A compromise we have to swallow
Sunday Times Editorial: THE Press Freedom Commission, established at the behest of the South African National Editors Forum and Print Media SA, has produced a report which has recommended changes in media regulation.
Its key recommendation is that the current system of self-regulation - deemed by the ANC to be insufficiently harsh on what it calls "shoddy journalism" - ought to give way to a new system of "independent co-regulation" but "without state or government participation".
Sensing a way out of its embarrassing call for a statutory media tribunal, the ANC has welcomed the report.
And, sensing a way out of the clutches of such a tribunal, the somewhat battered-about-the-ears media appear to have been equally welcoming of the report.
On the face of it, the commission appears to have fashioned the sort of compromise that finally takes the country forward on press regulation.
In its executive summary, it argues: "To be an effective and responsible regulatory system, this mechanism must manifest administrative fairness and institutional independence from the industry it is to regulate."
It goes on: "It must ensure optimal accessibility by removing the waiver requirements of complainants and removing the characterisation of the complaints procedure as arbitration."
The effect of this will be to turn disputes over accuracy and fairness into judicially reviewable matters.
On the one hand, this provides welcome relief from the sometimes puzzling procedures that have been followed by the press ombudsman. For example, this newspaper has had a decision of the body's final appeal body reviewed afresh in a bizarre "appeal against an appeal".
The capacity to set this sort of procedural laxity to rights in court is to be welcomed.
But it comes at a price. Those who wish to complain about articles must now prepare themselves to go to court in the event that one of the parties seeks judicial review.
This may have the perverse effect of discouraging complaints, especially from those who fear the consequences of having costs awarded against themselves by a court.
Conversely, it empowers those with access to large resources - corporations, the wealthy and the government - to mount costly legal challenges, knowing that a media outlet would have to pay a heavy price in the event that they win. The prospect of a speedy conclusion of disputes will also be diminished under this new regime.
There can be no question that the new system - should it be adopted by the industry and rubber-stamped by the ANC - is a compromise.
Perhaps it is a necessary compromise in order to forestall harsher action to control the press. The press will be less free, but better able to defend its new frontier.