Honesty is the best policy
In the time of instant communication, neither newspaper nor spin doctor can buy the public's trust with lies
NEWSPAPERS are meant to be vigilant, and, as society's watchdog particularly over government, challenge attempts at concealment of the truth from citizens, something which has characterised governments over the ages.
The beginning of a year is as good a time as any for newspapers to do some introspection - to determine whether they have been keeping their side of the deal.
Our readers want to be sure that when they buy our product, they are buying a product that has been prepared with absolute care by professionals, and that they have been provided with a wide range of information and opinions and entertainment which might not otherwise have been available to them.
They want to know that the information given them is honest, truthful, and as complete as is possible within the constraints of newspaper space.
They want to know that it is information they can trust. They want to know that the journalists reporting matters in that newspaper have followed the truth, no matter where it led.
At this time of the year, it is perhaps a good thing to scan the media environment and the horizon ahead so that we can prepare even better for the threats that have been hanging over our heads in the past year or so.
We know that the government will continue to seek to control the information at the disposal of the people they govern. We know that once our government decided that control of the state broadcasting service was not enough - as more and more viewers and listeners migrate to satellite television and independent radio stations which have become more and more dominant information sources - they would seek coerced support.
Communication has moved from the days of land-line machines which could transmit photographs, telex machines which would spring to life with news breaks, typewriters, of which only the QWERTY keyboard is a survivor, and faxes to the instant transmission of information. The lid is off, and no government can control the dissemination of information.
We know that we do not want the hand of government to influence what is published in our newspapers.
But we need to remind ourselves what our primary responsibility is: to provide news and information to our readers which is accurate and fair. We should be telling the world what is happening around us, and venture to tell our readers why and how.
This is back-to-basics journalism.
There is no doubt that we have sometimes been found wanting. And where we got things wrong, we were able to accept this.
We must not focus too much on the threats and forget to be vigilant over ourselves. We need vigorous journalism, not sensational journalism. We need to revisit our accuracy check lists and editorial policies on issues such as the use of anonymous sources.
The adversarial relationship between the media and government is healthy for our democracy, and is even necessary to build on our democratic gains.
Journalism has fought many battles over the ages. The profession has resisted tyrants and charlatans of all kinds who wished to deceive citizens. This is a fight we cannot give up on.
There will always be those in either political or economic power who would want the media to establish an opinion or viewpoint first, and then go out and seek stories to support that opinion.
We have been told that we are ignoring the achievements of our democratic government. This might be so in certain circumstances.
We have also been told that the people of this country have spoken, and elected the government. But this does not mean that by doing so, the people have given up the right to determine for themselves what information they need for their daily lives.
Access to information is democracy itself, and if democracy declines, as it certainly would if the media is restricted and information suppressed, the country will slide towards totalitarianism.
But what should the media do?
First, greater care needs to be taken in the publication of news.
While there has been a decline - certainly in Avusa newspapers - in the number of "regret the error" boxes on Page 2 , or even full apologies and corrections and libel cases, the media has to deal with the public perception of its role and its performance.
It is not as hopeless a task as it might seem.
Even accepting the fallibility of the human being - and journalists are, after all, only human - much more needs to be done to convince readers that they can trust newspapers as news sources.
Our challenge will be to lead the readers back to the news they ought to read and digest for their own sake. News that they can use.
Sometimes, the news might not be palatable. But it is not our role to sugar-coat the bad news. We cannot artificially create a balance between good and bad news. Newspapers will continue to carry the burden of providing news and information to a sceptical society.