Trust me, I'm a journalist

David Bullard asks why on earth anybody would rely upon the media to police itself

Why on earth would anybody trust the media to self regulate?

Trust me, I'm a journalist. Whenever I've said that to people (usually in jest) it predictably gives rise to a snort of derision. Given the dismal state of journalism in SA it's hardly surprising that many South Africans think that the last people who should be trusted to self-regulate are journalists, who rank slightly lower than tow truck drivers in the public's estimation.

The great self-regulation debate has been gathering momentum ever since the ANC mooted the idea of a media tribunal and introduced the Protection of Information Bill (POIB) which would make it a criminal offence for journalists to make public certain sensitive information.

 Not surprisingly the print media see this as an attempt by an already corrupt government to gag them and prevent them from spilling the beans on any future venalities. The passage of the POIB through parliament has been portrayed by the media as heralding the end of freedom of speech as we know it.

All very emotional stuff and a great excuse for hacks to take to the streets with placards in protest at what they clearly perceive to be a threat to their livelihoods. What the knee jerkers seem to have conveniently ignored though is that the POIB has always been up for discussion. If this were Zimbabwe it would have been made into law overnight.

But more importantly, no-one in the media (to my knowledge) has yet had the balls to point out to the ANC that the POIB might have worked twenty years ago but in the age of the internet there isn't a bat's hope in hell that "sensitive" information won't find its way into the public domain.

It is dangerously naïve of the ANC to think they can keep their grubby little secrets to themselves by threatening newspapers. In fact, it shows how out of touch with reality people like Gwede Mantashe really are.

The side show to the POIB was the issue of media self regulation. Certain members of the ANC's hierarchy would like the media to be regulated by government but the media believe they should be allowed to regulate themselves. Neither is the perfect solution although the reason for the ANC wanting to control the media is transparently obvious while the media's ever shifting agenda is always more murky.

Newspapers are going through a very bad period at the moment and it's mostly their own fault. When the internet started up they decided to give away their content for free which is, you would have to agree, a pretty dumb business model.

It's rather like Pick n Pay giving you the option of driving to one of their stores and paying for your groceries or having them conveniently delivered to your home at any time of day entirely free of charge. The massive drop in revenue that has resulted from readers moving from printed newspapers to the free electronic version has meant that SA newspapers can no longer afford to pay for quality copy. Freelance rates are now at levels last seen 30 years ago.

To an extent the much abused intern system has come to the rescue. A journo school graduate will join a newspaper and either work for free or be paid around R5500 to do the job of a full time journalist.

At the end of the internship the monthly remuneration rises to a whopping R8000 a month. The intern is expected to produce maybe eight to ten stories a week of around 500 words and work long hours. This is where the problem arises though because stories don't just pop up, they have to be sourced and that requires experience. So the young intern either resorts to the news wires and rehashes a story that will appear in all the other newspapers or makes something up.

For example, if I ask John Smith if he has ever stolen from charity and he answers no then I can quite legitimately write a story with the headline "I'm no charity thief says John Smith". The fact that there was never an accusation of theft in the first place is immaterial and will be of no consequence to the readers. The important thing is that the story sold that day's edition of the paper. John Smith's life is ruined forever but if he has around R3 million for legal fees he can sue the paper in a case that may take years to come to court.

Or he can complain to one of the drinking buddies of the newspaper editors (officially known as an ombudsman) and hope for an apology, in which case he waives his legal rights. Meanwhile, the journalist that created the slander has nothing to lose.

It is not in the public interest for the media to be allowed to self regulate. Like any other profession they will close ranks and lie to protect one another. There are too many conflicts of interest for people to be convinced that media self regulation could possibly protect anyone other than the media themselves. If the media in this country want to rebuild credibility and readership they'll have to come up with something better than this.  

David Bullard's new book "Out to Lunch-Ungagged" is now available at book shops and online. All author's proceeds go to charity.

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