Whichever way you look at it, submissions made by the Volksblad at the Press Council public hearings in Bloemfontein on Monday were something of a milestone. This was one of the first times that actual journalists – as opposed to media academics or members of civil society – gave presentations. By CARMEL RICKARD.
After the submissions by Volksblad’s acting night editor, Gert Coetzee, the council’s chairman, Joe Thloloe, commented that this was the first publication that had responded to the council’s request for dialogue and input at the hearings, adding: “Thank you”. And, hearing that Coetzee was about to address the council, one media follower tweeted a comment expressing some relief that a practising journalist was eventually to speak. Previous submissions had been dominated by media academics.
Coetzee, a senior editorial staffer on the Bloemfontein daily, told the Press Council the newspaper was an important media player in central southern Africa, and described the Volksblad as “an important check and balance for democracy in Free State and Northern Cape”, a newspaper whose “removal” would be “unthinkable”.
Just who might want to remove the paper is hard to imagine, since the Volksblad came across as a paragon of journalistic virtue. Coetzee talked of an internal system designed to ensure fairness and accuracy and involving a number of gate-keepers. This works so well that very few complaints are made to the paper’s internal ombudsman while, as far as the paper was aware, only two had been made to the national Press Ombudsman, he contended.
Even though few official complaints had been laid against the Volksblad, the paper had its fair share of griping, he said, with the “usual non-official complaints of role-players in the Free State and Northern Cape communities”. Among these he listed political parties across the board, “tertiary institutions, schools, sports bodies, business, individuals” who only complained about news “which reflects negatively on them”.
People who objected to stories that put them in a “negative” light usually based their plea for permanent positive coverage on the “good relationship” or the “friendship” that existed between the paper and the complainant. Coetzee added that those people who “cry loudest about reportage” were also those who “withhold information from the media” by being “not available; not responding to media enquiries; providing selective information; (and) controlling news conferences by allowing only limited questions”.
In a brief written submission, Coetzee’s editor Ainsley Moos said it was in the interests of newspapers that the press ombudsman receive regular complaints. This was because the feedback received in such cases was “extremely valuable”. He also approved increasing the public visibility of the Press Ombudsman and the number of significant cases dealt with, and said his only proposal was that the council and the ombudsman highlight their work in every way possible, using digital means among others.
The other major input was from media academic JD Froneman of the North-West University, Potchefstroom. Froneman said the Press Ombudsman’s office had kept a low profile for too long and that this had helped “create a situation of mistrust between at least some readers and the industry”. He said it would have been better if the initiative to discuss the press council and its work had come earlier. The present timing suggested the current discussions and debate were sparked by the possibility of a press tribunal. This was denied by council members, who said the timing was a coincidence.
One of Froneman’s major themes was how to strengthen the authority of the Press Ombudsman and he suggested one way to ensure this was to give the ombudsman power to impose fines on recalcitrant newspapers. Repeated offences should be punished he urged. “If the fines for second and third transgressions are substantial, the message will soon get home.”
His remarks critical of the “juniorisation” of newsrooms around South Africa will be met with widespread agreement. “Publishers who erroneously believe that high quality journalism comes cheaply, must come to realise that experienced, quality journalists should be cherished and not sent out to pasture long before their time. This disastrous practice by media companies is one of the main reasons newspapers struggle to keep up their standards,” Froneman said.
He encouraged newspapers to appoint their own internal ombudsmen to “champion ethics in the newsroom” and wants editors to ensure regular columns where media ethics can be discussed, thus providing helpful insights for readers.
What struck me during the hearings was the lack of congruence between the expectations of outside observers and what actually happens during a session of the council. Some journalists and media academics want to take the debate to a more intense level. They keep tabs on the debate and discussion at these sessions in the hope new ideas will be forthcoming from the council members as they think through the proposals put forward. However, in the context of the hearings themselves, this is seldom possible.
Bear in mind that these sessions are partly intended for and are open to the general public, many of whom, if they attended, needed to start right at the beginning with basic information about the council and the way it functions. I confess, for example, that I did not know the precise purpose of the hearings until the start of the session when Thloloe explained the council wanted to review the content and functioning of three basic documents, the Constitution of the Press Council of South Africa, the SA Press Code and the complaints’ procedure.
At the Bloemfontein session which I attended, the numbers were low as usual – only nine people, five of whom were journalists intending to report on the event. But some of the questions and misperceptions raised from the floor forced Thloloe to go back to basics on several issues.
From the patient way in which he deals with questions illustrating that the speaker has little knowledge of the Press Council fundamentals, it’s clear that Thloloe regards these sessions as opportunities to take soundings and to educate people interested enough to attend, even if they don’t have a sophisticated understanding of the role of the media. As a result, it might well sound from tweets posted during the session that Thloloe is repeating the same views many times with no development of his ideas, but if members of the public ask the same questions each time the hearings move to a different city, their questions need to be answered.In a much-quoted remark Tholoe said the council had already received in-depth representations about the way forward and the current road show was intended to obtain “breadth”. If by this he means he wants to know what the general public thinks about the council, the answer has to be “very little”. And yet, the exercise cannot be dismissed. Thloloe’s learnt a lot about the difficulties of getting people to attend such hearings, but to his credit, he’s taking the public seriously. South Africa’s political leadership could do worse than to follow his example. FAM
Carmel Rickard has been a journalist for 30 years and specialises in writing about the intersection of law and politics, a job which, thanks to the internet, she does from a rural town in Free State where she has lived for the last 10 years. Rickard herself also made a submission at Monday's hearings.
“Once I discovered via Twitter that the council had invited public participation at their hearings I decided to attend the session in Bloemfontein (a two-hour drive from my village) and make a brief submission. I wanted to speak as a journalist and also as someone who lives in the platteland and thus has a very different experience of the media from people in the city. I’m concerned about how little coverage of rural areas there is in most newspapers and electronic media and also that very few newspapers are available to rural people (no English language paper in my dorp, for example).
“I also wanted to raise the failure of any normal relationship to develop between local government and the media. In my experience, the local authorities completely ignore the media and thus effectively remove any way in which the community can communicate with them. I see this as a problem in the development of a properly functioning democracy. I found council members polite, friendly and receptive to my input.”
Main Photo: Bloemfontein, 2009. Reuters.