Guardians of the public interest

Newspaper editors and government have vastly different views of the media's role in a democracy.

THE HIGH-RISK venture of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) to engage President Thabo Mbeki and his cabinet in a "heart-to-heart" discussion about their deteriorating relationships has paid off in part. The editors gained the impression that the government group went home somewhat reassured that editors do not wear horns and conscious that some of the blame was due to its own shortcomings.

Indeed, Mbeki, whose office has been the most persistent critic of the media, publicly acknowledged at the end of the gathering that his administration was partly to blame for the sometimes difficult relationship between journalists and the government. He said, "As government we have not done what we ought to have done and that is to communicate clearly. The message came across very strongly that this has been a very serious failure and I think we need to correct that."

He added that the conference had alerted him to media issues that he was probably not sufficiently sensitive to and he alluded to the ongoing battle between the media and the prosecuting authorities over the serving of subpoenas on editors and journalists to give evidence in the Rashaad Staggie murder case. The journalists refuse to testify and Mbeki indicated that he was now more aware of the reasons for the media's attitude and that further discussion was required.

The meeting, with Mbeki accompanied by a dozen cabinet ministers and more than a score of officials, took place on June 29 and 30 at an extraordinary venue, Sun City, the home of gambling and other pleasures created by hotelier Sol Kerzner in the days of high apartheid and which helped to bolster the fortunes of the apartheid "homeland" of Bophuthatswana. The risk that Sanef took, however, had nothing to do with the fleshpots of Sun City. Rather it lay in the perception that the public might gain of its venture. Was the media cosying up to the government? Was a pact being negotiated between the media and the government? To counter these impressions, Sanef studiously avoided the use of the term bosberaad - first bestowed on the policy conclaves of the former National Party - that the government favoured and opted for the more neutral indaba (conference). However, the risk that Sanef would be seen to be trying to negotiate a pact was increased by its singular failure to implement a decision that it had taken at its annual general meeting only a week earlier. Then it had resolved to reject the government's desire to hold the sessions off the record in favour of open discussion. At Sun City, having declared that it wanted the meetings to be open, Sanef gave in without a whimper when the government demanded that, except for an open plenary session, all discussions be closed.

The government led with an attack, voiced by Deputy President Jacob Zuma. He outlined government perceptions of media shortcomings - the use of inexperienced journalists; stories with factual mistakes; stories which lacked focus, depth and purpose and which were often poorly researched with little analysis and "balance". This, he said, gave rise to the view that the industry was not part of President Mbeki's African Renaissance.

He also questioned the criteria used - and who set them - to determine what was newsworthy. He asked whether the media should be "mere social observers" or whether they should "become part and parcel of the transformation process in the country". Though the media and the government had to recognise each other's independence, they had to find a common understanding of objectives, while taking national interest and priorities into account. He hoped the meeting would "enrich our understanding of our respective roles and how these can assist with the development of our country".

His views unwittingly supported Sanef's contention that politicians and government officials had little in-depth knowledge about the media and how it functioned and did not understand its role in a democracy. Sanef gave a long dissertation on the complexities of media operations and the problems facing its various elements.

But Zuma had touched on the issue that was clearly the core concern of the cabinet ministers - the "national interest" - which they raised in the various discussion sessions and which they related to interaction between the media and the government "in the interests of the country". Both sides felt that the "national interest" was broadly defined in the Constitution. The ministers described it as the promotion of a non-racist, non-sexist society and the journalists predicated it on the constitutional requirement for freedom of expression and the freedom of the media.

No one raised the bogey inherent in promoting the "national interest". In pre-war Germany the "national interest", as declared by the Nazis, was national socialism; in the half-century preceding the advent of democracy in South Africa it was apartheid, and in America at one stage during the cold war it was the communist witch hunt called McCarthyism.

The fundamental principle underlying the role of the media was never broached apart from a brief reference to it in the media's initial presentation - "the public interest". In its intense preoccupation with the "national interest", the government has revealed its lack of understanding of the "public interest" principle that drives the media. To put the difference between the two concepts in its simplest form - the government might regard new legislation it wanted to introduce as being in "the national interest" while the media might regard rejection and vocal opposition to the legislation as being in "the public interest". Opposition to apartheid in the pre-democracy era was regarded by the newspapers that were engaged in that activity as being conducted in "the public interest".

That chasm remains as the media contemplates the many proposals put forward at the end of the indaba to chart "the way forward". The Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS) has been quick to refer - erroneously - to these proposals having been "adopted" at the conference. Many editors have put forward their criticisms of the document - criticisms which were being collated at the time that Focus was going to press - and have still to agree on what they are prepared to accept as influences on future media conduct.

Raymond Louw is editor and publisher of
Southern Africa Report.