INDEPENDENT PANEL REPORT
Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility
Judge (retired) Kathleen Satchwell, Nikiwe Bikitsha, Rich Mkhondo
The South African National Editors’ Forum
ES1. In the age when humanity is crying for facts, truth-telling, fair reporting and accountability, sometimes ethical journalism seems to be on the ropes. While there is a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism and recognition of how journalists committed to accuracy are doing good work and connecting with news consumers, there are times when ethical journalism appears rather bleak.
ES2. That is why SANEF commissioned an inquiry into the ethical issues facing South African journalism, to be conducted by a panel headed by Judge Kathleen Satchwell, also including veteran journalist and author Rich Mkhondo, and award-winning journalist and former Fulbright Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow Nikiwe Bikitsha.
ES3. As the text of the Inquiry Report was being finalised, the country was reading reports of the prospect of a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of controversy over proposed retrenchments at the public broadcaster, on which most South Africans still rely as their first source of news in African languages. Both circumstances provoked vigorous public reflection on the challenges facing South African news journalism and, in a very timely fashion, underlined the Panel’s findings.
ES4. This Inquiry was commissioned following the events and controversy surrounding the publication and subsequent retraction of a series of stories by the Sunday Times between 2011 and 2016, and the questions raised thereby about reporting, newsroom processes and the stances adopted by a single media house. Although the Panel’s hearings and perusal of submissions revealed some issues specific to the Sunday Times, what also emerged was a shared set of systemic problems imperilling ethical conduct across the whole media landscape.
ES5. These include: revenue challenges impacting on sustainability; the related diminution of resources for professional development and training and for the effective exercise of editorial and sub-editing checks and balances; the social media-fuelled pressure to break stories ever faster amidst competing mis- and disinformation narratives; societal pressures – including harassment and official disdain and manipulation – on reporters; and lacunae in the scope and powers of regulatory bodies.
Panel methods and processes
ES6. Between July 2019 and March 2020 this three-person Panel engaged in one way or another with 167 individuals and entities, perused close to 200 documents and sought ad hoc research inputs including a comprehensive longitudinal study of the work of the South African Press Council. Consultations occurred with newsroom practitioners, owners, academics, consumers and concerned individuals and institutions.
ES7. The Panel, unlike national commissions of inquiry, functioned without secretariat, investigators or evidence leader. It relied on very limited financial resources and no statutory powers, and must, at this stage, express its gratitude for the assistance it received from SANEF and from many individuals in journalism and media consumers who are acknowledged in the Appendices of the full Report.
ES8. Pursuant to the Terms of Reference, the Panel sought clarity on “those challenges confronting the media industry generally and journalists in particular which hinder the appropriate, honest, accountable and effective reporting necessary for advancing and strengthening Constitutional democracy in South Africa.”
ES9. The Panel is hopeful that the inputs made to us and the issues to which we have been alerted lay sufficient groundwork for SANEF to debate and explore solutions in its ongoing proceedings and at its anticipated conference on media ethics.
ES10. The issues discussed in the Report are complex and wide-ranging. The Panel is aware that in the circumstances described above it has not been possible to do full justice to them. That implies no disrespect to the media or its workers at all levels as essential pillars of democracy. Rather, we hope that the overview offered will provide a reminder of the issues for consideration and a springboard for continuing future work
History and context of the South African media
ES11. Ethics cannot be considered in a vacuum. Accordingly, the Panel gave consideration to the historical as well as current context of the South African media. The Panel traced the history of hegemonic control, censorship and manipulation in the interest of implementing the apartheid project, resisted only by a few brave independent publications and the conscientised media activists of the liberation struggle era.
ES12. The resulting legacy could not be – and is not – easy to undo. Oligopoly and lack of diversity persist, narrowing the public space for access to information and debate in a socio-political and economic landscape where English and Afrikaans dominate all platforms, pay-walls encroach, data is expensive and online access limited. Further constraints come in the form of the perceived imperatives of digital news production and dissemination and the fragmenting impact of the entry, via social media, of multiple unaccountable new voices.
ES13. To the traditional media roles of informing, educating and entertaining and, as the ‘Fourth Estate’, speaking truth to and asserting checks on power, have been added new responsibilities: countering the self-reinforcing echo chambers of social media; fighting mis- and disinformation; and counterbalancing the hegemony of powerful international information platforms such as Facebook and Google.
ES14. These are heavy duties. Yet for the proper functioning of a modern participatory democracy, the South African media must be free, proactive, professional, inquiring and accessible. Only then can the media effectively include all citizens in the public discourse and support them in discovering information and forming opinions. Yet the Global Disinformation Index suggests that 41% of South Africans distrust the media and 70% are concerned about the problem of distinguishing valid from ‘fake’ news.
ES15. It is clear to the Panel that the media do not currently have the adequate resources, well- functioning internal processes and strong, supportive national institutional framework necessary for effective functioning in a democracy. This underlines the continuing necessity of presenting a reasoned case to the nation for journalism as a public good.
Constraints on the effective functioning of the media
ES16. Transformation of the South African media has been haphazard and incomplete: the nation’s majority population remains severely underrepresented in media ownership and control, in the voices and languages heard on media platforms, and also in the capacity to access those platforms as news consumers. Ownership is even more concentrated; publications have closed; adaption to the imperative for change has been slow and half-hearted. The fragmentation of South African society is mirrored in social media driven media fragmentation and exacerbated by the real circumstances – and the miasma of rumours – created by state capture.
ES17. All this is occurring in a global and national situation of severe financial constraints on the media. The worldwide shrinkage of print media and adspend on all platforms except online is reinforced by a national economy whose already parlous state has been worsened by Covid-19. The Boards of media organisations are increasingly commercialised, with news outlets treated as merely another investment vehicle at the mercy of shareholder demand for profits. This impels management involvement, and sometimes interference, in decisions about programming, staffing and content.
ES18. Demand for more and faster newsroom output from fewer resources – including fewer, less experienced journalists and sub-editors, and the absence or reduction of time for sub- editorial scrutiny and editorial vigilance – makes slippages in standards almost inevitable. The pressure to produce an ever-increasing quota of stories per work period has meant shortcuts necessarily occur, limiting care and attention to detail in research, interviewing, corroborative and fact checks and writing and rewriting.
ES19. Political uncertainties and the rise of factionalism and populism have created a climate conducive to interference in the media from all levels of government and state and other political and factional role-players. This includes manipulation, legislative and institutional blocks on access to information and outright attempts to buy or bully reporters and editors. There are also disturbing utterances from political figures designed to paint the press as an untrustworthy ‘enemy’ of society.
ES20. Media organisations and their employees are vulnerable to these pressures on a number of levels. There is little effective workplace organisation among journalists, and individuals are often in a situation of low pay and employment precarity. Limited resources intensify newsroom reliance on ‘freebies’, creating the impression that all journalists and not merely a corrupt few are riding a gravy train. Limited resources additionally constrain investigative news reporting; currently far more visible in donor-supported independent media organisations than in the mainstream media seen by most South Africans.
ES21. This is underpinned by a drastic reduction in training, coaching, professional development opportunities and reporter support. Despite the existence of comprehensive, nationally- accredited newsroom training curricula, formal training on anything other than the technical skills of online publishing barely functions. The numbers of senior, specialist and more experienced editors and journalists who might mentor have been cut, and a reduced staff complement has less access to administrative, archival, transport and other supports for reporting and verification.
ES22. Some publications refuse to voluntarily engage with and submit to regulatory codes of practice and ethics. Ineffective communication about, and lacunae in, the regimes of regulatory bodies coupled with apparently negligible or non-existent consequences for breaches in media ethics, all foster public perceptions that the media are not held accountable for lapses in ethical standards. The updating of regulatory codes is of importance. The panel also concluded that creating more effective mechanisms for adherence to and enforcement of standards and practices is necessary.
Financial problems and dilemmas
ES23. Worldwide, news media are under financial pressure from technological change and shifting consumer habits that threaten the future existence of individual news providers and the diversity of news. In South Africa, the current financial predicament and possible fate of the media industry cannot be viewed independently from the general South African environment: a relatively poorly-performing economy stretched by the need to respond to nearly a decade of state capture.
ES24. A print industry carrying high fixed and operational costs cannot compete effectively with other, lower-cost platforms. Further consolidation of the print industry, and the consequent closure of titles, seems unavoidable. In the long term, broadcasters may lose revenue to digital disruption, which will affect their news operations; in the short to medium-term their position is somewhat more stable. The continuing dominance of the television ‘Big 3’ is already starting to face challenges from the providers of VOD and podcasts.
ES25. The loss of adspend and other news revenue is particularly damaging when the majority goes offshore to the ‘FANGs’ (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) and is no longer available for South African media survival and development. It combines with a decline in print circulation, and the emergence of paywalled online content to narrow what is available to the majority of low-income South African news consumers.
ES26. On all news platforms, there is constant tension between the need for investment to produce quality news content, and the commercial pressure to cut costs, as well as a search for new business models that can combine multiple revenue streams and operation across platforms.
ES27. These developments impact particularly harshly on access to informed, comprehensive, relevant news of the low-income communities comprising the majority of South Africa’s citizens. They already lack prominence in the news and rely on minimal news sources in the languages they speak. The concerns of poor people in remote areas are hardly covered at all.
ES28. By pooling information on a co-operative basis and through original reporting, the South African Press Association (SAPA) used to provide something of a counterbalance through wider (though predominantly Anglophone) national coverage. Its closure revealed the intensifying commodification of news in the ensuing battle between big press groups hoping their own stories could earn syndication revenue by filling the vacuum.
ES29. Community newspapers told the Panel of bare survival, beset by the same pressures the big print groups face, but with fewer resources. At local level they compete with the more financially healthy freesheet ‘knock ‘n drops’, which are often collections of advertising supplements wrapped by a few pages of local reports, often dominated by supplied copy and highly vulnerable to pressures to publish ever more advertorial. The Panel also heard how the dire financial straits of community broadcasters – cold-shouldered by advertisers, reliant on pioneering individuals and often with highly stressed governance, administrative and accounting structures – had already produced extreme instances of vulnerability to ethically questionable pressures and incentives.
ES30. In a context where social media creates opportunities for any individual to issue content, the Panel observed how the ensuing free-for-all has democratised the creation and consumption of news by breaking public dependence on centralised and established purveyors (a challenge to mainstream media viability) and, more concerningly, opened the door for the proliferation of damaging mis- and disinformation (a challenge to media credibility).
ES31. The Panel also heard from many informants that the MDDA, initiated to counterbalance many of these pressures, was itself struggling to meet its mandate and failing to deal openly and effectively with those community operations who need its help.
ES32. Meanwhile, digital-only publications flourish: donor-funded; as membership organisations; and also in the form of a tightly paywalled business press targeting the wealthier sections of the of the population.
ES33. While in the past government interference may have seemed to represent the major threat to the news media, the Panel sees current threats as more closely related to the manner in which publishers attempt to adjust to these realities of the digital age, including shareholder pressure to intensify the very cost-cutting measures that have, thus far, eroded the quality of news reporting.
The Sunday Times
ES34. The Inquiry could not and did not seek to establish the truth or otherwise of any reportage by the Sunday Times nor any wrongdoing on the part of any person, whether the subject matter of any reportage or any journalist or media entity. Nor do the conclusions reached by the Panel represent a finding that such misconduct either did or did not take place. The purpose of this portion of the Inquiry was purely to investigate any lapses in media ethics.
ES35. The panel found that precisely the same errors and weaknesses identified by the review conducted by Fray, Harber, Kruger and Milo in 2011 of Sunday Times news processes had persisted, not been corrected, and contributed in no small part to the problematic reporting and editing processes that marred the renditions, Cato Manor and SARS series of stories. These were exacerbated by the elite and unaccountable status afforded to the title’s Investigations Unit and pressure for the regular, high-speed delivery of sensational ‘splash’ stories from the unit, rather than patience with slow, detail-oriented work.
ES36. The ‘apology’ by the Sunday Times conceded headline errors, errors of emphasis and a failure to see the wider political picture. The newspaper made no allegation of ethical failures on the part of journalists. The Sunday Times claimed that the newspaper had been the subject of political manipulation but explicitly stated that the journalists involved were not complicit in the agenda of such unnamed manipulators.
ES37. The Panel notes that no-one has suggested that the journalists should have ignored these stories, which were very much matters in the public interest; other media practitioners have identified and acknowledged multiple structural reasons for media and journalistic failures
ES38. The Sunday Times apologies conceded misleading headlines, which the Panel notes are normally the responsibility of sub-editors. The Sunday Times apologies found that there had been uncorroborated allegations presented as facts as also overstating the contents of reports, such as that of KPMG. The Sunday Times stated that some stories had omitted or given inappropriate placement to relevant information that changed the import of stories.
ES39. The Press Ombud made findings in matters relating to van Loggerenberg, Pillay and Gordhan in respect of stories pertaining to the SARS ‘rogue unit’ to the effect that there had been a failure on the part of the journalists and the paper to allow for a realistic opportunity to respond to the stories about to be published. Further, the Press Ombud found that the reference to a KPMG report, without identifying it as a preliminary document, resulted in a contravention on the prohibition on misleading, inaccurate and unfair publication.
ES40. The Panel found that the rush to produce multiple stories and ‘splashes’, and to print, partially precluded journalists and the paper giving subjects sufficient time to respond. The Panel found that, in the process, contextualisation and counter-narratives were ignored, with no discussion of the wider political agenda as it emerged and which was partially contextualised in other media.
ES41. Of greatest concern to the Panel is that the apologies of the Sunday Times raise more questions than were answered. The nature of the apology by the Sunday Times remains unclear to the Panel. No indication is given of what, if any, material or allegation was retracted, or on what basis.
ES42. The crux of the Sunday Times apologies was that there was “a parallel political project aimed at undermining our democratic values and destroying state institutions”, and that there was “a hidden hand of manipulation and political machination” in respect of both the SARS and Cato Manor series. However, no indication was given by the Sunday Times in the apology as to the identity of the puppet masters behind this political manipulation, the nature of manipulation, the purpose thereof, the manner in which it took place and how it was visited upon the investigative unit of the Sunday Times or upon the newspaper itself. This lack of clarity increased uncertainty about the nature of the apology or the purpose thereof. Since details of what portions of stories were or were not retracted and the extent of such retractions, readers are left ignorant as to whether or not the manipulation of the newspaper resulted in pure fiction or simply exaggerated narratives.
ES43. The sources upon which the reporters relied were – at the time – considered authoritative findings on a matter of considerable public interest: namely, investigations, reviews and commissions chaired by or comprising an attorney, a senior advocate, a former senior security official, a senior High Court judge and a reputable firm of international accountants and auditors.
ES44. It is in this context that the Sunday Times states it believes that its journalists should have exercised greater “caution and care and joined the dots”. However, it is difficult to see how the individual journalists could have been expected to uncover this parallel political project unknown to anyone save those involved in its conception and execution, nor how individual journalists could have been expected to know that there were even dots to be joined, when the sources upon which the reporters relied were – at the time – considered reliable.
ES45. The panel is concerned because these vague apologies, minimal corrections and minor retractions effectively negate their value and import. It is a case of saying: “So sorry, but someone else is to blame, but I cannot tell you who or for what.”
ES46. Among the greatest failures of the Sunday Times in fulfilling its obligations as a dispenser of information is also its failure to offer analysis and commentary in its presentation of the series of articles/stories on SARS and on the Cato Manor SAPS killings. Where were the political editors, analysis, journalists, columnists who could or should have been offering context and insight on what the investigative unit was reporting and the sub-editors headlining?
ES47. The involvement of some lobbyists and threats made to Avusa were acknowledged to the Panel by the Sunday Times and further detail thereof emerged in discussions. It is disturbing that both the management of the holding company and the newspaper were effectively directed to take certain action in respect of reportage but failed to acknowledge to their readership that such pressure had been placed and the nature thereof.
ES48. The Panel is concerned that the journalists involved all claimed that they were excluded from discussions about their own stories and reputations. Of even greater concern is that a right of reply was given to some of the prominent news subjects but not to the journalists, implying a lack of respect for journalists, their commitment to their work, and their reputations.
ES49. This relates to a question that emerged in several other contexts during the Panel’s hearings and deliberations: the power and right of management to intervene in what an editor chooses to publish. Management it was conceded by some informants to the Panel, might have the right to discuss with editors content strategies that may yield higher readership or advertising revenue, and to set an overall policy direction for a title or platform. However, informants were vehement that a ‘Chinese Wall’ should prevail between such discussions and the final, purely editorial, decisions on story contents. Yet the panel notes that no existing code o ,lf conduct or ethics contains guidelines on such issues, or to protect that specific aspect of editorial independence.
ES50. Hindsight, it is said, is 20:20 vision. All actors and observers in this saga are now aware of various allegations of and even evidence of ‘state capture’ and the political and business manoeuvering which went on in pursuit thereof. In retrospect, many persons and entities may have been unaware or uncritical of the narratives which were presented at that time. Not only were the Sunday Times journalists and editors apparently unaware of the now acknowledged but unexplained ‘political manipulation’ on which the apology of the newspaper was based, but the judges of the Taco Kuiper award panel were also impressed by these stories.
ES51. The Panel has no information to enable it to determine that any one or more of the persons associated with the Sunday Times investigative unit was complicit in the unnamed manipulation.
ES52. The subjects of the stories with whom the Panel has engaged have had personal distress and harm visited upon them by the work of these journalists and this newspaper. The Panel agrees with those news subjects named who say that the errors of the journalists were so egregious that they amounted to ethical malpractice. The Panel has particular regard to the identification of Mr Pete Richer as a member of the SARS ‘rogue unit’ and engaged in various nefarious activities when this was patently not so and where Mr Richer was never asked for comment or given the opportunity to explain.
ES53. Finally, the veracity of the stories constituting the ‘rogue unit’ and ‘death squad’ narrative was never tested in the Press Council. The only approaches and rulings were procedural in nature. The main subjects of these stories, apart from van Loggerenberg, chose another route: of private discussion, lobbying and threats, to all of which the Sunday Times succumbed. This is undesirable. Complaints have not been formulated and aired and adjudicated; the public has not seen the media being held accountable for errors; neither journalists nor print and online publications have been able to respond and defend themselves; and politico-financial considerations have triumphed over the truth of journalism. Nothing has actually been resolved.
ES54. It was the ruling by the Press Ombud on a procedural issue which, according to the Sunday Times, caused the newspaper to reassess its approach. This suggests to the Panel that the current mode of co-regulation is functioning in an effective manner.
ES55. However, the Panel remains concerned that the tactics and equivocations of the Sunday Times discussed above may have given encouragement to other entities that have withdrawn from the self-regulation of the Ombud process. These actions may also have eroded public confidence in the mechanisms set up to encourage accountability, and reporters’ confidence in their employers’ support when they embark on complicated, difficult or challenging investigations or those which might offend the powerful.
The new environment and the changing role of the journalist
ES56. In today’s converged media environment, journalists face new challenges but their essential mission of staying loyal, first and foremost, to the truth and to the needs of their audience remains constant.
ES57. In this context, South Africa does have nationally-benchmarked workplace programmes for intern and new entrant training that include not only practical skills but ethical and legal awareness – including a written examination in media law. There are also established higher education programmes in journalism, media studies and other related subjects. However, media house budget constraints, together with a very protracted process of transfer between the previous Seta qualifications and the new QCTO qualification have both drastically eroded employer investment in in-house journalist induction or training to bridge between a generic journalism education and the practical needs and challenges of a specific newsroom. Very little survives at the time of completing this report, with the bulk of media house training investment now allocated to the technical skill aspects of publishing on digital platforms.
ES58. This has been accompanied by a reduction in the newsroom resources available for mentoring, copy-editing, fact-checking, editorial debriefing and the multiple other layers of oversight formerly available to catch errors and problems in a story.
ES59. This has contributed to a situation where the Panel heard from many informants about a lack of basic working skills and broad contextual and ethical understanding among young journalists. These novices find themselves in highly pressured, sometimes harsh and precarious newsroom environments, and also the object of verbal (and sometimes physical) attacks in public forums and hostility on the streets. Highly suggestive of the harshness of organisational culture was the number of Panel informants requiring anonymity for the content of their submissions.
ES60. The Panel heard many useful proposals to remedy aspects of this situation, even in the absence of additional newsroom staff. Two that seemed to offer positive potential were a proposal for collaboration between newsrooms and the several organisations now operating as independent research and fact-checking services, and a proposal to restore effective labour organisation among media workers.
ES61. Additionally, the casualising employment practices of many media houses have made many more journalists, including many highly experienced specialists and seniors, unwilling freelancers. This precarity creates vulnerability, but also sets up ethical tensions between roles in public relations and journalism, or roles as journalist and social media or public event ‘personality’, which may overlap or follow one another in quick succession, creating a ‘revolving door’. Such situations also confuse media consumers about what the role of a journalist is, and as yet no guidelines exist to govern these multiple roles.
ES62. In a similar context, the Panel also encountered frequent discussion about the personal political alignments of journalists, and of media organisations. The consensus the Panel heard was that such alignments must be declared upfront to permit readers to make an informed decision about the matter published under such a declaration, and that it certainly did not absolve either a media organisation or a journalist from abiding by recognised standards of fairness and balance.
ES63. The journalistic endeavour of news continues to be vital in the South African polity. Where there has been excellence, that work has had implications for the entire South African community and the fate of the nation. Where there have been, and remain, faults, structures and mindsets can be changed and improved.
ES64. The Panel acknowledges, as one submission noted, that the new digital media climate offers important opportunities for better reporting through improved research tools, wider reach for vital information the public needs and much more, all of which we embrace. But during this transition time, the Panel heard how media house owners are dealing with the crash in print advertising and readership largely through a continual, relentless process of cutting staff, resources and time. This, in turn, is impacting on reporters’ and editors’ ability (and motivation) to generate careful, truthful stories.
ES65. Specific measures to disseminate and inculcate legal and ethical awareness in newsrooms are vital. But a deeper solution demands that the industry at its highest management levels reconsiders how better to balance the very real tensions between new technological and business challenges and shareholder pressures and the continuing professional imperative to operate ethically. Everything this Panel has heard affirms that survival of a credible and trusted media requires the implementation of professional ethical standards across the whole media ecosystem.
Complaints about the South African media
ES66. The Panel was able to use data on complaints submitted to the PCSA and the BCCSA to map public opinions about media failings. The majority of these complaints related to the failure to follow up stories; truth, accuracy and fairness; the right of reply; the handling of protected comment; and the use of misleading page furniture (headings and captions).
ES67. The Panel also explored the dilemmas around the right of reply where that right is demanded for outlier opinions with no support from established factual knowledge or peer-reviewed scientific research, hearing from many informants that in those circumstances the demand for a right of reply should have no ethical standing.
Regulation of the South African media
ES68. Through its establishment and maintenance of the current system of regulation, the media industry has actively responded to demands placed on the media to assist in the South African democratic constitutional project. The media industry itself has developed, financed, and continuously improved upon the system of regulation. Responsiveness to and compliance with the regulatory regime is evidenced, as is clear from the statistics and reports of all regulatory bodies this Panel has viewed.
ES69. However, two concerns persist that require future attention. Firstly, broadcasting does have a statutorily compulsory regulatory mechanism under the aegis of ICASA, administered through the CCC, whereas print and online media only have the voluntary Press Council, of which a print or online publication or news organisation cannot be forced into membership. Secondly, the voluntary nature of use by the public of the BCCSA or the CCC or the Press Council leads to a situation where complaints are often made through social media, resulting in wild and untested allegations, diminishing the overall trust of the public in the media’s credibility and trust.
Concluding comments on media regulation and freedom
ES70. The Panel considered arguments for asserting and maintaining media freedom from both internal (management) and external (state) intervention. Absent any requirements for the claim of professional status – qualification, training, membership of a professional body with supervisory or disciplinary functions – as found with other recognised professions ranging from educators to accountants, healthcare providers to engineers, it may be beneficial to those practising the craft of journalism to individually subscribe to those Codes of Practice and Ethics issued by the various media regulatory entities as a means of identifying those media practitioners who do subscribe and adhere to and champion certain ethical practices and standards of practice.
ES71. All panellists wish to state that they have learnt in the course of this Inquiry that the current system of self- or co-regulation of the print and online media and by the broadcasting industry appears to be working well and to the benefit of the South African democracy.
ES72. It is the view of the Panel that the failure of the Sunday Times to use Press Council systems at the final stages of that title’s debacle does not mean the current voluntary system of self- and co- regulation of the media is not working. On the contrary, the evidence in this particular instance indicates the authority and impact of the Press Council system and of the office of the Press Ombud: it was the ruling by the Press Ombud that brought the Sunday Times to realise and accept that it needed to take steps and deal with the situation. The Press Ombud obviously carries enormous weight and authority within the media industry for that ruling to have had the impact it did.
ES73. The work of the Press Council, the Public Advocate and the Ombud has been carefully examined by this Inquiry in the course of the research and analysis commissioned by the Panel. The multiplicity and variety of approaches made by members of the public all point to knowledge of, and trust in, the process. That the media industry responds to these complaints, engages with the process, and observes the rulings of the Press Ombud, is indicative of the good faith of the media industry itself, while changes made in response to, for example PFC comments, evidence responsiveness and flexibility.
ES74. The system is not perfect in many respects, but then no system is. That attorneys and medical practitioners and accountants and engineers are registered and required to belong to professional councils has not prevented theft of monies from trust funds; false claims submitted to medical aid schemes; auditing irregularities, and short-cuts in the design of bridges. But there is compliance by the media industry to the demands of the Press Council and rulings by the Press Ombud. The system has integrity and is obeyed.
ES75. It is undesirable to attempt to identify and enforce some form of individual regulation of each person who purports to be a journalist – after all a system other than that which is currently operative could well not identify and professionalise those who operate as media outlaws while any such action may risk a chilling effect on grassroots citizen journalism.
ES76. What is needed is not more control by the state or anyone else of the media but more media and more news consumers. For this, there needs to be a media-literate audience, whose needs are catered for in their own languages, in a medium that is accessible and affordable and where a multiplicity of views is tendered so that viewers, listeners and readers can make up their own minds on a variety of issues relevant to their lives.
ES77. The detail of the Panel’s deliberations takes up close to 350 pages; this brief overview notes only the most salient points. However, the Recommendations that immediately follow this summary do engage with that detail, proposing practical activities that will begin the painstaking process of strengthening that which already functions well, and remedying the gaps and sticking points the Inquiry has identified.
RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE INQUIRY PANEL
SECTION A: MEDIA FREEDOM
To ensure the survival and growth of South Africa’s constitutional democracy, and having regard to the benefits of an organised front by media practitioners in tackling instances of misinformation, disinformation and media manipulation; given further that encroachment on journalistic indepen- dence by owners is insidious given the direct power and authority they wield over employment and can have a chilling effect on the freedom journalists enjoy, which provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, SANEF should:
A1. Collaborate with other media entities – media houses as well as media practitioner and human rights organisations – to consciously and consistently publicise the importance of an independent, diverse and vital media industry and resist any discourse that undermines the status and independence of the media and to maximise the resources and information channels available for media work – for example, to assist journalists in verifying election claims during the 2021 municipal poll.
A2. Encourage constitutional entities, government institutions and individual policy- makers to publicly affirm their commitment to an independent media that robustly engages with all aspects of South African society; to commit to activities that encourage trust in and support the credibility of such media; and to abjure all actions and comment that undermine it.
A3. Participate proactively in the ongoing national and international debates about the need for independence between management and editorial functions, develop guidelines and clearly and publicly engage in initiatives to convince media owners and the public of the necessity for such editorial independence from management interference, which is incompatible with media freedom; and work to ensure that all relevant codes of practice prohibit improper interference by management in editorial decisions regarding news.
A4. Enter discussions with like-minded bodies on the creation or revival of a unified organisation to defend and represent the interests of all journalists, not limited – as SANEF currently is – by a mandate to serve managers and senior editors only. Such an association could share experiences and insights, serve as a negotiating bloc, protect labour rights, provide supplementary training, lobby on media freedom issues and more.
A5. Continue to debate the status of media practitioners, giving consideration to the advantages and disadvantages of asserting journalism as a ‘profession’, considering not only status but the implications for press freedom.
A6. Require individual rather than media house subscription and adherence to the ethical principles and standards of practice set out in relevant codes such as, but not limited to, those of the BCCSA or the PCSA.
A7. Draw up a Media Freedom Declaration based on constitutional principles and encourage relevant civil society and government role-players to make an individual, public commitment to media freedom by appending their signatures thereto, as a parallel activity to media re-commitment to an Ethical Charter on Press Freedom Day (q.v. Recommendation 26)
A8. Take a proactive part in fostering ongoing and robust public debate and education about the fundamental role of the media in the South African democracy, including the need for requiring standards of journalism that deal with partisan opinion and debate, diversity of opinion, accuracy, integrity, independence and expertise; the right of media houses to reflect chosen worldviews and present a partisan approach to news and opinion; the difference between the work of journalists and that of social media bloggers and influencers; and involving media, training institutions, policy makers, political groupings, government and Chapter Nine Institutions
SECTION B: MEDIA DIVERSITY
In the interests of fostering an informed citizenry that can demand accountability from those exer- cising power as a vital aspect of democracy, SANEF should:
B9. Lobby for and support initiatives from capable entities to undertake a national media diversity mapping exercise using processes and instruments focusing on audience access to media, given that extant studies have to date largely explored ownership and control.
B10. Promote knowledge of, training in, and use of all South African languages by media practitioners on all platforms.
B11. Lobby for the provision of comprehensive, informed news content in African languages that is accessible to all South Africans.
B12. Support initiatives to study international and national best practice in extending diversity in both public and private media and strategies for implementation in local conditions.
B13. Build on the findings of such studies to encourage media organisations, policy makers, government and the private sector to promote and encourage greater diversity in media ownership, towards the fullest alignment with the 1991 Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free Independent and Pluralistic Press.
B14. Work with the Special Rapporteur of the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in publicising and educating government, policymakers, the corporate sector, media organisations and practitioners on the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, and develop the use of the Declaration to encourage its dissemination among media consumers in the entire region.
SECTION C: ETHICS AND STANDARDS
In the interest of ensuring that all media consumers know how to critically assess the reporting of news and opinion and the conduct of journalists, providing a platform for deeper conversations around ethics and integrity, improving management, editorial and reporting/publishing practices; and rewarding journalists who set a high ethical standard, SANEF should:
C15. Encourage and initiate, as an organisation and in collaboration with other concerned bodies, prominent public affirmations – including through advertising campaigns – of the importance and content of ethical principles and standards of journalistic and media organisation practice.
C16. Work towards introducing a register of income or interests for media practitioners – such as those implemented for members of Parliament or the judiciary – or the implementation of regular lifestyle audits, to actively counter allegations of media bias or corruption, and as a more rigorous supplement to the declaration forms sometimes used in published declarations of interest or story sponsorship.
C17. Reopen consideration of sanctions – fines or suspension from media organisations – for journalists who commit ethical breaches, since current Press Council requirements avail very limited restorative justice to aggrieved or harmed members of the public. The print and online media industry could discuss alignment with BCCSA practice in this area.
C18. Open debate to establish SANEF policy on the disclosure of income and interests and/or lifestyle audits for journalists to the extent that such may be seen to bear on their independence and integrity.
C19. Open debate on the need for a digital media ethics code and the content and applicability thereof, with special consideration of the ‘clickbait’ phenomenon.
C20. Encourage media organisations to use advisors with formally recognised expertise on a retainer or consultancy basis to assist in developing and overviewing niche or specialist (eg science, law, budgets) stories, and to work with fact-checking organisations where a fact-checker is no longer a part of the sub-editing team.
C21. Ensure that conversations are ongoing on current and proposed new codes of ethics and standards, including identifying lacunae, regular updating and revision and the best ways to facilitate and broaden public input into these processes. This includes, the Press Code of the PCSA, the IABSA code, the BCCSA code, the NAB code and the ICASA Code of Conduct for Broadcasters, and all other relevant codes, and there is significant scope for cross-pollination between these bodies’ codes. Topics for debate could include the potential benefits of a single co-regulatory code dealing with all content. Notwithstanding that some media sectors are regulated by statute and others not, there may be value in exploring the advisability of coordinated and even uniform jurisprudential approaches to media practice.
C22. Consider collaboration in many of these initiatives with the international Ethical Journalism Network (EJN): a coalition of more than 60 groups of journalists, editors, press owners and media support groups created in 2011. Continue and intensify its current work to give wide publicity to the content of relevant codes of ethics and standards. In this context, consider ways in which membership of the Press Council, the NAB and other media organisations can be used as statements of quality and credibility and be publicised.
C23. Ensure that SANEF members as editors enforce a clear and prominent distinction between advertising, advertorial and editorial content; and work as an organisation with the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) and the CCC of ICASA to counteract the role of journalists in purveying false claims in advertising in terms of section 55 of the Electronic Communications Act, 2005.
C24. Initiate debate within SANEF on the impact on the credibility and status of journalists of their assuming a range of other roles, including ‘personalities’, talk show hosts, and presenters and writers of advertising inserts and on the implications of the ‘revolving door’ between public relations and journalism, with the objective of developing guidelines. This must be done in the spirit of transparency to eliminate concerns around independence and conflicts of interest, but not with the aim of restricting livelihoods.
C25. Combine a vigorous defence of the constitutional right of individual journalists and media houses to hold political and other opinions with an insistence that where such stances exist, the publication, station, platform or journalist openly identify them or risk committing an ethical breach.
C26. Collaborate with like-minded organisations on a large-scale public campaign, involving all stakeholders including lawmakers and policymakers, all levels and spheres of government, industry, commerce and the education sector, to rebuild public trust in the media. This could include signing a new Ethical Charter on a significant date such as Press Freedom Day as well as other symbolic acts.
C27. Engage with sponsors on the introduction of new awards, or the addition to existing awards, of recognition for ethical conduct and highest standards of media practice. Submissions could be based on case studies of how journalists have navigated through ethical conflicts.
C28. Draw up an ethical reporting checklist to be applied as part of the judging process to all stories nominated for awards, and negotiate with all journalism awards bodies for its implementation by judging panels.
C29. Continue seeking support for the research begun during this Inquiry into the transgressions against, judgments, opinions and advisories of the various media regulatory bodies to highlight breaches and feed conclusions into continuing professional development programmes.
C30. Participate in or initiate establishing guidelines to resolve the tension between the hallowed ‘right of reply’ principle and the demand for a hearing from outlier opinions contrary to verified facts, particularly in the areas of science and medicine.
C31. Encourage media owners, managers and editorial staff to develop (where these do not exist) and revise (where they do), comprehensive statements of editorial policy that include commitment to the principles of the relevant media ethics codes; to publish these internally and on their platforms; and to implement compliance and resolve related conflicts in the newsrooms they control.
C32. Press for the establishment in all media houses of the position of an internal ombud/ complaints officer, for the existence and processes of such an office to be published, and for the ombud to have such sufficient authority in management structures that their recommendations are heeded.
C33. Alternatively, lobby for every entity that publishes news to introduce an Editorial Advisory Board to ensure that decisions on editorial integrity are not determined by one individual alone and that journalists are not subject to the vagaries or personal predilections of a superior without the opportunity to seek recourse from a board comprising both editorial and newsroom journalists. This Board could receive complaints from members of the public, staff and whistleblowers about issues impacting on the credibility of titles and practitioners controlled by that media entity.
C34. Work towards an industry-wide agreement on standard practice around editorial policies and standards, complaints procedures for members of the public and the resolution of editorial disputes for newsroom staff.
SECTION D: FINANCIAL RESOURCES
Recognising that media practice is both shaped and constrained to a large extent by available resources, SANEF should:
D35. Support research into the financial viability and sustainability of all forms of news media, examining international approaches to funding independent media, including but not limited to taxation incentives/ exemptions, allocation of public funds, pursuit of royalties, levies on online advertising revenue routed offshore by online platforms, or other such methods.
D36. Lobby for public purse support for all continuing professional development discussed in the training recommendations, so that it is available to members of all newsrooms including those too small to be part of taxation-related training levy structures.
D37. Ensure that any such public purse funding is free from conditionalities, underlining that news in a democracy is a public good.
Recognising that the media sector is an important component underpinning constitutional democracy, these next recommendations address the public fiscus, through the Department of Communications and Treasury, which should:
D38. Engage with the media industry at large to seek financial solutions to strengthen various sectors of the media industry by means including but not limited to providing sufficient funding for the SABC to enable the public broadcaster to fulfil its mandate to the people of South Africa, having regard to those models suggested by the SOS Support Public Broadcasting Coalition on funding the SABC; carefully examining the financial and human capacity of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) to support community print, radio and television.
D39. Identify funding sources that can support adequate news organisation investment in producing more in-depth news programming across subject matters, to counterbalance commercial pressures for more lightweight and inexpensive content.
D40. Earmark whatever monies from the media industry in terms of the Electronic Communications Act have been received by Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) from broadcasting licensees to support the development of broadcast media diversity; and via government and national, regional and local administrative bodies, speedily implement the already agreed allocation and disbursement of the 30% advertising spending levy for the benefit of the community media sector.
D41. Inquire into means of taxing the South African operations of the so-called FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) so that a portion of said tax revenue is channelled into supporting media diversity, whether through funding media pluralism (for example through the MDDA) or through funding content diversity (for example by funding a local content fund, whether through the National Film and Video Foundation [NFVF] or otherwise).
And the Department of Communications, which should:
D42. Inquire into the financial and human capacity of the MDDA to implement its mandate and critically examine those issues which have impeded fulfilment of that mandate over past years and take appropriate remedial steps.
SECTION E: SAFETY AND SECURITY OF JOURNALISTS
Recognising that safety and security also include the workplace and psychological health, that me- dia freedom and fearless ethical behaviour are constrained in a societal climate of verbal and actual aggression against journalists that seeks to silence them and additionally acknowledging that the organisational culture of newsrooms is in many instances pervaded by mistrust, bullying and fear of speaking out, SANEF should:
E43. As an organisation of editors and newsroom managers, support its members in developing strategies, mechanisms and resources to restore or strengthen collegiality, respect and trust, including but not limited to: ensuring that reporters promoted to newsroom management roles can access support in acquiring humane, effective leadership skills; applying appropriate consequences for achievements and not merely for shortcomings; empowering writers through skilled briefing and debriefing; and standing with their newsroom staffers in requesting the time and resources necessary to do good work.
E44. Facilitate ongoing interactions between media houses and entities, policy makers, activists and political groups and registered political parties to secure agreement on processes and principles of engagement with journalists and media entities that contribute to civilised engagement and full reportage on democratic activities.
E45. Collaborate with all relevant media entities to form a united front against all forms of censorship including the ban by certain political groupings on the presence of or engagement with identified journalists or media entities.
E46. Engage with those local and international organisations concerned with and involved in ensuring the safety of all media practitioners to explore measures to protect journalists from harassment, intimidation, trolling, online baiting, abuse, including engagement with policy makers and the Legislature based on the relevant provisions of the Electoral Code, the Prevention of Harassment Act of 2011, the Intimidation Act of 1982 and other relevant national legislation, as well as international protocols such as UN resolutions.
Further, all media entities should:
E47. Refuse to provide publicity to, report on or attend briefings by any group that excludes specified journalists or titles from its events or encourages attacks on or harassment of media workers.
SECTION F: CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
In the interests of building and supporting an informed, competent and conscientious cohort of media professionals, SANEF should:
F48. Support and encourage all media organisations to provide adequate, well-resourced, QCTO-compliant induction training and continuing professional development – not only for all editorial staff working on all platforms, but for board members and other media house decision-makers. Such provision should be regularly assessed for compliance with the requirements of the Skills Development Act and for relevance to a rapidly changing media environment.
F49. Ensure through the SANEF Education and Training sub-committee and liaison with the QCTO and relevant Setas that existing newsroom training has adequate provision to capacitate staff for specialist stories where general reporters are required to undertake these and general sub-editors, script editors or content editors are required to edit them.
F50. Ensure that newsroom training and practice deals with the limitations of social media as a sole source of news information.
F51. Encourage the provision and completion of regular refresher courses in a) relevant areas of expertise for journalists assigned to specialist ‘beats’, and b) in media ethics and standards of practice for all journalists, as is the practice for members of professions.
F52. Explore how SANEF members and partners can contribute to developing media literacy programmes at school level.
SECTION G: THE SUNDAY TIMES
Given that events at the Sunday Times provided the impetus for this inquiry, that it is an extremely prominent media title, and that the bulk of submissions to, and evidence before, the Panel raised serious questions about the title’s responses thereto and their impact on media credibility more broadly, the Panel believes the Sunday Times should:
G53. Issue a full and unreserved apology to those persons incorrectly implicated in any wrongdoing in any of the Rendition, Cato Manor or SARS series of stories in which the paper acknowledges that they failed in the most basic tenets of journalistic practice including failing to give any or adequate opportunity to the affected parties to respond to the stories to be published pre-publication and failing to seek credible and sourced validation of the allegations made against individuals; and that such failures caused great emotional and financial harm to the individuals concerned, their families and their careers. Full and complete retraction of incorrect or false or malicious allegations or commentary is to be made.
G54. Make full disclosure of the nature and extent of the ‘parallel political project’ which the Sunday Times avers took place and that led to the ‘abuse’, providing details of the persons involved and their actions as well as the wrongdoings or failures of all journalists, editors, editorial and administrative staff involved.
G55. Establish a Chair in Ethics in Journalism at one of South Africa’s formerly black universities, making payment for the full foundation thereof to the relevant university. The Chair should not be named after the Sunday Times or any holding company but after an investigative journalist of high moral and professional calibre whose media work has contributed to the development and/or maintenance of constitutional democracy in South Africa.
G56. Submit the work and culture of its newsroom to scrutiny and assessment by an independent panel every five years from date of the apology of October 2018. Such review should be made public to all other media bodies, with the findings thereof reported with suitable prominence in the Sunday Times.
SECTION H: REGULATORY BODIES
By reason of their composition and knowledge of the issues arising from complaints made to them, all media regulatory bodies should:
H57. Collectively and individually take a more active role in encouraging and ensuring quality control of news production and journalistic content.
H58. Seek additional financial and personnel resources so their Secretariats are enabled to coordinate with all media bodies, conduct membership drives, publicise the content of their Codes of Conduct, encourage subscription thereto, monitor compliance therewith and inform the public and media consumers of the benefits of news production provided by journalists subscribing to a code of professional ethics.
H59. Ensure their complaints mechanisms are accessible, and easy to use. There should be wide discussion with media consumers to assess the need for improvements to complaints and adjudications mechanisms.
H60. Ensure the widest possible public participation in the regulatory system by giving consideration to providing for more members of the public than from the media industry in both regulatory bodies and their appeals panels.
H61. Widen access to the adjudicatory system by limiting the basis upon which complaints can be determined ineligible for hearing and broadening the criteria for entertaining third-party complaints
H62. Review and revise the regime of sanctions allowed for in various codes by, inter alia, allocating differing sanctions to a hierarchy of infractions and incorporating greater discretion regarding the amount of monetary fines imposed. Remedial actions should not be limited – as in the case of the PCSA – to an apology only, but should be reviewed to enable individualised and commensurate responses to complaints and rulings. The regulatory regime may be facilitated by requiring each media organisation to establish an internal ombud as discussed in Section C above.
H63. Expand the powers, financial resources, structures and administrative capacity of regulatory bodies to enable them to initiate a complaint to investigate whether or not there has been wrongdoing and a breach of ethics. Such powers would enhance the credibility of the regulatory system in a context where many persons do not follow the current complaints procedures and some persons elect to use social media to complain about journalism, and where it is not possible to compel persons to make complaints through the formal process.
H64. Investigate establishing an anonymous, multi-lingual ‘hot line’ for complaints about the media.
H65. Make information about their complaints mechanisms and processes available in all South Africa’s official languages, to respond to concerns of potential complainants whose first or most fluent language is not English.
H66. Continue and extend its collaboration with regulatory bodies in disseminating details of all complaints against, interventions concerning and rulings on media activity in order that the public and media consumers are assured that the media industry is self- and co-regulated in accordance with an internationally accepted set of professional standards and ethics and that trust in the conduct of media subscribers to such ethics and standards is justified.
H67. Engage with its media industry partners to consider developing a single portal or process within and between the media co-regulatory bodies to facilitate the laying of complaints by the public. These complaints can, thereafter, be directed to the most appropriate body for intervention and adjudication.
The media industry should:
H68. Give full and explicit support to all media regulatory bodies relevant to the work of their titles and programmes, including providing sufficient funds to ensure these bodies have the capacity to thoroughly and speedily resolve disputes and complaints.
H69. Account to the regulatory body to which they subscribe to detail the remedies adopted as result of rulings made by that body; fully publicise all such remedial actions in their own titles and on all their platforms.
The full report can be accessed here – PDF.