Media vs ANC

Who is getting it right?

The "Letter from the President" in ANC Today's last edition (Vol 7 No 29) discussed a self-proclaimed "investigative" report published by the East London newspaper, Daily Dispatch.

Commenting on this report, University of Witwatersrand Professor of Journalism, Anton Harber, wrote: "I am sure that those who say the media always gets it wrong, is staffed by people too junior and inexperienced to do a professional job, is only motivated by the desire to sell papers and make money and does not serve the national interest will now swallow their words. For once, maybe, there will be a letter from the presidency praising journalists for their role in drawing government's attention where it is needed. Right?"

For his part, however, rather than swallow any words, the President commented on the dramatic but false report published by the Daily Dispatch centred on stillbirths and the death of new-born babies at Frere Hospital, which is located in East London.

The President cited some of the conclusions arrived at on these matters by a team of medical doctors, led by a Professor Green-Thompson, which the Minister of Health had sent to Frere Hospital to establish the truth and, if necessary, make recommendations about the allegedly disastrous situation "exposed" by the Daily Dispatch.

The Green-Thompson report found that with regard to the principal accusation made by the Daily Dispatch, about a high mortality rate for newborns, and the reasons for this, the “investigative” report published by this newspaper was nothing more than a grotesque falsification of reality. The President did not ask the question - how could the editor of the Daily Dispatch allow the newspaper she controls to be used to propagate extraordinary falsehoods!

Subsequent to the publication of our last edition, one of our readers supplied us with a copy on an article published on 12 July by the Botswana newspaper, Mmegi. The article, datelined Grahamstown, and headed, "Mbeki succession battle stalls development", reported on a speech made by the editor of the Daily Dispatch, Phylicia Oppelt, to "journalists from nine Southern African Development Committee (sic) SADC
countries on Monday..."

The content of the Mmegi report suggests that Oppelt was brought to Grahamstown presumably as an appropriately knowledgeable person, to "educate" the visiting journalists from our neighbouring countries about the Eastern Cape.

Obligations of journalism

We must accept that what she said represented her honest view about the Eastern Cape, based on her knowledge of the province. Our view in this regard is informed by what she said about the obligations of her profession when the Hefer Commission sat to consider the allegation published in City Press, that the then National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, had been an agent of the apartheid security

Then, while working for the Sunday Times, she commented on the role in this affair that had been played by two of her fellow journalists, Vusi Mona, then editor of City Press, and Ranjeni Munusamy, a former colleague at the Sunday Times. She wrote:

"I am affronted and offended by what these two 'journalists' have done. Over the years, I have come to respect this profession for its ability to speak truth to power; to elevate the smallest issues that affect the poor and dispossessed into forceful arguments for change...

"That mirror that we so dearly love to hold up to society has now been turned on us - and we do not look at all well. We are being asked questions about trust and integrity; whether we are capable of speaking truth while attempting some kind of impartiality. For this, as far as I am concerned, is the cornerstone of what we do."

Then, in 2000, when still at the Sunday Times, she wrote about the response of her newspaper to the challenge posed by the South African Human Rights Commission investigation into the issue of racism in the media. Among other things, she said:

"In March this year, as the Human Rights Commission's inquiry into racism in the media gained momentum, we at the Sunday Times began exploring where we stood in relation to both the hearings and racism...

"Our newsrooms in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth are populated by journalists from diverse backgrounds and when we sit behind our computers to write or edit stories, our concerns, personal prejudices and backgrounds accompany us."

The preceding observations suggest that Oppelt:

* is proud of her profession and works to defend its ethics;
* recognises the need to be truthful, objective and impartial in reporting any story;
* is firmly opposed to the media allowing itself to be misused as an instrument of particular or special interests, precisely to maintain its independence, public trust and integrity;
* understands that the public accountability the media demands especially of government must also apply to the media; and,
* recognises the reality that no journalist does their work as an extraordinary individual, whose reporting is not influenced by their upbringing and life experience, with the attendant personal concerns and prejudices.

This journal is fully, and unequivocally, supportive of these principled and ethical positions to which Oppelt is committed, as expressed in various comments she has made over the years.

We must therefore believe that whatever she might have said, or may say, reflects her honest, bona fide, opinion, which informs her professional conduct as a journalist. Proceeding from this understanding, as we do, we believe that we have the possibility to gain some understanding of the mind of an important opinion-maker, the editor of the Daily Dispatch.

Facts and allegations

During the years of our first democratic government, 1994-1999, our government embarked on a process to acquire equipment for our airforce and navy and awarded contracts to various European companies to supply this equipment.

The award of the contracts in this regard sparked off a controversy based on allegations that the award had been attended by corrupt practice, involving both the government negotiating team and some of the bidding companies.

From the very beginning of this controversy, our comrades in government, including the then Deputy President of the Republic, Thabo Mbeki, said they both welcomed a thorough investigation of all elements of the defence acquisition process, and wished to assure our country and all citizens that no corruption of any kind had taken place in the process leading to the award of the primary defence contracts.

However, despite this reality, which has survived all challenges to this day, in the face of all the noise that has been made in this regard, Oppelt wrote in the Sunday Times on 5 February 2001:

"And we have a President who twists and turns on his own word and toys with the trust South Africans have placed in him. He shies away from being honest with us. He uses a special broadcast to launch a vicious attack on a judge. The brouhaha over Judge Willem Heath's participation in the arms probe seems like a smokescreen to hide the real issue of exactly what happened when the deal was struck...

"Where did things go wrong? When did the ANC start believing its own publicity that it would always be the one and only defender of democracy and choice of South Africa's people? Eventually, another, more representative champion will arrive who will listen to the people and not to a party that believes it is above those who voted it into power."

Like everybody else who has, over the years, alleged that the primary contracts were awarded in a corrupt manner, Oppelt has not advanced a single fact to explain the basis for these assertions.

Precisely because of what she thinks of our movement and its leadership, as reflected in these comments, we should not be surprised that Oppelt should take it as her task to discredit our movement and destroy its credibility in the eyes of the people.

This brings us back to the Mmegi report. The principal elements of this report were that Oppelt told the journalists that:

* our movement, the ruling party, is divided into two factions, grouped around our President and Deputy President respectively, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma;
* the Premier of the Eastern Cape, Nosimo Balindlela, who is allegedly "pro-Mbeki", is "aligned to factionalism and this is creating enormous damage to us";
* senior officers in the Eastern Cape provincial government, who belong to the "pro-Zuma" faction, use their power to sabotage the development programmes of the Eastern Cape government;
* for this and other reasons, no economic opportunities exist in the Eastern Cape: as a result of this, "the 7.04 million residents of Eastern Cape are impoverished and survive on hand-outs because employment opportunities are limited. This has resulted in university graduates leaving the province to join big employers in economically vibrant places such as Johannesburg and Cape Town. Some people in the area, she said depend on selling rotten food from landfills";
* the Eastern Cape is trapped in a general crisis, indicating dysfunctionality.

We do not know what information Oppelt gave to substantiate the allegation she made about the division of the ANC into two factions, and what the Premier of the Eastern Cape has allegedly done as a supporter of the "pro-Mbeki" faction, which 'alignment to factionalism' is "creating enormous damage" to the people of the Eastern Cape.

Neither do we know what information she provided about what allegedly "pro-Zuma" officials did to frustrate the programmes instituted by the "pro-Mbeki" Premier, which, as a result, makes it difficult for the province to develop.

We also do not know whether Oppelt explained the 350-year history of our country. This would include the impact on the Eastern Cape of the legacy of the Ciskei and Transkei "native reserves" and bantustans, as well as the entrenched impact of the Eastern Cape colonial "Kaffraria".

We do not know what she said about what the apartheid system did to negate any perceived "positive" elements of the colonial period, including the conscious destruction of such eminent educational institutions as Lovedale and Healdtown.

Similarly, we do not know what she said about the many positive public and private sector developments in the Eastern Cape, initiated and led by the local and provincial spheres of government, with the ANC serving as the ruling party, which have resulted in the population of the Eastern Cape regularly to confirm its confidence in, and support for, the ANC in successive democratic elections since 1994.

We are satisfied that the preceding comments, in their totality, explain why the Daily Dispatch, edited by Oppelt, published the elaborately false "exposé" on Frere Hospital.

The entirety of our media says one of its tasks is to provide timely, objective and accurate information to our people. It says that it respects its obligation to be fair and balanced in the communication of both news and opinion. It says that it enjoys the prerogative of being the unique social institution that has the possibility and the duty to tell the truth and the whole truth, without prejudice, and without fear or favour.

Concerns and prejudices

However, as Oppelt said in 2000, the excellent people who manage and communicate the news and opinions disseminated by the same "dispassionate" media have their "concerns, personal prejudices and backgrounds (that) accompany them", which dictate the mindset within which they write and broadcast what the public absorbs as consumers of media news and opinion.

Given all this, it is not difficult to understand how the Frere Hospital story gain the prominence it did, and what has happened to legitimise a "damage-limitation" exercise since the communication of the results of the Professor Green-Thompson scientific medical inquiry.

Taking into account what Mmegi reported we can do no more than to urge vigilance among all our people, about the news and opinion in our media, which present themselves as a truthful, balanced and unbiased reflection of South African reality.

The Frere Hospital story demonstrates the deeply disturbing reality that it is perfectly possible for otherwise decent South Africans, some of whom might occupy important positions as opinion-makers, to falsify the truth, consistent with their concerns, personal prejudices and backgrounds. Thus would they use the possibility to generate popular opinions, especially through the media, that serve to increase the
possibility of the public acceptance of their agendas.

However, regardless of who owns, controls and manages whatever medium of communication, the fact cannot be denied that the media, the Fourth Estate, is a public institution. The challenge we face, as do all other societies across the world, is that this Estate, unlike the First, Second and Third, has determined that it falls outside any obligation to submit itself to any practical process of social accountability.

It argues that the very survival of democracy means that it must, among other things, have the right to communicate fabrications, provided it can explain these away as the expression of the inalienable democratic right to freedom of expression and a free press.

Thus do the personal concerns, prejudices and backgrounds of editors serve to override everything that motivates society to accept the Fourth Estate as a legitimate player in a social realm which, ineluctably, demands rigorous accountability of all those who claim that they represent the interests of the

In a situation in which objective reality represents a gross and severe imbalance in terms of public accountability, between company-appointed and elected representatives of the people, sustained public conflict between the two becomes inevitable.

It is inevitable that this conflict will and must, in the end, result in a population that reads one thing and hears another, as in the Western democracies, crying out: "A plague on both their houses!"

Inevitably, the citizen, whom neither the corporate appointee nor the elected representative of the people can deprive of their cognitive capacity, will come to the conclusion that it is best to rely on their knowledge and instincts, and consciously shed all dependence on guidance both by the media and those they might have elected.

The dramatic Frere Hospital story as originally told, the subsequent government response, and everything since, address a critically important challenge our society faces. How committed are we all to the view and practice, and to what extent do we know that our democracy, born of enormous sacrifices, can only survive and grow only if it feeds on a diet of honesty and the truth?

This article first appeared in the ANC Today