Don't tar SA media with same brush
The sorry episode of the British tabloid News of the World is a classic case of the hunter turning hunted.
The hunters have smelt blood, and nothing short of the annihilation of the media will satisfy the critics. And so the threat to media freedom has escalated.
The Mephistophelian manner in which some journalists on the News of the World operated has put all of us to shame.
If the media are meant to be the watchdogs of society, can we blame society for asking, quoting Roman poet and social critic Juvenal: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" (who will guard the guardians?).
Many will argue that the NOTW operation was essentially what tabloids are all about: sex, crime, scandals.
The greedy need to be first with the juicy news, to break stories, to find the exclusive.
Finally, with the media bosses looking over their shoulders, as Rupert Murdoch seems to have done, raising as much hell to sell as many newspapers as possible and make as much return on investment as possible, the NOTW was seen as aggressive and unresponsive to citizens' concerns.
But that would be a cynical view of how newspapers and journalists operate. Many of the newspaper's 200-odd staff were people of integrity. Some of the best writers were found on this newspaper, and it is perhaps because they could craft their reports so well that readers were often blinded to matters screaming to be questioned: "How did they get that?" Well, now we know.
The tragedy is that the stories that tainted the newspaper and led to its demise probably constituted only a small percentage of its content. The rest represented mostly great, accountable reporting by people whose reputations now lie in tatters, besmirched by a small minority.
Some of those journalists are seeking restitution from News Corporation.
The question being asked is simple: are editors aware of what is going on in the name of their newspapers? Do they know what their journalists are doing, and do they approve? Are newspaper owners aware of what is happening or are they only focusing on the bottom line?
To a large extent, the issue of the concentration of media ownership is being blamed for the ills of newspapers and society.
In the past, the position of editor was the supreme job on a newspaper, but editors have now been relegated to a lower rung of control.
Media moguls put in place number-crunchers whose major concern is whether a newspaper is operating at the lowest cost possible - Murdoch's "gutting strategy", which involved stripping operating costs to the barest minimum, including laying off staff.
Murdoch's other newspapers and media interests face a crisis of credibility. His empire also faces possible damages claims that could bankrupt the organisation were they to succeed. There is also the spectre of seeing his confidants and senior staff ending up in jail.
The court of public opinion will be sitting in judgment as readers begin to look at newspapers with even greater scepticism. Public trust in the media is at an all-time low.
There are lessons for us in South Africa in all of this. It is secrecy that breeds this kind of environment. Believing that self-regulation has failed is folly.
We need to take comfort in the fact that it was not a government institution which exposed the activities of the NOTW. It was not Scotland Yard, MI6 or MI5. Or even the FBI, Mossad or the CIA. Had it not been for investigative journalism, the scandal might not have been exposed.
It was a newspaper that exposed the scandal. That is what great investigative journalism can do. And it has also demonstrated that journalists hold certain principles dear and will take on their own if these principles are threatened.
John Witherow, editor of the (British) Sunday Times, argues that, at its best, investigative journalism can be a powerful force for good. Indeed. Most journalists I know only want to ensure the public's business is conducted in public. They are determined to expose those who want to use the media for selfish political purposes and greedy ends, and then seek to restrict the media if their activities are exposed.
Those in SA who point to the NOTW debacle with glee must pause to think carefully about this. The Secrecy Bill and the Protection of Information Bill, back on the agenda, will not solve the politicians' problems, but will, instead, go a long way to creating the very environment that encourages the kind of behaviour we saw on the NOTW. As one affected journalist said in anger: "They are closing down a newspaper to protect one woman's (Rebekah Brooks, now appointed CE of Murdoch's News International) job."
Our government cannot, and should not, compare the SA media with the NOTW. It would be like saying all politicians are crooked and corrupt because one has been found to be so.