There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about a South African editor whose attitude to freebies was to accept as many as possible.  The more gifts you get, his logic went, the less you are beholden to any of the givers.

This novel solution to a pervasive problem has its attractions, of course.  There are many freebies on offer, everything from trips to exotic locations to bottles of good wine, and a conscientious editor can spend a lot of time preventing undue influence by mopping them all up.
Fortunately, most South African media houses now have a slightly more developed policy on freebies.  The Sunday Times has perhaps the best-known system: all gifts, no matter how small, have to be handed in to the paper.  At regular intervals, they are auctioned off in the newsroom, and the proceeds are given to charity. 

The Star has a very detailed policy on free travel, called the “Trips Charter”.  It sets out, among other things, that invitations should go to the editor, sets out a process to be followed in deciding whether to accept and who should go and says that reports written as a result must acknowledge the sponsorship.

In South Africa, travel and motoring journalism is completely unthinkable without this practice.  Some major news organisations overseas, like Canada’s CBC, take a hard, principled position: the organisation pays the costs of newsgathering, they say.  No exceptions.

Such a purist position in South Africa is unimaginable – news organisations don’t have the money.  At least, though, news organisations should indicate where reports have been produced with assistance of this kind. 

As common as they are, though, freebies are just one aspect of the broader problem of conflicts of interest that jeopardise journalists’ independence.  There are many different varieties.  Personal relationships can cause difficulties when a journalist is expected to report on a family member or close friend, for instance. Active political involvement is generally frowned on, and most business publications recognise the problem of a reporter writing about shares he or she owns, where the reporting can move the market. 

The story of Vusi Mona, former editor of City Press, loomed large in journalism’s “annus horribilis”, as Henry Jeffreys, the chair of the SA National Editors’ Forum, called 2003.  Mona was forced to leave his post after it emerged that he was involved in public relations work for the provincial government of Mpumalanga. 

The conflict of interest issue was crystal clear: no journalist can play both sides of the field, reporting the news and accepting money for spinning it on behalf of an entity in the news.

It was perhaps the most prominent instance of conflict of interest in South African journalism, and Media24 deserves credit for having taken it very seriously.  Salie de Swardt, the company’s managing director said when announcing an inquiry: “The integrity of Media24’s editors is of paramount importance to our company.”

Nevertheless, the issue remains poorly understood in South Africa.  We are quick to expose the politician who steers a contract to a friend, or the doctor who accepts money for favouring a particular pathologist.  But where similar conflicts arise in our own profession, we feel immune.

Journalists often defend themselves by arguing that they will accept the gift, but will make sure it doesn’t affect their reporting.  It’s exactly the same argument that Tony Yengeni used when he said that he did not actually swing the arms deal in favour of the people who gave him a nice new 4×4. 

In fact, even if a conflict does not actually affect your reporting, it’s still a problem. Perceptions matter.   A politically active reporter might be scrupulously fair in reporting the party he or she supports, but audiences won’t believe it. 

Die Burger’s code proposes a two-part test of conscience: “Can you say in all honesty that the relevant favour or offer – whether it is a cup of coffee, a cigar, a week in Mauritius or a visit to the Middle East on invitation of the Arab League or to Israel on the invitation of the Jewish Board of Deputies  – won’t have an influence on your impartiality?  Will your readers be sure of your credibility, even if you don’t doubt it?”  The test neatly addresses both sides of the problem: the reality, and the perception, of bias due to a conflict of interest.

The problem is taken very seriously in other professions, and in other countries.  The New York Times last year added a 53-page code dealing just with this issue to a battery of other codes and guides.  (Of course, it did not prevent the paper from falling victim to Jayson Blair, but that is another story.)

While some some South African news organisations are developing sensitivity to the issue, the industry codes are completely silent on the issue. Astonishingly, neither the Press Code of Conduct nor the Code of Conduct for Broadcasters make any mention of the need for journalists to remain independent from undue influence.  

The irony is that there is no clause in the Press Code that would have applied to Mona’s behaviour.  It's as if South African journalism is quite blind in one eye.

If the profession really wants to deal with the issues raised by the annus horribilis that was 2003, then it should consider what independence means. Writing it into the codes might be a good place to begin.

* Franz Kruger teaches journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, and his book on ethics, Black, white and grey is due to be published later this year. His column will appear regularly on the website.