Unfair, untrue and unpatriotic

Raymond Louw reminds us of the National Party's lengthy investigation of the media.

AS IT STARTS its investigation into racism in the media the Human Rights Commission might be intrigued by the fate of an earlier South African inquiry into the press. It was set up by the National Party government in 1950 shortly after it had come to power and when it was zealously implementing apartheid through a string of racial laws that earned it international opprobrium. The commission’s purpose was to investigate the concentration of control and monopoly tendencies, the activities of stringers and foreign correspondents and the accuracy and responsibility of South African journalists. Underlying the probe was an attempt to nail the English-language press and its journalists for being unpatriotic by misrepresenting the government at home and abroad.

The inquiry followed a debate in parliament in June that year led by Dr A. J. R. van Rhyn a former editor of Die Volksblad. In that debate he accused British and other overseas newspapers of sensationalism, of misrepresenting South African affairs, of misleading people by false reports and of inciting public opinion overseas against the people of South Africa. Black suspicions “about white honour” were raised by reading distortions in the papers, he charged. Eric Louw, then minister of external affairs, weighed in saying that much harm had been done by slanderous newspaper reports and called for the deportation of foreign journalists who abused South Africa’s hospitality. Dr Albert Hertzog, minister of posts and telegraphs, said that the SAPA, a co-operative news agency set up by the major newspapers, had a monopoly in the supply of news which it first passed through London for “filtering” and “twisting”. Not to be outdone the prime minister, Dr Daniel F. Malan, described the South African press as the “most undisciplined in the world”. Comment, he said, should be restrained by patriotism.

Mr Justice J.W. van Zyl of the Cape provincial division of the Supreme Court was appointed to chair the inquiry. It began enthusiastically by impounding all press cables leaving the country between 1950 and 1955, collecting reports that had been sent overseas by mail and by taking clippings from overseas newspapers. From 1955 oral evidence was taken from reporters and editors in secret. It is remarkable that editors and journalists who have written books covering the period have failed to indicate what took place during those hearings.

The commission reported first in 1962 and again in 1964 having produced nine volumes containing 1 400 pages of text and 2 850 more of annexures (weight, 27kg). It described 75.95 per cent of the 1 665 214 words cabled to the British press from May 1950 to July 1955 and February to April 1960 as representing a distorted view of South Africa — “unfair, unobjective, angled and partisan” — and classified 75 per cent of press comment “exported” from the country as “bad to very bad”, 14.6 per cent “faulty” and only 9.4 per cent as “good”.

Its conclusion assumed that whites were the guarantors of peace in South Africa and it complained that journalists failed to report on the barbaric behaviour of “Natives” and were inadequate in their reporting of the government’s viewpoint and of Afrikanerdom in general. Foreign correspondents made untrue statements, ignored the government’s problems in restoring law and order and played down government statements while giving undue prominence to statements by its opponents. It called for the establishment of a statutory press council to reprimand, impose fines of “unlimited amounts”, “maintain the dignity of the state and its officials” and impose “self control and discipline”, and a register of journalists with special registration for overseas transmission rights. The press council was also expected to encourage accurate reporting, informed and responsible comment and to maintain press freedom.

This ponderous exercise cost R355 000, took 14 years — and was ignored by the press and the government.