi will be properly canvassed (my italics). Similarly, one fears that the unseemly haste to rename places like Pretoria and Potchefstroom is not being done with enough consultation with the Afrikaans speaking residents of these places."
To my dismay, most journalists pounced on the phrase "could re-open the old wounds" to suggest that I was anticipating a breakout of violence, or more offensively, that I was advocating violence. "Old wounds" was a clear reference to the deep political divisions that still persist in KwaZulu-Natal. Nor was I hardly proposing, of course, that the good citizens of Pretoria and Potchefstroom, with whom I drew a contrast, were likely to take up arms!
Read, even just in the context of the cited paragraph, it is clear that the thrust of my argument, indeed, the theme of my entire letter, was the need to canvass local residents. But it was just simply not reported like that.
My other charge about the conduct of the media is that of excessive self-censorship, which is quite different from responsible and self-regulating journalism.
Like our young democracy, which often appears more procedural than substantial, South African journalism is well-equipped with institutional guarantees of professional conduct. Indeed, there is no shortage of codes of conduct, rules and regulations for oversight are in place and we even have a press ombudsman. But it is the implementation of these numerous prescripts that raises the most serious questions.
The truth is that South African journalists routinely labour under stringent self-censorship. They do so presumably out of deference to the sensibilities of others or, more likely, for fear of stepping on government toes. We all know how easily an accusation of corruption, originated in the media, can assume monstrous racial overtones and with them trigger a powerful backlash for "controversial" or "hasty" reporting. Where is the fearlessness that was evident in the struggle era?
Most editors, in my experience, practice self-censorship in order to conform to the expectations of the market. For example, the editor of a periodical may consciously or unconsciously avoid topics that will anger advertisers or a parent company in order to protect their livelihood.
This brings me directly to the rule of proportionality. The media, rightly or wrongly, try at all times to pursue news stories in proportion to their importance. In South Africa, this roughly means that the ANC, which controls 70 percent of the political arena, gets 70+ percent of space in the mass media. As an opposition leader, I am naturally concerned about where this leaves the opposition parties, particularly when we are right and the ruling party happens to be wrong.
People are formed and shaped by the institutions around them. The professional climate, created by the institutional foundations of the South African journalism, mirrors this observation exceptionally well. There are very few individuals in the professional community who, in my estimation, are, under so much external pressure, genuinely interested in getting the story right.
A final point I would like to make is the need, in a highly complex country like ours, for journalists to be particularly sensitive to the question of taste and decency. Freedom of expression and privacy, as the former Acting Chairman of the British Press Complaints Commission Professor Robert Pinker observed, are both fundamental human rights but they can seldom, if ever, be treated as absolute rights because they frequently come into such conflict with each other.
This year is the tenth anniversary of the tragic death of Diana Princess of Wales, who, as her brother memorably claimed outside his Cape Town home, was hounded to death by the media. I do not know if that was a fair comment, but I would like to strike a cautionary note that we never allow any South African, in the future, to become prey to such intrusion. The imagery of the words of Virginia Woolf, who famously took exception to those who make their living by "dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other peoples’ souls", were used about the media’s coverage of the late Princess six years before her death. Let it never happen here.
I believe this warning is timeous given the rapid conversion of many South African newspapers to the gospel of tabloid journalism. In this light, the time has perhaps come for a balanced and open debate about what constitutes the public interest and how far journalists can go to write about it.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP