Occasionally we have to promote our day jobs. Here an op-ed that occasional AIAC blogger Herman Wasserman and I wrote last week for a South African publication on the latest manufactured scandal by the opposition Democratic Party (not to say that the ANC can’t avoid scandals):

Helen Zille and the Democratic Alliance’s media office are well schooled in the fine art of dictating the news cycle. In a media environment in which political reporting relies heavily on soundbytes, stage personalities and bedroom antics, they know a gap when they see one.

Such a gap presented itself this week when the Independent Newspaper Group sent out a letter inviting the DA to advertise in a (presumably paid-for) supplement it will be running next year to celebrate the ANC’s centenary . She has reported Independent for political bias to the Press Ombudsman.

The tone of Zille’s letter suggested she uncovered some type of fraud.

Zille has every right to complain to the Press Ombudsman – that is her right as a citizen of the country.

But in matters of ethics one has to be consistent, and therefore Zille’s complaints should be evaluated in terms of the general journalistic practices in the country.

Notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘independence’ are strong concepts in the professional ideology of journalists (and therefore also in the Press Code cited by Zille), and they are usually applied especially vigorously in the context of political reporting.

But these aren’t unproblematic or self-evident concepts. Most media practitioners now agree objectivity and independence is very hard to attain or maintain.

The question should be ask whether objectivity and neutrality are always desirable, and whether journalists should not be encouraged to take a position on important issues. Also, we have to ask why objectivity and independence are insisted upon in some instances and not in other cases. Should the DA not also complain when journalists are not objective or independent when reporting (if they bother to report at all) on strikes, “service delivery” protests, economic policy, etcetera?

The irony is that in many of these issues, South African journalists are more likely to parrot the DA’s criticism of irresponsible strikers, opportunistic protesters or inefficient government.

Fairness as an ethical value is perhaps a better yardstick for journalists, and one that does not necessarily require of journalists to suspend their intellects, make excuses for having an opinion or paralyse them from taking a stance when needed.

The principle behind the demand for independence in political reporting is of course important; media’s widely accepted role is to assist voters or citizens to make informed political choices.

But it is usually not considered unfair reporting when newspapers declare their support for a particular party or candidate. This is common practice the world over. This is par for the course in mainstream British journalism, which has been so influential in the history of South Africa’s press. The Times slant their reporting to the Conservatives, The Guardian historically to the Labour Party. Even in the United States, where the ideology of ‘professionalism’ hides the narrow political consensus in the media, newspapers publicly endorse candidates for public office (from police chief, to Judges or President).

In South Africa, the DA (and its forerunner, the DP) has had more success with the country’s media—in terms of electoral endorsements—than the ANC could ever wish for. Observers of South Africa’s inaugural democratic elections noted that while the DA gained less than 2% of the vote, it garnered 90% of editorial endorsements. The last time a newspaper openly endorsed a candidate was in 1999 when Peter Bruce of Business Day endorsed Bantu Holomisa’s UDM. The DA did not question the bona fides of these papers to deliver a free press.

In fact, more recently the fact that the print media’s slant on stories are often line up with DA talking points, is an open secret among journalists and political operatives.

Any sign of support for the ANC is frowned on disproportionally to the same level of sympathy for the DA. (It is interesting to note how journalists reacted with venom towards their colleagues at the New Age, for its purported ANC bias).

This stance can partly be traced to the liberal-democratic normative framework followed by South African media where they see themselves as ‘watchdogs’ of democracy. This means they usually take up an adversarial stance towards the government, sometimes even a knee-jerk hostility. In a study conducted by one of the authors a few years ago, political journalists that were interviewed often fashioned themselves as an unofficial opposition to the ANC, because the ruling party is so dominant and they believed the country’s political system need more balance.[JJ2]

Zille’s central criticism, based on an appeal to the Press Code, is that the Independent Group’s carrying of a supplement celebrating the ANC’s centenary represents a conflict of interest, and that the supplement represents a ‘political interest’ that will ‘influence or slant reporting’.

Putting aside for a moment that we’re talking about a paid advertorial here and not editorial copy, it’s not impossible to rule out that Independent Newspapers might be less eager to criticise the ANC in a paper that at the same time carries a supplement celebrating its centenary.

But given the press’s track record of anti-government and anti-ANC sentiments, this is unlikely. Let’s also remember that reporting on a historical event, about a party with a long history that, regardless of your political stance you can’t be denied was highly influential in bringing an end to a racial dictatorship, does not in and of itself represent bias or slanted reporting.

At the same time, we recognise this is a paid supplement, and not supposed to be ‘neutral’ political reporting. The collaboration with the ANC is not hidden away, it is out in the open. It does not purport to give political information to help voters make up their minds in an election, it is a way for Independent newspapers to make money.

But Zille is also selective in her criticism.

There is a conflict of interest here, but it’s not the one Zille highlights between ‘objective, independent’ reporting and the commemoration of a milestone in a political party’s history.

It’s between media freedom and commercial interests.

And it’s that conflict that one sees more and more in the South African media industry, as newspapers wrap business copy in advertising supplements for corporations, paid “lifestyle” supplements, or close parts of their media business that don’t guarantee huge profit margins or choose to report on political celebrities (like Malema) rather than on the political substance of their policies (say for instance a good investigative piece on the ethics of offering people money for HIV tests because poverty allows for their health decisions to be commodified).

Zille is right about one thing, and this is that it is deeply ironic that the media are (rightly so) quick to criticise the ANC for proposing a Media Appeals Tribunal and passing a Protection of State Information Bill, yet even quicker to take the ANC’s money, or the money of advertisers willing to align themselves with political power for commercial interests.

The ANC centenary supplement might be a foolish commercial decision by Independen Newspaperst, if it results in them losing support among an anti-ANC readership, or it might win readers for them among ANC supporters. This would be a matter for their marketing department to decide. The point is, this was in all likelihood a commercial rather than a political decision.

But it is this rabid commercialisation that presents the biggest conflict of interest for media in a transitional democracy and a highly unequal country. The ANC supplement ultimately is less about politics than about money– and therein lies the ultimate irony. Independent Newspapers’ decision to run this supplement is not so much an example of unethical and misleading journalism – it is a paid for advertorial after all, and the commercial relationship at play is made clear for everyone to see – as it is an indication of the fact that editorial positions in the South African media are all too often for sale to the highest bidder.

If Zille is eager to improve the standards of journalism in the country – and we’ll be the first to admit there is plenty of room for improvement – she should rail against the superficiality of political coverage, the lazy press-release journalism that regurgitates verbatim the propaganda of party spokespeople and the tendency for political journalists to amplify the voices of political spin doctors rather than listen more closely to the poor and the marginalized, who are still too often the silent recipients of political policies designed to make headlines. But, since this type of journalism usually works so well for the DA, why would she?


Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.