Mail & Guardian wins victory for press freedom

May 21, 2010

Mr Justice Mayat turned down an application for an interdict to muzzle the Mail & Guardian. The application was brought late last night by a Muslim organisation when it learnt the newspaper was publishing a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (see my previous post on this). As a judge and Muslim, Judge Mayat said, he was bound by the Constitution (see M&G editor Nick Dawes’  Twitter feed). Good decision by a principled judge.


E-tv and the World Cup thugs: Section 205 subpoenas may damage media’s credibility, but so does shoddy journalism

January 22, 2010

Media lobbyists are jumping to the defence of e-tv after police served subpoenas on journalists who interviewed two criminals planning to prey on World Cup visitors. Police are demanding the unedited footage of the interview, as well as the identities of the thugs, one of whom has already been arrested. The other is likely to be nabbed soon, which would obviate the necessity fot the subpoenas and allow this issue to disappear quietly. But the debate around the use of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act to force journalists to divulge information won’t go away.

Business Day argues in an editorial today that the legislation should be used circumspectly, not as a tool for lazy policemen who don’t want to do their own investigation.

“…in the e.tv saga, there is little to be gained from forcing journalists to reveal their sources and much potential to damage the media’s credibility with the public and ability to extract information from interviewees in future.”

I agree with Business Day’s argument in general. But I have to add: in the e-tv case, it is the broadcaster itself which damaged the media’s credibility with the public by manufacturing a Read the rest of this entry »


Fewer people are dying in South Africa. Why is that not front page news?

November 16, 2009

The media are missing the real story behind South Africa’s death statistics.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the Health Ministry was rechecking its figures after announcing that South Africa suffered a death toll last year of 756 000, a third more than the previous year. The sudden increase in deaths was, predictably, attributed to Aids.

Academics and scientists have since questioned the figure, saying such surge in deaths – equivalent to the destruction wreaked by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima – was highly unlikely. Someone, it seems, may have transposed the 5 and the 7. Kudos to the Sunday Times for exposing the error.

But buried deep inside the Sunday Times’ story are figures which, to my mind, represent a much more important story: South Africa’s death rate is actually declining. According to Read the rest of this entry »


The Times’ flip-flop on Jonathan Jansen

October 26, 2009

When Jonathan Jansen, newly appointed Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State, announced that he was dropping disciplinary charges against four students who had made a racist and demeaning video of university cleaners, his decision was hailed by The Times as “breathtakingly brave”. In an editorial published on October 19, the newspaper went on to say that the gesture “might be just the tonic needed by the still-divided university”.

Exactly one week later – a week in which Jansen faced a torrent of criticism from student organisations, trade unions and the government, forcing him to reconsider – The Times has changed its tune. The newspaper’s editorial today labels the decision a “mistake”, and criticises Jansen for not consulting widely enough or insisting thast the perpetrators apologise to their victims. Jansen’s decision to reopen discussions on the pardon, The Times opines, is a “positive step”, which “might lead to the kind of dialogue at the university that would result in genuine reconciliation.”

Why the about-turn? How did a decision that was lauded one week as  a “tonic” suddenly become a “mistake”, incapable of producing “genuine” reconciliation at the racially divided university? Was The Times simply bowing to the winds of public opinion?

The Times’ sister newspaper, the Sunday Times, didn’t do much better.

In an editorial headlined “Jansen needs to admit his error“, the newspaper on Sunday described the decision to drop disciplinary charges against the students as akin to “sprinkl(ing) chilli into the wounds of the women who had fallen victim to racist boys who dehumanised them by making them consume foodstuffs that they had urinated into”. Fair enough. The Sunday Times has the right to take a stance on this issue, and express it in the strongest possible terms. But it goes on to say:

It is hard to fathom what was going on in Jansen’s mind when he unilaterally decided to drop charges against the four students who meted out racist and shameful treatment that shook the country. It is even more difficult to figure out why he chose the occasion of his inauguration to announce this ill-informed decision.

We would have expected Jansen to know better that any true reconciliation should be preceded by an expression of remorse on the part of the perpetrator. That ethos is the blue print of our much-vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

There is so much that is wrong with those three paragraphs that I hardly know where to start. Difficult to fathom what Jansen was thinking? Not if you bothered to read his inaugural lecture, in which he went to great lengths to explain his motivations. You may disagree with his nuanced argument that racism should not be reduced to “individual pathologies” – that kicking the four students off campus won’t change the institutional culture – but simply ignoring it does not serve the debate.

And since when is remorse a precondition for “true” reconciliation? Not only did the Sunday Times’s leader writer not read Jansen’s address, he also hadn’t read what he calls the “blue print” for our Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act). If he had, he would have known that remorse was not a requirement for amnesty in the Truth And Reconciliation process. Full disclosure was the only requirement. 

In the Free State University case, disclosure has been made and the students have apologised to the university. They are facing criminal charges – which Jansen hasn’t squashed, and cannot even if he wanted to – and apologising publicly to the victims at this stage would amount to an admission of guilt, which, according to their legal representatives, is why they aren’t prepared to do so at this stage. Again, you may disagree with the reasoning, but it should at least be explained to your readers. The editorial makes no effort to plumb the complexities of the issue.

Newspapers are in the business of printing news. But that is only part of what they do. They also provide entertainment, information such as television schedules, and, yes, opinion. In their editorial columns, newspapers state their position on important matters. If they read them at all, readers look to these editorials to guide and inform their own thoughts. It follows that newspaper editorials should at least be well-informed and logically argued. Newspapers, if they want to be taken seriously, should be opinion leaders, not followers.

As opinion leaders, newspaper have an immesely powerful role in society. But if they squander their readers’ respect, the lose the ability to inform and influence.

The Sunday Times’ editorial does not contribute to the debate about Jansen’s actions. It simply climbs on the bandwagon with the most simplistic of Jansen’s critics. Its readers surely deserve better.


Is this Business Day’s best?

October 22, 2009

In my previous post, I said that Business Day “regurgitated” Anglo American’s statement on the company’s far-reaching restructuring, which included axing two senior South African executives. Turns out I was being charitable to Business Day. The story on Business Day Online was in fact the statement from Anglo American, verbatim. The “story” was still on the website at 11:30pm.

In the meantime, competitors such as Fin24.com and Bloomberg News have killed the story. There will be nothing left for Business Day’s print edition tomorrow.

If this is the best Business Day, South Africa’s premier business daily,  could do on a story of great importance for South Africa, the newspaper has to start thinking seriously about its online presence.


Good and bad business journalism about the Anglo American restructuring

October 22, 2009

Anglo American’s restructuring provided examples what business journalism should and shouldn’t be. Business Day’s online coverage simply regurgitates the press release, while Bloomberg News provides context, explains why the restructuring is taking place, and explores the implications – including the dimsissal of two senior South African executives.

Business Day’s lead:

Anglo American has announced a number of changes across its businesses to create a more streamlined management structure and further focus the Group on its core mining portfolio.

Seven commodity business units are being created, with management teams located in the area of core geographic focus for the business unit and responsible for operational performance and project delivery. These are (etc., etc.,you get the picture….)

That is simply not good enough if Business Day wants to compete in the digital age.

Here’s how Bloomberg played the story:

Anglo American PLC said Thursday it plans to sell off a handful of businesses, oust three top managers and reorganize its management structure as the mining giant looks to focus on a core portfolio of commodities.

The announcement comes a week after rival Xstrata PLC walked away from a proposed merger of the two companies and amid continuing speculation the miner will renew its offer if shareholders think Anglo American is underperforming.

(…)

Anglo American also said Thursday it would reorganize and eliminate a layer of management, moves that will cost Philip Baum, CEO of Anglo Ferrous Metals; Ian Cockerill, head of Anglo Coal; and Russell King, chief strategy officer, their jobs.

The restructuring is a big story for South Africa. Although based in London these days, Anglo remains the granddaddy of South African companies, one of the biggest listed on the JSE and one of the country’s largest private-sector employers. Why, then, did our most important local business publication miss the real story, which is the dismissal of the South African management team?

Both Business Day Online and Bloomberg News were working to tight deadlines, so lack of time can’t be an excuse.

(Disclosure: I worked for Bloomberg as a South African correspondent from 2000 to 2004.)

PS. Fin24.com also got it spot-on:

ANGLO American, the R373bn mining business which recently survived a merger attempt by rival Xstrata, is slashing layers of management in a bid to drive costs down and streamline the business. It has also set out plans to divest from assets deemed non-core.

 Among the management casualties are Ian Cockerill, the former Gold Fields chief executive who more recently headed up Anglo’s coal division, and Philip Baum, the acting chief executive of the South African business. Russell King is also leaving the company.

Fin24.com’s  coverage actually was better in some ways than Bloomberg’s, in that it confirmed that Baum and Cockerill were leaving the company and not just being shoved sideways. But Fin24.com got Baum’s position wrong: he was (until today) chief executive of Anglo American Ferrous Metals. His portfolio is being sold off (Scaw Metals) and divvied up between others (the SA and Brazilian iron ore operations).


More on the media and Caster Semenya

September 15, 2009

OK. I am  obviously in the minority with my view on the media’s handling of the Caster Semenya saga. I still think the media are being unfairly blamed for what must be a harrowing experience for Semenya and her family. But both GenderLinks’ Colleen Lowe Morna  and Wits University’s Professor Anton Harber believe the media unjustifiably invaded the athlete’s privacy.

“Journalists always have choices,” writes Lowe Morna. “They balance the right of the public to know against the right of the individual to privacy. A central pillar of media ethics is to ‘do no harm.’  The harm done by this leak is immeasurable.”

Harber writes: “I can see no justification for this terrible and hurtful intrusion into the personal life of Semenya. There are times when public interest may justify an invasion of privacy, but these should be the exception rather than the rule.”

It is true that the publication of this leak has caused harm. But “do no harm” is most certainly not, as Lowe Morna states,  “a central pillar of media ethics”. If that were the case, most of what passes for investigative journalism would be inadmissable. Journalists would be unable to function as society’s watchdogs. Lowe Morna is probably referring to one of Jay Black’s oft-quoted “guiding principles” for journalists, one of which is “Minimise harm”. Minimising harm means being compassionate, and recognising that your reporting could cause harm. But it also means balancing that compassion with the need to tell the truth and serve the public interest.

Harber, no stranger to invading people’s privacy during his years as a journalist when the public interest demanded it, argues that there is no public interest in this case. But given the speculation around and politicisation of this case, and the role played by bodies such as Athletics South Africa (ASA) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), I would argue that there is a legitimate public interest. If someone has agenda, then all the better for the facts to be aired.

Remember: the media did not first raise questions about Semenya’s gender. The media did not conduct gender tests on her without her knowledge or consent. The media did not try to cover this up. The media did not ignore medical advice to withdraw her from the World Championships. The media did not then try to persuade her to feign injury and withdraw from the 800m final. The media did not turn Semenya into a political football in South Africa. The media did not leak confidential results of the gender tests conducted by the IAAF. The media did not ignore the IAAF’s requests to speak to Semenya about the test results. The media reported those developments, and, assuming they are based on facts, you, the public, had a right to know about them.

Yes, some of the reporting around this saga has been ignorant and some of it has been intrusive. But I still maintain that the media had, and still have, a duty to keep the public informed abut the facts, and that blaming the media for Semenya’s plight is a case of shooting the messenger.