The twin conferences of the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum have come and gone. Much was said, but the core issue of ownership was not given any attention, writes Mahmood Sanglay.

Mahmood Sanglay writes:

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) held its sixtieth annual congress in Cape Town from June 3 to 6. At the same time the World Editors Forum (WEF) held its fourteenth annual meeting. Over 1600 delegates from 52 countries attended the event in Cape Town. It was spectacular, it was eventful and it was fundamentally flawed.

Nelson Mandela addressed the welcoming ceremony, President Mbeki declared the congress officially open and Jacob Zuma, who is busy suing the cartoonist Zapiro and a number of newspapers, pontificated about the role of the press. The congress addressed a range of crucial issues in the newspaper industry, all of which reflected its commercial interests, the quality of the press and the freedom of the press.

The good news is that the newspaper is alive and well. Timothy Balding, Director General of WAN, says the future of the newspaper is secure. There is no imminent collapse of print media. The pleasure of the natural touch of paper is not about to vanish into cyberspace. The integration of the traditional newsroom with online journalism is not about to threaten the existence of hard copy. Innovative and pioneering multimedia initiatives are rapidly advancing the global newspaper industry. That’s good to know.

However, the programme of the congress was bereft of some other equally crucial issues: the responsibility of the press, the agenda of the press and global media ownership. Ironically, it was Jacob Zuma who chose to remind the press of its responsibility to report fairly. And it was Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, now the Caxton media baron, who omitted to do so when it would have been really opportune on the WAN platform. He was the one who felt obliged to apologise to President Mbeki when South African journalist Max du Preez referred to the president as a womaniser in the Citizen in April 2001.

But these pale into insignificance in the larger scheme of things. In the larger scheme of things the press is expected to be a watchdog of government. Yet, it is also expected to be its own vigilant self-regulator. In a true democracy this may not necessarily be a problem. But a true democracy with a responsible and free press is hard to come by. And the responsibility of a free press in a democracy extends beyond fairness to politicians. In holding up the mirror to society do we ever ask if the press should hold up the mirror to itself? Do we constantly remind ourselves of the enormous power of the press in setting the agenda and shaping public opinion?

George Brock, President of WEF acknowledges that the American press was “slow” in recognising the farce of the weapons of mass destruction as a legitimate basis for the invasion of Iraq. However, he failed to acknowledge that the alternative media in America had rightly questioned the basis for the invasion. He also failed to acknowledge that the mainstream American press had given greater coverage and, therefore greater credence, to the official American government rationale for the war, despite the fact that it did not fairly reflect the massive American public opinion opposing the war.

Absolute power that corrupts absolutely is inherently invested in the press. An unchecked aggregation of the power to influence perception and behaviour is as dangerous as political power without a necessary check on accountability and transparency. The misuse of the power of the press in this instance is an imperative for the agenda of WAN in order to achieve a single merit that has been glaringly absent from the congress: self-criticism.

Not a single session over four days focused on this fundamental aspect of WAN and WEF, two of the world’s most powerful media institutions. There is no focus on the untrammeled corporate globalisation of the press as media groups continue to expand in aggressive acquisition deals, aggregating more power in the hands of fewer individuals like Gavin O’ Reilly and Rupert Murdoch. These media tycoons failed to question a war and an ideological agenda that more than just suggest a consistency with American imperial ambitions. There is complicity of the press in aiding and disregarding global and populist outrage against an illegal war designed primarily to serve American, Israeli and European interests.

There is complicity of the press in silencing legitimate voices of dissenting activists, journalists, academics and professionals like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dan Rather, Amy Goodman, Arundhati Roy and John Pilger. These writers have dared to expose the true agenda of the American government and its allies as well as corporate media’s cover-up in failing to report findings and views that present credible challenges to the official American version.

In criticising the South African government’ss race quota system and affirmative action policy, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert said: “…When you are held hostage by the racism of the past you should budget generously for racism in your future.” However, he adds that South Africa should be commended for traversing the stability continuum from a point of repressive stability to a point of consensual stability, even though crime threatens that stability.

Similarly, Gavin O’Reilly commends President Mbeki for securing basic press freedoms in South Africa while admonishing him to review the amendments to the Film and Publications Act and to place the freedom of the press on the African Union agenda. This is rich coming from corporate media: more so because this admonishment suggests an altruism founded on a concern for human rights, but they conceal their real concern for the expansion of the press in new markets. It is not easy to recognise the greed of liberal capitalism when it seemingly campaigns for the basic freedoms of others, especially if the others are Africans deprived of their freedom by despotic leaders like Robert Mugabe who have no respect for a free press.

Fronting a legitimate agenda in order to advance a self-serving agenda is disingenuous. But this is the nature of the press. We have to become better readers. But we have to become readers first.

* Mahmood Sanglay is a media activist residing in Cape Town. He is Fulbright fellow in journalism, a postgraduate researcher  in Narrative Journalism and he campaigns for the interests of small, independent and grassroots media in South Africa. He may be contacted at