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Sunday Times STLive By Joe Latakgomo, 2011-06-19

No public trust for media without accountability


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I am not sure who said that human beings, looking at the infinite complexities of life, cannot see the whole and are informed only by what they are able to see. Often, they take this view as the whole truth - anything else is lies and distortions.

I was reminded of this profound observation when I read that government spokesman Jimmy Manyi had threatened to take over the people's advertising budget - R1-billion of it - to reward those who he and others in government believe fairly reflect government's service delivery.

In other words, the government will pay those who say nice things about it, and turn a blind eye to government failures and corruption.

"We don't play games in this government. We are not messing around," Manyi is quoted as saying.

I also thought back to a great newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, and how it met its untimely demise.

The Mail was fearless in its reportage. Its only crime, in the eyes of the government of the time - and business interests of the time - was to speak out for disenfranchised black people. The Mail exposed prison conditions as they affected black inmates. It reported on forced removals. It exposed the Muldergate Scandal, or Information Scandal - the clandestine funding of attempts to buy the Washington Star and the setting up of The Citizen to counter the Mail.

The price the Mail paid was harassment by government. The weapon of withholding advertising was used to squeeze it to death - both advertising from government and from the private sector, which were beaten into submission through intimidation - much as is happening today.

The newspaper was dumped by its white readers, and at its death, the majority of its readers were black.

It takes guts to take on the big guys - in business or in politics. The only weapon journalists have at their disposal is truth.

Clearly, people like Manyi seem to have no idea how newspapers work, and how editorial content is put together. Or maybe they do.

It cannot possibly be that all the riots and service-delivery protests are the result of newspapers not reporting government projects and successes. I would guess that if the government had claimed its service delivery was anything other than the failure reflected in the media today, and trumpeted success through the government publication Vukuzenzele, the people would still have protested - perhaps more loudly, as they would perceive they are the only ones left behind in service provision. Forty-million rand would have gone down the drain.

Manyi has accused the media of "picking and choosing" which government messages to convey. But that is exactly what he and his team propose to do in Vukuzenzele.

Are newspapers in the business of "my country, right or wrong?" At the height of state repression, then state president PW Botha boasted publicly that if necessary he would tell lies for his country. He then expected the media to report those lies.

That would certainly not be what readers look for in a newspaper. Readers look for balance and accuracy. Sometimes, readers may not like what they are reading, but if they are satisfied that it is factual and significant, they will accept it as the truth. No newspaper reader wants to be fed a diet of propaganda. Indeed, propaganda often comes back to bite politicians - and the media that has fed them that diet.

Can journalism cure the ills of the country by suppressing the terrible things that are happening to the people - particularly the poor? Should newspapers focus on ferreting out the good only, and run "good news" newspapers?

Readers demand accountability from newspapers. They might not always agree with the newspapers, but it leads to greater public trust.

The result of publishing government propaganda will inevitably lead to journalists being held in low esteem by readers.

In my interaction with readers I have become aware of one common thread in what the readers of the newspapers that Avusa Media publishes expect: they expect - nay, demand - news that is a fair account of the facts. Editorials should be an analysis of significant facts, and for the most part, readers accept that this would be subject to slanting.

Sometimes, the difference does get blurred, and the challenge for newspapers is to ensure that this division between editorial opinion and news is clear. Opinion should always be based on information that can be verified, done by a writer with specialist knowledge on the subject, and the column has to carry the name of the author. It should place the news in a broader context so that the reader understands the significance of the issue or subject better. It should also be authoritative.

Avusa Media has pledged to be true, accurate, fair and balanced in the reporting in its publications.

Manyi clearly does not believe this. For the most part, readers of our publications do. And that is what matters.