Public gets a stronger say in media matters
The thing about submitting to statehood, JM Coetzee argues in his novel Diary of a Bad Year, is that there is no turning back.
"... the handover of power to the state is irreversible. The option is not open to us to change our minds, to decide that the monopoly of the exercise of force held by the state, codified in the law, is not what we wanted after all, that we would prefer to go back to a state of nature," he writes.
Coetzee toys with a variety of iconoclastic ideas and challenges several of the common wisdoms of the modern, democratic West as he tests the benefits of social organisation.
It is an intriguing exercise, but ours is an organised, notionally democratic society and, as he says, it would be too late to turn back even if one wanted to.
Sectors from medicine to the construction industry and the media submit to regulation, control and oversight in an effort to make our organised society effective and fair.
The print media conceded a new level of control last week with the introduction on Constitution Hill, the home of the Constitutional Court, of a new structure for the Press Council of South Africa.
The Press Council is a voluntary, industry-funded body representing about 640 print publications and committed to "promote and preserve the right of freedom of expression".
Coetzee's warning is not precisely relevant here because there has been no surrender to state regulation. Nor have we ceded control of our industry to anyone. But the press has relinquished the principle of equality with the public in the adjudication of complaints against us, and agreed the public voice should slightly outweigh our own.
We have given away the casting vote.
To recap on recent events:
A Press Council task team, set up in 2010 in collaboration with the South African National Editors' Forum, conducted a review, including public inputs, of self-regulation and formulated proposals;
The Press Council published a revised Press Code a year ago which tightened up the ethical guidelines for publications and their reporters, setting a higher bar for accuracy, balance and the protection of dignity;
The Press Council report was given to a Press Freedom Commission established last year by print and digital media owners and headed by Judge Pius Langa. He ran a further inquiry, including extensive public hearings, and submitted his own far-reaching recommendations earlier this year; and
Last week, the Press Council announced a new structure and procedures based largely on Judge Langa's proposals. They will take effect in January.
The new structure will move South Africa's independent print media from the current system of self-regulation to what is called "a voluntary independent co-regulatory system involving exclusively representatives of the press and representatives of the public".
The Press Council will get one additional member, a retired judge appointed by the Chief Justice, who will preside over the now 13-strong council, whose other members will be appointed equally by the press and the public.
The working press will from next year have neither a casting vote nor a veto in the council that is the custodian of the Press Code and sets the rules for the adjudication of complaints against the press.
The opening line of the Press Code says: "The press exists to serve society."
The new Press Council underpins that by giving the public whom we serve the last word in a most important area of our operation.
The revised structure and procedures provide for a permanent, full-time director of the Press Council in addition to the existing full-time ombudsman and deputy.
Also new from January will be the addition of a Public Advocate, whose job will be to help members of the public to formulate complaints and even to initiate complaints if they feel an egregious error has been missed.
The new system will exclude lawyers in all but exceptional cases so members of the public cannot be outgunned by media houses.
For the first time, third-party complaints will be permitted under the new system and the ombudsman will be obliged to rule within 21 days of hearing a complaint.
For an experimental year, the waiver which currently requires anyone complaining to the ombudsman to surrender the right to take the same complaint to the courts will be dropped.
The Press Council reserves the right to reinstate the waiver after a review at the end of next year.
The only sanction for bad journalism remains the enforced publication of a prescribed correction, but under the new rules, the ombudsman will be able to dictate not only where the correction should be carried, but how big it should be.
Monetary fines will apply only for repeatedly ignoring the ombudsman's requests, instructions and deadlines.
Appeals against findings of the ombudsman will be heard by an appeals committee headed by a retired judge or senior lawyer appointed by the Chief Justice.
The chairman will sit with one press representative and from one to three public representatives to hear appeals.
The print media have taken a brave and important step in introducing these new procedures and in restructuring the Press Council to strengthen the public voice.
As Coetzee says, there can be no turning back to "a state of nature".
The intention of this development is to help us to serve society.
The challenge will be to work within the new rules to ensure that the Press Council is never politicised - that the public voice belongs to the public, and never to politicians or their parties.