News International's current downward spiral seems like just desserts after years of unethical practices. But the fall-out from the phone-hacking scandal extends far beyond the UK. It's not looking pretty for press freedom in Africa as News of the World's illegal actions provide plenty of ammunition for governments looking to crack down on the media.
There are few more satisfying feelings in this world than schadenfreude, that lovely, warm self-satisfied glow we all get when we watch the humiliating downfall of someone we don’t like very much. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed – and participated in – schadenfreude on as large and communal a scale as while watching Rupert Murdoch squirm in front of the parliamentary committee; millions of people enjoying the spectacular implosion of one individual and everything he represented. The foam-pie incident was merely a bonus; what we were revelling in was the defeat of the symbol he had become, the symbol of everything that was wrong with our media and our political class.
But on reflection, my schadenfreude may have been misplaced. For Rupert Murdoch was never a symbol of my media. In fact, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, News Corporation International has no assets whatsoever on the African continent. And when you think about it, logic dictates that News International’s downfall, far from highlighting the rotten core of the political elites in Africa, as it has done in Britain, is merely going to encourage them.
It comes down to freedom of expression. In Britain, the US and Australia, where Murdoch has such a pernicious influence, freedom of expression is sacrosanct – both by law and in fact, most of the time. Those are all great places to be a journalist, because there is very little that can’t be published. Murdoch was able to take advantage of this light-touch regulation of what he printed in his papers and allowed on his TV stations to inform, and eventually dominate, the political agenda. His newspapers in the UK, particularly News of the World and The Sun, became so influential it became politically expedient for the government of the day, and the future government in opposition, to get into bed (so to speak) with News International journalists and executives.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said almost exactly this in a recent press conference: “The truth is, we've all been in this together,” Cameron said a day after news broke that News of the World was to close. “Party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers that we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue. The people in power knew things weren't right, but they didn't do enough quickly enough.”
So what’s the solution? Why, greater regulation of the media, of course. And more restrictions on what the media can say and how they can say it. Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has led calls for a “media industry that is properly regulated”, along with the establishment of an enforcement body that is “willing and able to take on powerful media interests when needed”. The message, coming through loud and clear, is that self-regulation in the media doesn’t work.
In Africa, the situation is rather different. Africa doesn’t have a free press; not even the pretence of one in most countries. The continent is smothered in purple on the Press Freedom Map compiled by Freedom House; yes, purple is bad. It means the press is “not free”. And even where there is a relatively healthy press, governments are often looking for ways to rein it in. The ruling party in South Africa, for example, wants to establish a media appeals tribunal and pass a Protection of Information Bill; measures which together would make it very difficult to report on anything the government wanted kept quiet.
But a South African media appeals tribunal, in the current media environment, doesn’t sound so different from Nick Clegg’s body that is “willing and able to take on powerful media interests”. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so reasonable to let the media regulate themselves. It doesn’t seem reasonable to give the media a free hand, because they can’t be trusted not to hack the answering phone messages of kidnap victims. It does seem reasonable to increase regulation on what the media can and can’t say, and to introduce tough measures to make sure they comply.
Of course, the British and South African situations are different. Britain has an extremely powerful media and needs to introduce checks and balances. South Africa has a relatively weak media, and needs all the help it can get to counter the overwhelming power of government. But this nuance is likely to escape the ruling party.
South Africa certainly doesn’t need to give the government more power over the media than it has already. To do so would be actively damaging to the country nascent democracy. But by abusing the privilege of free speech, News International has provided plenty of ammunition to the South African government, and plenty of others in Africa and elsewhere, who want to keep those pesky journalists quiet and their own secrets safe. While Rupert Murdoch may have been humiliated, he still had that yacht and millions in the bank to console him; when Africans are prevented from exposing the truth about their governments, because of Murdoch’s transgressions, there won’t be any consolation prizes. I’m not feeling quite so warm and self-satisfied any more. FAM