We must unite in the battle to protect media freedom
Public- and private-sector leaders queued to speak to South Africa's newspaper editors at their annual meeting this weekend, all bringing versions of an appeal to be taken more seriously in what they do.
With such a stellar line-up of policy- and opinion-makers dropping in at the annual meeting of the South African National Editors' Forum, it was hard to escape the feeling that they took the relationship with the media more seriously than the journalists themselves.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, South African Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, Statistician-General Pali Lehohla and Standard Bank CEO Jacko Maree all cut into their weekends to spend an hour with editors, editorial trainers and senior journalists. All had good and fairly obvious reasons to want to speak to the leaders of the country's print media.
Apart from a briefing on the transformation of the judiciary, Judge Mogoeng was on a charm offensive. He spoke at length about the rough ride he got from the media during his selection hearings, offered forgiveness even though it was not sought and urged the media to be more kind to other judicial officers than they had been to him.
Marcus talked about the importance of increasing transparency in monetary policy-making and urged editors to think about their own role in interpreting the accelerating flow of information.
"Here the role of the press is critical, not only for reporting directly what we have said, but also for interpretation, as the interpretation given by the press can become the conventional wisdom.
"Is it not appropriate for each of us to ask ourselves: what is the story we tell, whose story do we tell, how do we convey the news, how do we impart information, what role do we play in creating an informed and knowledgeable citizenry, and how do we ensure that it is not our own goals and objectives that we project on a society hungry for information and a greater understanding of what is really going on?" she said.
Maree, whose bank had helped to fund the conference, raised a laugh when he said that sharks never attacked bankers in the water "as a matter of professional courtesy".
But his purpose was to reinforce the argument that South Africa's banks stand up well in comparison with their Western cohorts in the analysis of the previous and current global economic crises.
For Mkhize, a politician with a huge bet riding on the outcome of the ANC's Mangaung conference in December, the opportunity to speak to a conference of editors was an obvious must-do.
But he seemed to have lost his notes and opted to make the one point he could remember over and over until his audience began to count under their breath how often he had delivered the message: it's okay to be tough on us when we fail, but can't you find something nice to say as well?
Lehohla broke out the banana yellow suit he wears whenever he speaks about last year's census and warned editors that the results, when they begin to flow in, need careful analysis rather than tabloid spin if they are to be worth the billions spent on trying to count how many of us there really are in the country.
The journalists there gave every speaker an attentive hearing, of course, but what may have disappointed the guests was that not very many editors or senior journalists had taken the trouble to show up. A handful of title editors were there, but not those of the biggest Sunday newspaper, the foremost business dailies, the two newest national newspapers or either of Cape Town's venerable newspapers.
Advisers to the speakers, who bracketed Sanef's working sessions, would have urged their principals to attend on the basis that South Africa's media faces the greatest crisis of the democratic era, and it would have been fair to assume that the movers and shakers of the industry would all have been there.
Not for the first time since I have been involved with Sanef, the forum's council discussed the relatively low turnout and mulled strategies to get editors and journalists more closely involved in the single frontline professional organisation that fights directly for their interests.
An obvious and relevant hurdle is the squeeze that has been put on newspapers to do more with less.
It was easier for senior staff to get away for this sort of event when every mainstream paper had a corridor, usually referred to as "mahogany row", of deputy and assistant editors, as well as a night editor, a features editor, an arts editor, a racing editor, a women's page editor and probably others, many of them with their own specialist staff. In the bare-bones operations of today, having more than one senior person off with flu can throw production into turmoil.
Training and conferences have to be chosen with care. But just as training is crucial to the future of newspapers, so too is the defence of the media freedom we were promised when the information- starved lager of white rule was dismantled. The threat is not only the raft of legislation in the pipeline that includes elements hostile to the freedom of information and of the media. As dangerous to the media and, by implication, to democracy itself, is the climate of hostility being whipped up, which puts the press and its people in the firing line.
Asked about his stance on media freedom, Judge Mogoeng urged South Africans inside and outside the newspaper world to think about the underlying causes and the environmental factors that have allowed reporters and newspapers to become targets of attacks elsewhere in Africa. Like members of any profession facing danger, journalists and their friends need to stay focused, find common cause and build an effective defence.
While they are at it, the worthies of society will queue for a turn at the microphone, which is what the marketing department calls a win-win scenario.