ROB ROSE: Press still a beacon, but a fragile one, in South Africa
Because of news outfits which value rigorous reporting we know where the fault lines lie, despite the flaws in policing and prosecuting
Peter Bruce, who edited this publication from 1997 to 2000, said four years ago that, given the option, “I would have stuck with the FM” rather than going on to edit Business Day, our sister publication.
After eight years editing this publication — following Bruce, Caroline Southey, Barney Mthombothi and Tim Cohen — I’ve decided it’s time to do something new and let someone else find out exactly why Peter felt this way.
I started as the banking writer at the FM in 2007, following seven years at Business Day and I-Net Bridge. It was a daunting prospect. With a history going back to 1959, the FM was the epitome of business journalism: sharp, snappy and with the sort of deep institutional knowledge you just can’t fake. I felt I’d never be smart enough to work alongside those who made such crisp sense of the economics of our world, such as Claire Bisseker, Stuart Theobald and Marc Hasenfuss.
It’s why this magazine — with a tiny staff component (we have just 13 full-time staff today) and a scrappy disposition — has been out there, swinging, for much of South Africa’s history.
At 65 years old, it’s produced some of the fieriest challenges to power yet in this country: from its cover exposing the shame of Bantu education in the 1960s, to calling Markus Jooste’s denouement “The Fall of a Stellenbosch Don” on our cover, to Carol Paton’s fantastic dissection in 2007 of how the ANC had become a party entirely polluted by patronage.
In 2017, days after ratings agencies slashed South Africa’s credit rating to junk status, we commissioned a cover drawn by artist Conrad Botes, depicting Jacob Zuma as our “Junk President”. It was such a powerful image that it was mounted on placards and used in the “Save South Africa” protests which led to Zuma’s ejection.
Today, the media industry has become more frail, and less able to hold people accountable. The economics aren’t what they were and, as every feisty media operation from Daily Maverick to amaBhungane will tell you, accountability doesn’t come cheap.
Print media is in the ICU, publishers (including the FM’s owner, Arena) have been retrenching, advertising has all but evaporated, while the mood in the country — initially hopeful during the Thabo Mbeki years, in which GDP growth averaged 4.2% — is now anything but rosy.
It means corporate South Africa must do more to protect what we have. In 2021, Moneyweb editor Ryk van Niekerk wrote about how, in the absence of an efficient crime-fighting authority, the media is one of the last sandbags standing.
CEOs shouldn’t consider putting money into journalism as philanthropy, he argued. “The watchdog role journalists play in South Africa contributes to the protection of our constitutional democracy and, per definition, the economy, and this is the economy all businesses operate in. Without a growing economy, virtually no marketing strategy ... will succeed.”
He wasn’t wrong. In the absence of real investment in media, we get soundbite-journalism which fails to tell you what anything means and is little more than the triumph of feeling over fact.
It’s one reason that last week the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that global “trust in media” is relatively low, at around 49 out of 100, putting journalists above politicians, but below CEOs.
There is critical nuance here, because this number isn’t uniform: social media is largely distrusted, with just 44% “trust”, yet “traditional media” is largely seen as “trusted”, with 62% support. That figure hasn’t moved much in a decade from 63% in 2014.
It suggests news outfits that value rigorous reporting over runaway opinion are still deeply valued.
Now, it’s clear that parts of that Edelman survey are wonky. China, the land of the “Great Firewall”, was ranked as completely “unfree” in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, but in the Edelman survey it tops the list of countries which trust their media the most, at 86%.
(As an aside, on that press freedom index, South Africa is still a beacon in Africa, with its press freedom ranked as “satisfactory” on a shortlist that includes most of Europe, Australia, the US, Canada, Namibia and South Korea.)
Given these anomalies, Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a think-tank at the London School of Economics, argued last week that “trust surveys” miss the mark. “News organisations need public support, revenue and engagement. But they also need to be independent, professional, and prepared to tell unpleasant truths,” he said.
In a world where this doesn’t happen, we’d have a media fraternity unable to play its accountability role and reduced to meaningless guff such as “Princess Charlotte, 7, makes funny faces” and “Sofia Vergara eats a banana”.
South Africa can’t afford that. This week, Transparency International released its corruption perceptions index, in which South Africa hit its lowest score yet of 41, ranked on a score of zero to 100, with zero the worst. This doesn’t measure actual corruption, but how prevalent people think it is, putting us into a category of “flawed democracies”.
Karam Singh, executive director of Corruption Watch, said it was frustrating to see this trend even after the corrupt were roundly exposed by the Zondo commission and by “robust media investigations”, especially in an increasingly polarised world, “where disinformation governs the narrative”.
One diplomat I spoke to last year said the message he sends back home is that South Africa is still institutionally stronger than other countries in Africa, and most developing nations, precisely because the media still speaks truth to power. That is something which the ANC, as much as it has grumbled about a media tribunal, hasn’t broken.
As a result, despite a flailing policing and prosecuting service, we know where the fault lines lie in our society. We’re an island of press freedom in a world where this is a diminishing commodity. Of course, we tend to think, wrongly, that this will continue to be so but as Beckett argued, this doesn’t happen without investment — both emotional and financial.
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