Hlaudi Motsoeneng is unavoidable. Just a few weeks after finding himself in the media’s crossfire for allegedly being given a wife as a gift, the SABC’s chief operating officer found himself in the thick of controversy for recommending that journalists should be licensed practitioners (much like doctors and lawyers).
“You know when you are a journalist , you are a professional journalist. If you don’t have ethics and principles and you mislead on your reporting, like lawyers… if you commit any mistake they take your licence,” Motsoeneng told an audience at Wits University’s annual Radio Days event. “We should do the same thing with journalists. That is what we need to do if we want to build South Africa,” he later added. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with local news outlets. The South African Editors Forum condemned Motsoeneng’s proposal, calling it “ignorant” and “at odds with freedom of speech which is enshrined in the constitution.” The Business Day was more scathing in it’s critique, likening Motsoeneng to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
For Hlaudi Motsoeneng to speak of ethics (when the Public Protector found his very appointment to the SABC to be irregular – with allegations that he forged his matric) is, well, f*cking hilarious. The obvious thing to do would be to wave away his proposal and just pretend that nothing happened. I mean, this is the same guy who spearheaded the national broadcaster’s efforts to broadcast 70 percent “good news” about the government. Nothing he says should be taken seriously, right? But, lest we forget, even a broken clock is right at least twice a day. So what if Hlaudi’s proposal isn’t all that nonsensical?
Credibility is a big part of the media’s identity. People buy newspapers and view or listen to traditional media outlets such as radio and television because they believe the information being dispensed is both factual and (with the exception of tabloids) falls within the constraints of journalistic ethics. But what happens when journalists get it wrong? Just a few months back, local media outlets published a reported that found South Africa has the worst maths and science education in the world (here, here and here). It would later be established that the report was absolute poppycock. Similarly, local media have been publishing a number of survey results from marketing insight company Pondering Panda. One of the most widely reported surveys was one that found that 52 percent of young, black South Africans believe the Democratic Alliance would bring apartheid back. Explosive? Yes. Factual? Not entirely. The problem with Pondering Panda’s surveys is that they’re conducted on Mxit (a site that has no way of verifying your name and age). Their survey was flawed from the word “go”. But the media reported it, and people believed it. And while the aforementioned are relatively innocuous journalistic scandals, there are examples of much bigger ethical scandals. Just last year Andrew Beatty (Agency France Presse’s southern Africa news editor) found himself in hot water after tweeting the name of Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi’s rape accuser. Because of the stigma that comes with being raped, the Press Code (and the Criminal Procedure Act) states: “the identity of rape victims…shall not be published without the consent of the victim.” What Beatty did was both unethical and illegal. His response? “[The accuser] is an adult making claims against a prominent individual, not only to police, but within public org.” Such an incident displays scant regard for the law and the basic principles of journalism. So should we heed Hlaudi’s advice and start dispensing and revoking journalist’s “licences”? The short answer is: no.
Granted, the media isn’t inerrant but self-regulation is an important part of the media. As evidenced with the national broadcaster (who many people believe exist to execute the bidding of the government), things generally go pear-shaped when external bodies try to dictate to the media how they should report. It almost always leads to a conflict of interest. That’s why the media have their own regulatory bodies (and the print media has the Press Ombudsman). And, generally speaking, these incidents aren’t representative of our country’s media landscape. They’re isolated events.So while Motsoeneng may have a point when he speaks of stricter media accountability, he falls flat on his face when it comes to methodology.
Here’s hoping that Motsoeneng never gets his wish. The last thing we want is our entire range of media outlets run like the SABC.
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