Radio 702 and some other media deserves credit for doing a great job during the  Eskom power crisis, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.The station put pressure on those responsible, and gave accurate and useful information on blackouts and traffic problems.  It also avoided falling for "Erwinisms". 

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

It is one of those “Thank goodness for the media” weeks. Or at least thank goodness for some of the media.

Radio 702, for example, has been exemplary on the power blackouts. No doubt they are benefiting from the fact that we are all spending more time in our cars and therefore listening to the radio more than we might normally choose, but they have risen to the occasion. 702 has become the best way to keep informed of where the power is out and the traffic snarled across our city. And they have tackled those responsible for this mess-up with gusto, calling them to account for their mistakes and not letting them get away with what we will from now call Erwinisms.

This neologism, “Erwinism”, has two meanings in my lexicon. It could be a statement so stupidly dishonest that it exemplifies what is worst about a complacent, arrogant government minister who has been in his job for too long. Or it could mean “to speak in muffled tones”, as in how one would sound if one’s head is so far up the president’s butt that one’s brain is not getting sufficient oxygen.

There is a calling-to-account needed now, and it is not being done by the public protector, or parliament, but by those sectors of the media with the guts and determination to hunt down and harass the culprits.

702 has grabbed the opportunity to make great radio and the contrast with the public broadcaster is remarkable. Stations like SAFM have reported on the power issues, but with such routine complacency that they have done little more than tell us things we already know.

This raises interesting questions. Which serves us better: public service stations which are protected, favoured and funded by the state and deliver a flow of Erwinisms; or the spunky little independent private sector station which falls into that money-grubbing, commercial media category so frequently denigrated by the ANC?

In fact, the distinctions we make between public, private and community media do not reflect reality. Commercial media sometimes does better public and community work than the others, and the lines between these categories are blurred. The fact is that the best media is commercially viable, serves the greater public interest and does community work to build its all-important relationship with its audience. It is not often that we find the balance between these three interests, but it is rewarding when we do.

It has also been a week in which the new ANC leadership has tackled those media outlets it views as having opposed their rise to party power. Jacob Zuma was critical of media which he believes is out of step with our society. Blade Nzimande’ wrote a letter to Media24’s management to complain about City Press editors who were partisan in the ANC’s internal party struggles. And ANC leaders apparently summoned SABC CEO Dali Mpofu to a meeting apparently to ask him to ensure the SABC stays neutral in such struggles.

City Press went over the top in comparing the letter to apartheid oppression, and asserted on their front page that they were neutral and non-partisan. It was a pity, as it would have been much more honest to defend their right to report the news and to take whatever view they chose in their editorials and opinions.

The article which most upset Nzimande was a report on an ANC meeting in which City Press believed four anonymous sources who told of internal disputes rather than official ones which played them down. It seems that Nzimande wants them only to rely on sanctified official sources. What City Press did was what I would call good journalism – giving us valuable insight into what was going on behind the scenes and being skeptical of the sanitized version. Nzimande may challenge the facts, but not City Press’ right to do this.

On the SABC-ANC meeting, I have to wonder why the SABC allows itself to be summoned to closed-door meetings with a political party. I hope they now resist the temptation to jump ship for the losing side to the winning side, and rather focus on issues of quality and credibility, which have suffered in recent times.

Despite the finger-waving and the threats, it is a good time for journalism. When the ruling party is divided that there are leaks, accusations and counter-accusations which fuel a rich public debate. If it was left to parliament, after all, debate might be limited to what time we should go to sleep. Before, after or during the SABC evening news?

* Anton Harber is Caxton Professor of journalism at Wits University. This first appeared in Business Day, 6 February 2008