Trevor Manuel. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Trevor Manuel. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The important question that confronts us has to be how, in the space of less than a generation, have we descended from the lofty heights of a nation held up by the world as a beacon of success to what we have become.

What is the responsibility of each of us — the politicians and the electorate, the employers and the workers, the trade unionists, the priests and the congregations, students and teachers, writers and readers?

How do we conduct ourselves when we are not instructed? Or what do we do when we think nobody is looking? What can we get away with when there appear to be no consequences? How far are we prepared to slip?

Let us start that conversation in earnest — not to admonish the media in general, but to open a conversation about who we are or ought to be.

In the past few decades, the focus of editors has increasingly shifted away from editorial to commercial success. Increased pressures on the bottom line have seen newsrooms, not only in this country, but across the world, shrink to sizes many argue have compromised the quality of journalism.

It has also seen editors replace the legendary bottle of whisky in the drawer with a bottle of Gaviscon.

In an increasingly competitive environment with declining print readership, newsrooms have had to recreate their "media space" to remain relevant, authoritative and fresh, while enhancing the richness of their brand by delivering exceptional news on multiple platforms.

As South Africans, we tend to swing the pendulum of any debate hard from one side to the other, giving little consideration to the process between extreme points of view.
Trevor Manuel

Add to that the expectation of breaking news, investigative journalism, quality reporting and content updates, slippage on quality can be expected.

There is an ongoing debate about the role of the media and the need to push up against the boundaries of the possible.

We have seen the battle against the abuse of media owners and media executives (including the ones without matric) who advance their narrow agendas and have used the media to destroy trust.

When we open the debate about the media, it has to transcend all these divides. Every editor is under the cosh of the "market" — print runs, advertising, the judgment of the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Frankly, I do not know whether there is any other discussion possible between editors and owners, other than the "market".

But we need to talk about a few other matters, together. As South Africans, we tend to swing the pendulum of any debate hard from one side to the other, giving little consideration to the process of traverse between one extreme point of view and the other.

We have to slow down the swing in order to better evaluate what happens between the extremes.

My contention is that the national project is complex and exceedingly incomplete, and at its epicentre is the struggle for national identity. We need to be reflective that our democracy was based on a settlement arrived at across groupings whose interests are marked by vastly different experiences. Is there a "we"?

The memory of where SA has come from, the route traversed, the successes attained and a record of what remains undone are all important parts of understanding the "we".

My fear is that the state is becoming increasingly corrupt. We need to begin to expand our views on what corruption means, where it manifests, and rail against it everywhere.

Always bear in mind that people are not fighting for ideas, for things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children
Amilcar Cabral

The state is often and increasingly challenged in courts. This is, in part, due to the apparent absence of other remedies. We have not yet digested the full import of the March 31 Constitutional Court judgment in affirming that we are indeed a constitutional democracy and finding significant failure in the other two arms of government, the executive and Parliament.

The profundity of that judgment has not been responded to by the executive or the legislature — why? Is it because there were no prison sentences doled out by the court?

Leadership is about assisting followers towards a better future — and yes, our Constitution describes such a future (read the preamble) and vests the responsibility for getting us there.

In fact, the Constitutional Court argues that it can only respond to interpretation because it cannot initiate law, pass it and attend to the implementation of such law; nor can it exercise the day-to-day oversight of the executive.

Nothing has happened to respond to that judgment. When the newsworthiness passed, the matter was forgotten.

It has become common to encounter stories of a fake labour union being set up by intelligence agencies, lawyers being on their payroll and so forth.

And the publicists haven’t learnt to innovate — phony foundations, obscure organisations and trumped-up charges against the incorrupt remain part of their suite of tricks to divert attention from the malfeasance of their clients and acolytes.

This should sound alarm bells in our society. But it appears that, along with the disappearance of whisky from the drawer that gave editors X-ray spectacles to see through the ruse, strong news judgment has also been lacking in many quarters.

This is how the apartheid agencies used to operate and it cannot be allowed in our democratic society.

Narrative

It would be remiss if I don’t reflect on the example of the alleged South African Revenue Service (SARS) "rogue unit" stories. About 39 articles in one newspaper of the Times Media Group were published over two years. In the end, the majority of these proved untrue and were repudiated. Yet the narrative had been drilled into the public’s mind to such an extent that people will forever doubt.

Now we are faced with a case that originally started with multiple allegations of serious crimes, such as housebreakings, killing of officials, bugging the president, spying on taxpayers and millions in secret funds.

The allegations have all fallen by the wayside, yet the finance minister and other former SARS officials are being investigated for seemingly arbitrary allegations by the Hawks and its "crimes against the state" division.

Surely, there is something very wrong with what happened here? Who leaked these stories and why? What did they hope to achieve? Who gained? Admittedly, the Sunday Times did retract and apologise on April 3. But by then, virtually the entire SARS leadership had left.

The summons issued to the finance minister on fraud charges can only be described as reckless. Yet there are some who argue that he must face the music. Was a seed planted by the multiple screaming headlines?

Do these press codes sufficiently address the means for the media to hold journalists personally responsible for their actions? Is it okay at this stage in our democracy to have a media that can shout out "SARS bugged Zuma" and "Taxman’s rogue unit ran brothel", as if these are facts, only to retract them two years down the line?

We live in an era where anyone can cook up a story or "dossier", package it convincingly and smear whomever they like. Too often the media report on this, often citing "anonymous, "highly placed sources", or even more bizarrely, "somebody stuck the envelope under my door".

Is the media overly reliant on these sources to demonstrate cutting-edge journalism? Are the processes within the media stringent enough to ensure they are not used to advance some or other nefarious agenda? What if those "anonymous sources" are found to have lied? Shouldn’t they be exposed?

Stories such as the alleged "Cato Manor death squad", the alleged "illegal renditions" of Zimbabwean nationals and the alleged "second" Independent Police Investigative Directorate report on the Zimbabwean "renditions" must be cause for self-reflection by the media.

These issues bring us to a discussion on the vexed topics of leadership, discussion and the national narrative. All of these are missing in action.

It is not for the media or civil society to argue that it can supplant elected leadership or set the frame for the discourse.

It is the responsibility of our media unashamedly and unapologetically to assist in reconstructing our national conversation.

This means a focus on who we are, where we come from and what we are capable of — rather than the rabbit holes into which the defenders of the realm would try to drag the discourse.

The words of Amilcar Cabral should serve as a constant reminder: "Always bear in mind that people are not fighting for ideas, for things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children…."

If you ask me what the role of an enlightened media needs be in a democratic SA, it is precisely this.

This is an edited version of a speech Manuel gave at the launch of the new-look Business Day and Financial Mail.

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