African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has resurrected the idea of a statutory tribunal to police the media. According to a report in Business Day, he accused the media of “negativity” in their coverage of the ANC government and said the Press Ombudsman is unable to deal effectively with unethical journalism, which he claimed was “very prevalent”.
I don’t think we have to worry too much about this; a statutory media council would be too gross an infringement of media freeom to pass constitutional muster. Be that as it may, Mantashe should be called to account. What exactly does he mean by “negativity”? Reports about failures of service delivery? About corruption? And can he give examples to support his blanket statement that “self-regulation does not work”? Mantashe states that the current Ombudsman cannot fairly adjudicate complaints against the press because he is a former journalist, making him inherently biased. But is that the case? In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.
I did a quick analysis of Press Ombudsman rulings over the past three years, and found only five cases in which the ANC, the government or a senior government official submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. Two of those were upheld, two were partially upheld, and one was dismissed on appeal. Hardly evidence of pro-press bias!
If Mantashe and his party have genuine grievances about press coverage, perhaps they should make use of the Press Ombudsman’s complaints mechanism before declaring that it doesn’t work. They may just be surprised.