A healthy dish of porridge for the papers

Jeremy Gordin reports back after making his way through all 329 pages of the SANEF-Satchwell report

When I was a little boy, I was fed a certain brand of porridge for breakfast.

Now, in terms of journalistic ethics, I probably shouldn’t mention its name (Jungle Oats). For in theory, I could be hauled before the Zondo commission and asked whether someone slipped me 12 dozen boxes of the stuff gratis so that I would publicly endorse it. Or, if it were still in session, I could have been summoned, for the same reason, to The South African National Editors’ Forum’s “independent panel inquiring into media ethics and credibility,” which recently announced its findings and recommendations.

Anyway, when I became a man, I put away childish things, especially porridge – and especially because I had discovered two eggs fried in butter (or marge, not oil), bacon, beans, sausage, mushrooms (maybe), toast, and coffee. Still, when I grew even older, I learned that it would be far better for my health to return to porridge and eschew bacon n’ eggs. (Not that I have; I prefer the latter, finish en klaar. The flesh is weak, as the Bible tells us; or the taste buds are.)

I have irritated you with these maunderings about porridge and so on because turning to the forementioned Sanef report, I must say that my experience of going through it has been strikingly similar to my memory of eating porridge.

First, once you have ventured into reading the report, there seems no end in sight. If you can bear another solipsistic digression, the following might help communicate what I am trying to express.

When my parents were in their middle seventies and my father only a few years from death, they attended (heaven knows why) a performance of the Siegfried “section” of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. This was at the Artscape in Cape Town (probably the Nico Malan then) and the event was sort of what the Brits refer to as a command performance; all the great and good were there, including the German ambassador.

Some difficulties, however (well, for one of the Gordins). As is often the case during a live concert or opera, the doors were locked during separate parts of the performance. When Siegfried dies, he, as befits the eponymous main protagonist, sings about this for an exceptionally long time. But while Siegfried was dying, my father, an old fellow, was dying to go to the loo; and when an old guy, etc.; but obviously my father couldn’t go anywhere.

Finally, finally, Siegfried died, the music stopped, and a stunned, prolonged, and reverent silence ensued. Not, however, from my father. Exiting his lips, as he made for the exit, issued an audible expostulation in Yiddish: “Oy, Gott se danken!” (thank God! The German would be Gott sei Dank).

So, regarding length, when I reached page 329, the final one of the Sanef report, I utterly understood, perhaps for the first time, my father’s anguish. Second, the report is, like porridge, stodgy, viscous, and coagulated. Third, the overall taste is, well, banal. With but a few exceptions, there is little that could be said to excite the taste buds.

My learned friend, Andrew Donaldson, touched on one event in his most recent column – regarding Gwede “Tiger” Mantashe and his adulterous adventures.

Another occurs when doughty Karima Brown, who loudly lays down the political law and lore to us every Sunday on eNCA, decided to flounce out of the inquiry (figuratively) because – and I quote – “Sanef is a farce”. Brown gave up her interest in love, dialogue, and toenadering having heard that then Sanef chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase had not seen things Brown’s way when Brown was “disciplined” at Radio 702. Touchy people, journalists.

But, on the other hand, there is, as I noted earlier, another side to porridge, notwithstanding its (so to speak) lack of sexiness. It’s wholesome and healthy. Which, for the most part, is what this report is.

In June 2019 Sanef commissioned Judge Kathleen Satchwell and two panelists, Rich Mkhondo and Nikiwe Bikitsha, to investigate ethical standards at South African media houses in the aftermath of reporting by the Sunday Times investigative unit between 2011 and 2016. Between July 2019 and March 2020, the panel talked to 167 individuals and groups and perused almost 200 submissions.

And indeed, pretty much “everything” you ever wanted to know (and lots you didn’t) about local journalism is covered wholesomely and exhaustively (as I might have mentioned) – ethical media practice (or not), challenges, how newspapers work, political interference, what owners ought and ought not to do, editorial independence, complaints from the media, and much more.

And I (for one) have always admired Judge Satchwell’s judgments for their no-nonsense and balanced qualities. In this report, she seemed to know full well that, especially when it came to an inquiry like this and given that “state capture” is a many-splendored thing, she needed to cut to the chase and exercise tight control.

But notwithstanding Judge Satchwell’s steady hand on the wheel, there are some odd things. For example, under the heading “Views on editorial independence from owners, management and journalists,” Adriaan Basson of News24 said: “I’ve never had a boss telling me what to do ... at most making suggestions.” Judge Satchwell is surely astute enough to know that in all news organisations (in all hierarchical organisations!), especially (if I may say) at News24, there are “suggestions” and then there are “suggestions”.

The report also makes 69 recommendations. Here’s one. There should be “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”. Lifestyle audits? Yup, and I’m Robert Redford.

Here’s another. To make up for its past naughtiness – the stories on the SARS rogue unit, the Cato Manor killings, etc. – the Sunday Times “should establish a Chair in Ethics in Journalism at one of SA’s formerly black [sic] universities, making payment for the full foundation thereof .... The Chair should not be named after the Sunday Times ... 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 [sic] in South Africa”.

I’m reminded of some lines from a prose poem (“The Confidence Man”, 1980) written by English-language Israeli poet, Dennis Silk: “But how do you make out over there, Mr T? Do you have a chair in poetry? / A chair! I can hardly manage a stool, Mrs H.”

Talking of which, I think the biggest difficulty of all with this report – and this is not the fault of the panel – is that, as noted, the report is predicated on the sins of the Sunday Times investigative unit between 2011 and 2016.

Far be it from me, a happy chappie raised on sunshine and porridge, to be a killjoy. But in my view – to cut a very long story shorter – a few years ago the Sunday Times was left badly exposed by a sudden change in the political tides. And I really doubt that what is left of the media establishment has any real desire to change the way they operate.