Media freedom includes the right to be pesky, Wits University's Prof Anton Harber told the Goedgedacht Forum recently.  What is most important in journalism is a commitment to probing and questioning.

Anton Harber told the Goedgedacht Forum:

There is an episode of that brilliant television drama set in the White House, West Wing, when two of the men close to the incumbent president are discussing who to endorse as his replacement. “What happened to the days when a few crusty old men sat in a smoke-filled room and chose the candidate over cigars and port. They didn’t choose so badly. They chose men like Roosevelt and Truman,” one of them says.

I don’t know what happened in the US to change this, but I do know what happened in this country. The Minister of Health, bless her soul, banned smoke-filled rooms, forcing things out into the open.

Our own succession issue provides one set of challenges for the media this year. How we manage our coverage of it will determine the shape and nature of our democracy, either strengthening or weakening our democratic iinstitutions and public participation in them. The current obsession is with who will win, but I am more concerned about the process – whether we create a precedent which will guide our democracy in years to come.

Already, it is clear that those who thought it could be done behind closed doors as an internal ANC matter have been thwarted. The question now is whether the media can force the build-up to the ANC conference into a full-blown primary campaign in which we debate substantially what kind of person we want and with what kinds of policies. Will this process empower South Africans to take part in crucial decisions, or will they feel it is distant and beyond their influence? Indeed, will candidates be able to declare themselves at some point, or will they continue to be threatened with decapitation when they do.

I think that, perforce, we are entering an age of realism. If we had an age of optimism after 1994 under Mandela, and Mbeki gave us last year the Age of Hope, we are now coming to terms with the fact that, as outlined by President Mbeki in his state of the nation speech, we still face enormous, potentially overwhelming socio-political problems. We have to manage expectations, knowing as we do now that there are no quick or easy solutions and the road to stability and equity in health, housing, education, etc will be a long and difficult one.

The question we have to ask is how well equipped is our media to make its contribution. Can we play the role we should in ensuring the process of succession strengthens and celebrates our democracy? In covering the age of realism, can the media move beyond the finger-pointing blame-game and try and develop more complex and nuanced understandings of these issues and their solutions?

I think that critics should stop making sweeping generalizations of the standard and state of our journalism and media. It has become commonplace to trash all our journalism without differentiation, and we journalists even do this to ourselves.

We need to build up the standing and credibility of our profession and industry, and it does not help when we fail to differentiate between that journalism which is good and that which is not. I can tell you that it is much harder recruit good, young talent to the profession when we ourselves are so down on it.

The truth is we have a mixture of good and bad journalism. We have some media who are investing, training, seeking new ideas, creating space for an encouraging good journalism – and others who are just harvesting short-term profits.

It has to be said that we have a thriving, lively media industry. As a result, there is very little government or individual politicians can get away with. If I was involved in any wrongdoing around the arms deal, or the Gautrain, or any other major state activity, I would be very, very worried. I would not be sleeping at night – and that is because it is clear that there are at least some relentless and dedicated journalists who will chase down the skelms.

We now have three newspapers with dedicated investigative teams (Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian and Beeld), and a fourth (at Die Burger) I believe is being pulled together. That is apart from television programmes like Carte Blanche and Special Assignment. That is a remarkable number of dedicated investigative reporters who are probing all sorts of things.

It must be said that the role played by the media in forcing government to drop its HIV/AIDS denialism and implement a much more progressive policy has been extraordinary. Not all the Aids journalism has been good, but there were enough editors ready to tackle the government on this tough issue to force a rethink.

We must acknowledge and encourage good journalism when it is out there. There is not enough of it, indeed there probably never is, but I would take issue with anyone who says it is not there.

Of course, we have to tackle those media groups which are not investing in better journalism. You do not need a moral argument to counter this. There is a straightforward business argument. If newspaper companies do not invest more in their products, their printing presses and their journalists in the next 10 years, then they and their newspapers will die.

Managements who are only thinking about immediate, short-term profits and are not thinking and spending on what is required for their paper’s to survive in a decade’s time are not really managers, they are undertakers.

It is, in so many ways, an enormously challenging time for the media:

– Rapidly changing technology is changing the way we work, the audience we work for, and our relationship with them. The rise of 24/7 live news on TV – and we will within a year have a few local, satellite version of this phenomenon in South Africa- and the internet, the phenomenon of citizen journalism, are fundamentally redefining the way we make and use media. And we are only at the beginning of the rise of mobile media.

In South Africa, we are falling behind in the development of new media. The longer we delay the arrival of cheap broadband, the slower we are in bringing South Africans online, the greater the gap is between developed countries using this technology and the developing world where we are battling just to get online. In a world of citizen journalism, our citizens are disempowered by not being able to access the technology which would enable them to be better heard. We are about to license satellite pay-TV for the first time, and we are doing it in a world where this medium is already in decline. We are just getting around to licensing a 20th century medium.

– We faced this last year the first substantial attempt by our government to introduce pre-publication censorship of our news media in the form of the new Film and Publications Act. This threat has only briefly receded, and it is something we will have to face in the coming year.

This is a grave pity, because it is a period when we should be able to assume our media freedom and be able to expand the debate into areas such as the need to match our freedom with equality – the right of all to have access to the media.

– Our public broadcaster, which because of its size, resources and public service obligations, should be setting the standards for good, in-depth journalism, which should be covering those things which may not be commercially viable for others to cover, is not doing so. They have failed to stem the damage done by the extremely worrying and damaging independent report into last year’s “blacklisting” affair and seem content to let things ride, to let good people leave out of frustration, and to allow the triumph of a complacent mediocrity.

We need to make this matter a priority. I am firmly of the belief that the root of the problem is the board of directors of the SABC and the way it is chosen by a parliamentary committee. This means that it is essentially chosen by ANC leadership. We need to find a way to take this outside of the realm of party politics, so that the board is not made up of a collection of conflicting special interests, loaded towards the ANC, but is made up of those best able and equipped to oversee and nurture the makers of great radio and television.

This is a good time to take the issue up, not just because there is strong sentiment around the issue, but because it is when those in power are coming to the end of their term, and thinking of what kind of public broadcaster they would like to have when they are not in power – and that is when progress can be made. We learnt from the previous government, that it is when people are losing their power over state institutions that they become most concerned about how others might abuse such power.

We can all agree that we all want to see a better kind of journalism, but we may not agree with what that is or how we get there. I want to challenge the common notion that the problem is mainly one of resources, that the root cause is there are too few journalists doing too many stories because newsrooms have shrunk considerably. For one thing, we have some very well resourced newsrooms which are producing some of the weakest journalism. Like the SABC. And often, at least in the past, there have been smaller newsrooms which produced some of the stronger journalism.

A year ago, I hosted a discussion of judges and editors when the Chief Justice and others set out to make editors see that they needed a strong and credible Constitutional Court and that by not covering it properly they were damaging the prospects of democracy. Editors saw the point and a number left the meeting promising to do something about it. But they didn’t, even those who had the capacity to do so.

I am not suggesting that there are not problems of resources. But sometimes it is used as an excuse.

It is important to talk of the kind of culture of journalism we want and value. We need to have learnt the lessons of the New York Times, the Washingon Post and much of the American media in relation to the Iraqi war – how easy it is to fall into line with a national patriotic sentiment and suspend one’s critical judgment, one’s skepticism towards authority. I think we should look back at our own history and be aware of those periods when some of us have fallen in line with calls to show loyalty and responsibility and to soften our criticism. This had nothing to do with a lack of resources.

Today, we heard a call from the Presidency for us to be more responsible and more accurate. I don’t discount the importance of those values. But I do think we have to reaffirm that what is most important in journalism is a commitment to questioning, probing, looking for depth of understanding, explanation and analysis. The media will contribute to the kind of society we want, and the kind envisaged in our constitution, not by writing good news stories but by the quality of debate and discussion, the level to which our media empowers our people to make informed decisions about their life and their country. That can only come from a journalism which digs and probes and questions. A successful society is one which can face up to and corrects its inevitable errors, that doesn’t believe there is one way forward, but a number of options which have to be debated and analysed, one which accepts that there are many notions of responsibility, many views of the truth, and many ways to use and abuse facts which are neither immutable nor unchanging.

I am afraid that we have to tell those in power that we have to be pesky. Responsibly so, I hope, and accurately; but pesky all the same. Sometimes we journalists will do things those in power consider irresponsible, and sometimes we will get it wrong, or disagree with you about both the facts and their usage. Good journalism is often trouble-making journalism, and that means that some – usually those with power and wealth – will consider it irresponsible, while others consider it responsible.

Let me reaffirm the journalistic values we should really be talking about. The most important thing for journalists is to: be sceptical, never cynical; ALWAYS sceptical, NEVER, NEVER cynical.

* Anton Harber is head of journalism and media studies at Wits University.  This is the text of a talk he delivered at the Goedgedacht Forum in the Western Cape. It followed a call from the Minister in the Presidency, Essop Pahad, for more responsible media that spread less disinformation.  The text was also published on his blog, The Harbinger.