Rainbows, dreams & ethical journalism

Posted on June 29, 2019


South Africa seems to be obsessed with rainbow images. First there was that grand illusion of a rainbow nation, now faded. But it did, for some time, obscure, to a degree, rotten reality.

Now, with the latest State of the Nation (SONA) address we have what seemed to boil down to a “somewhere over the rainbow image” taken from that iconic Hollywood film, The Wizard of Oz. That 1939 movie, based on a 1900 fantasy novel, featured a young girl in dull, dusty Kansas, being swept up in her house by a tornado and landing in a glittering world “over the rainbow”.

That land beyond the rainbow was a sparkling, colourful environment dominated in the distance by the spires and turrets of a futuristic Emerald City. It did not require workers: everything was apparently the work of a wizard.

There was no bullet train in that cinematic land of Oz . Which is hardly surprising, given when the book was written and the film was made.

It is a dreamtime story of the triumph of good over evil and where the wizard supposedly in charge of the Emerald city turns out to be a quite likeable fraud. Only the heroine, Dorothy, the promoter of the dream, continues to believe that the land over the rainbow really does exist.

The imagery in the film, gender issues aside, seems to tie in well with our reality, where supporters of future cities and bullet trains are outweighed heavily by those who see this all as fantasy. But it does bring to mind what the scientist and writer Isaac Asimov once noted: “There is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.”

However, if facts are known and carefully analysed and assessed, sensible decisions may be made by the overwhelming majority of people. Clear policies can then be formulated together with the means to implement them, a factor generally missing in the world of fantasies.

What this requires, in the first place, is access to reliable information followed by governments having the political will to institute measures necessary to improve the lot of everyone. Perhaps short of a revolution, this is something that can only be achieved within parliamentary democracies that honour the principle of freedom of expression.

But in most such democracies — including that in South Africa — the electorate, the majority of the people, have to deal with largely unaccountable politicians. However, such governments are responsive to coherent demands from the voting majority.

And such coherent demands can become popular causes when the population, in conditions of open debate, is provided with accurate information and clear, truthful analysis. This is the role of the media and of the journalists whose task it is to act as the eyes and ears of the public at large. Which is the reason journalists and the media are frequent targets of those with “smallanyana skeletons” — and often much bigger ones — they wish to continue hiding.

Editors and journalists. entrusted with a role that includes uncovering the skeletons memorably referred to by ANC Women’s League president, Bathabile Dlamini, are therefore frequently bullied, defamed and threatened. Bribery is also a factor in attempts to suborn channels of public information.

In these times of economic crisis, of austerity, job losses and increasing job insecurity, the pressure on journalists and editors becomes even more acute. This is especially so when gangsters, political and otherwise, often wield considerable power.

Fake news and more subtle propaganda are among the means by which these small, powerful, groups and individuals attempt to confuse and manipulate the populace. The distortions they promote may be absurd, but, in the absence of factual alternatives, they may be believed. And such belief, as a French philosopher once said, can lead to the commitment of atrocities.

Ethical journalism is, therefore, one of the essential pillars necessary to maintain, as well as extend, democracy. And that, quite simply, means providing factual information that can enable people to fully take part in affairs which properly concern them.

This is seen as a danger by the minority that exploits and oppresses the majority. And it is why the media in general and journalists in particular are denigrated by such elements. Which is not to say that there are not some journalists and editors who have willingly succumbed to bribery, let alone bullying.

In South Africa, despite frequent, vitriolic — and sometimes physical — attacks on journalists, media freedom generally prevails. And those areas of the media that were — in some cases, still are — compromised, tend to be well known.

But the battle continues. And it is a global battle. It is not widely known but, over the past 20 years, one journalist every week, on average, has been killed carrying out their work. Some have died in war zones, but others, often investigating corruption in official circles, have been murdered.

In South Africa, despite harassment and threats, it was the work of journalists, that brought to light the details of state capture and other examples of high level malfeasance that are now the subjects of commissions of inquiry. This much was acknowledged last weekend by Hermione Cronje, head of investigations at the National Prosecuting Authority.

Speaking at the annual SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) Nat Nakasa awards dinner in Johannesburg, she pointed out that journalism in the public interest has never been more important than now; that ethical journalism is an essential ingredient in the maintenance and extension of democracy.

It is for this reason that Sanef last week announced a year-long inquiry into media ethics, headed by retired judge Kathleen Satchwell. Media practitioners, proprietors, political parties and the public at large will be invited to make their suggestions about the best way forward for ethical journalism.

This inquiry may trigger a backlash from those who fear a truly free and fearless media. But it is something that deserves the support of everyone who not only dreams of a better future, but who recognises that sound, honest information is essential in order to plan — and to implement — the means to a better future for all.

•Bell is a member of Sanef