In a fledgling democracy the role of the media is crucial to balance and fair-play. In the new South Africa, where racism was the norm under apartheid, the media ought to be even more cautious when it comes to issues of responsibility and press freedom. The following article calls for journalism in South Africa to be wary of any kind of bias or distortion to ensure that the public both respects and trusts its press.
The Human Rights Commission claims ‘subliminal racism’ permeates South Africa’s white-owned press. It has responded by claming press freedom is under attack by the government.
Early in December 1999 the Johannesburg weekly Mail & Guardian (M&G) became involved in a strident exchange with the office of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. It began with an editorial on 10 December which accused President Mbeki of running a ‘backroom government’ and ‘threatening to make nonsense’ of South Africa’s fledgling democracy. These charges prompted an outraged response from Parks Mankahlana, the president’s spokesman.
Mankahlana’s reaction came in the wake of persistent complaints from many sectors of the public that, since the end of apartheid, the M&G has shown disdain for the black-dominated government through biased reporting, campaigns of slander by innuendo, unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and incompetence, unprofessional annual ratings of government ministers and attacks on the reputations of black public figures. A pattern had emerged which convinced many that the M&G has become a vehicle for the expression of white racist anxieties about the future of white South Africans under a black government.
The M&G denied these charges, saying that they were a veiled attack on press freedom. But the persistence of racist reporting finally prompted the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), a body established under the terms of the constitution, to conduct a study into racism in the media. The interim report was released last November to outrage from the editors of several newspapers, including the M&G, Star and the Sunday Times. These editors have since been subpoenaed to appear before the SAHRC to answer to allegations of ‘subliminal racism’.
One thing is certain. For a newspaper that enjoyed solid anti-apartheid credentials, the M&G has changed into a right-of-centre voice for disgruntled white liberals. This should not be surprising. The arrival of democracy has fractured the easy solidarities of the anti-apartheid struggle. South Africans are now free to be who they really are. In this regard, the M&G no longer represents any progressive vision of the present or future for many South Africans of all colours. Press freedom is not currently under threat in South Africa. What is under attack is the kind of racism that comes through the columns of the M&G. And the exchange between Parks Mankahlana and the newspaper revealed some of the mechanisms by which that racism is articulated.
Mankahlana’s response to the M&G’s editorial on 10 December did not fit the negative characterisations of it made by editor Philip van Niekerk in his follow-up editorial on 17 December. It was neither ‘hysterical’ nor ‘tawdry’; it did not ‘resort to emotional racial invective’; nor was it a descent ‘into paranoid nonsense about natives and basket cases’. Rather than being a ‘dangerous display of defensive arrogance’, it was a pained attempt to get the M&G to seriously consider becoming a credible source of information and intelligent commentary.
Mankahlana began with a point-by-point refutation of the M&G’s allegations about President Mbeki’s political conduct. His point was that a responsible newspaper could not claim that the government was ‘threatening to make nonsense of our democracy’ without deploying a good deal of verifiable evidence and persuasive analysis. Van Niekerk conceded that Mankahlana had made ‘some good points which we accept in the spirit of debate’. But he did not indicate which points he accepted and which others remained in contention. This is vital since, without Mankahlana’s response, readers would have been left with the newspaper’s ‘facts’ - which turn out not to be facts.
It does not assist reader confidence for a serious editor to proclaim the ‘right to be wrong’, as the M&G did in its 17 December editorial. Such a right, if it exists, has to be earned and to earn it a newspaper has to demonstrate a consistent record of integrity in its reporting, commentaries and analyses. Without that record, the ‘right to be wrong’ becomes the right to misinform, defame, scandalise and exploit through damaging innuendo, all in the name of the ‘free flow of criticism and debate’ - and, of course, selling papers.
There have been other cries of agony recently from individuals and institutions that felt unfairly treated by the M&G. Barney Cohen, chief executive of Urban Brew Studios, complained on 10 December about what appeared to him to be a ‘campaign of slander’ by the M&G ‘achieved by using unsubstantiated information from a vindictive inside informant’. After revealing further inaccuracies, Cohen appealed: ‘It’s about time we put end to highly damaging speculation and innuendo.’
In an article headlined ‘Principal raises his pay to R1,5’ on 10 December, it was reported that Attie Buitendacht, vice chancellor of Technikon SA, ‘gave himself a 35% salary increase’ and, in doing so, ‘neglected to seek the governing council’s approval,’ an act which allegedly forced the chair of Council to resign. In its response Technikon revealed that the increase was approved and the chair had, in fact, not resigned. The M&G has still failed to acknowledge the error. The headline’s implication that Buitendacht had engaged in corrupt conduct has been left in place to wreak havoc on his reputation. The newspaper doesn’t care. ‘The right to be wrong’ has gone out of control.
The second part of Mankahlana’s response strove to understand why a supposedly reputable publication consistently gets its basic facts wrong; routinely fails to verify and investigate the authenticity of its sources; displays a persistent inability to apply a balanced mind to the evidence at hand; and routinely fails to publish the argument of those it targets for exposure and damns by innuendo.
Van Niekerk should have answered some of Mankahlana’s questions. Was it true that the M&G had ‘virulently opposed the Pan African Congress and Azapo accepting the offer to participate’ in Nelson Mandela’s government? Was it true that the M&G later suggested that the Democratic Party’s (DP) participation would be ‘in the national interest?’ If so, then surely van Niekerk was obliged to explain the basis on which his newspaper had preferred the participation of one group against that of another.
If M&G’s Howard Barrell writes in his column that the DP ‘may also be led by a bunch of venal, ambitious, self-serving bastards’, is it not the legitimate right of any reader to ask who the other ‘bastards’ might be? If Mankahlana was wrong to suggest who, in his opinion, these ‘bastards’ really were, then van Niekerk should have demonstrated why this was so.
The persuasiveness of any argument depends on the validity of the logical link between its premises and its conclusions. Given our history of racism, is it unreasonable to suspect racism behind an inconsistency in which the choice for a white party, in place of black ones, remains unexplained? In the same way, it is not unreasonable for a reader to fill in the missing term in the syllogism involving Howard Barrell’s ‘bastards’? Van Niekerk’s rather heated response strongly suggested that Mankahlana had touched a nerve.
Professionalism at stake
I concede that many white South Africans find themselves in an invidious position when they sense that the racist card is being raised to silence them. There are many black South Africans who will be tempted to use that card with effect. Unfortunately, white South Africans just have to learn to recognise those moments when the card is being used inappropriately, and deal with it effectively. Otherwise they will be accused of evasiveness in claiming the use of the card at all times. The resort to evasion rather than argument results in ridiculous postures intended to demonstrate that there is at least one white man who cannot be intimidated. It is crucial to maintain professionalism and intelligence.
Van Niekerk has a penchant for shifting the terms of discussion in an attempt to undermine a respondent’s arguments on grounds other than their substance. This he invariably does under the heading: ‘The Editor Replies’. He disingenuously invites readers to take his side when he poses a heavily loaded question: ‘Is the criticism of the presidency the same as an attack on the country’s new democracy? What do you think?’ Firstly, this question strongly suggests that the issue it raises is, in fact, a position held by Mankahlana. This is false. Secondly, it pretends to initiate a serious inquiry when it already contains its own answer: a resounding ‘No!’ As a tactic, this represents the ultimate disrespect for the public intellect.
Van Niekerk is unable to distinguish between the act of criticism, which is not under attack, and the content of criticism, which Mankahlana legitimately assails. Failure to recognise this distinction apparently leads him to accuse Mankahlana of what he himself does routinely. The M&G consistently equates criticism of itself with an attack on press freedom. Van Niekerk deploys this argument in his assault on the Human Rights Commission’s decision to call for a study on racism and the media. Surely he should accept the logic of his own argument, according to which both the presidency and the press ought to be beyond criticism. Strangely, van Niekerk votes for the untouchability of the press, but repudiates that of the presidency. We are faced with another baffling inconsistency.
But what do we make of habitual inconsistency; of uncritical reliance on rumour and leaked documents as sources of information; of headlines that have no bearing on the substance of an article? I suggest that what we are facing here is something serious. We witness not only the decline of professionalism, but a profound failure of the intellect.
This situation prompts some key questions. What is the process by which a newspaper determines its editorial stance? Who is involved in the process of determining it? What understanding of social transformation informs its formulation? How does it influence strategies of representation? How are the resulting representations of society contested and negotiated with the reading public that responds to them? More crucially, does the newspaper have sufficient and diverse intellectual resources to answer these questions? Can it transcend methods of representation trapped in outmoded yet subliminally powerful intellectual paradigms? Does it have the capacity to interrogate itself?
One thing is clear: we need to move forward. The mandate of journalism in today’s South Africa urgently needs to be revisited. Hopefully, some definitive re-evaluations and fresh directions will emerge which should necessarily be multi-layered, allowing room for a vigorous, sturdy and diverse creativity. Public confidence needs to be restored in a sector that has a responsibility to project more complex images of our society. We need a press that is trustworthy; that deepens public knowledge, enriches social insight, nurtures a vigorous and courageous atmosphere of public discussion, and, above all, respects the public mind.
Njabulo Ndebele is the writer of Fools & Other Stories and critical essays on South African literature and culture. He is currently Scholar-in-Residence at the Ford Foundation in New York. He submitted this revised commentary to the Mail & Guardian, which declined to publish it.