The recent spat at eTV has placed the spotlight on editorial independence.

The resignation of its head, Marcel Golding begs many questions: Do owners matter – does union ownership of media bring news coverage of greater meaning to the working people of this country? Do those who own media companies use news coverage as a carrot to win more business contracts from government? Is Golding’s championing of editorial independence a smokescreen for his share dealings?

Journalists across the country are examining some of these issues to a greater or lesser extent. Each issue requires exploration. The Journalist has decided to focus on editorial independence. The tussle between owners of companies comes and goes and we leave it to others to dissect. Editorial independence is central to quality journalism and is enshrined in law and in media company policies. The drama at eTV provides an opportunity to examine how well we are doing in keeping editorial and management separate. The aim is to create as much space for the journalists to do their work without the pressure of government, political party or commercial interest.

eTV and the SABC for example both clearly outline their editorial policies committing to the construct of editorial independence and so do most other media entities. It is very difficult for a journalist to work at a media entity where the owners question her right to write certain stories or even prevent her from doing so. Citizens must be able to trust that the journalist will tell a story as accurately as possible and bring to light all its dimensions. Audiences discern over time if a reporter is a reluctant scribe.

Lets pause briefly to consider where we come from.

Prior to 1994, different practices were in place. The Afrikaans press was mainly closely aligned to the National Party. “It was a top down approach,” said former journalist and writer, Antjie Krog. “Instructions came from the top and was in keeping with the political project. I don’t see that there was real editorial independence in South Africa at all then,” she said. English and Afrikaans editors fraternized with powerful business interests.

After 1994, much of this has given way to the profit motive. Media 24, formerly Naspers, gives primary attention to the bottom line. And their editors know this. This places a different kind of pressure on the editor. Her editorial independence is protected as long as it does not breach the making of good returns for the company.

The English press, in the past owned in the main by mining interests fell within the British liberal tradition and those who worked for it knew that anything that challenged that viewpoint and perhaps threatened mining interests substantially, would be no-go zones. Extensive coverage of the struggles of trade unions was not seen on editorial pages. Coverage of the disenfranchised communities was minimal unless there were protests. When an editor truly exercised editorial independence, he did not survive for long. Take Tony Heard for example. After publishing an interview with Oliver Tambo, the banned ANC leader in 1985, he found himself without a job.

The SABC was completely state run and blacked out most news of the world and politics that mattered to the majority of South Africans. There was not even a pretence of editorial independence. The SABC was at the full disposal of the National Party and the apartheid government. It had no authority or credibility in the eyes of the majority.

We come from a place where most efforts at editorial independence not only attracted the wrath of media owners but also draconian reaction from the state. Newspapers were closed and editors banned, journalists jailed, tortured and killed. Those who take the position that editorial independence was alive and well during apartheid, have been looking at the country through a very narrow lens. Through the lens of the past where a small oppressing white community was served by a small mainly white journalist corp. Within little pockets there were definitely those who did their best to make a stand for editorial independence but that independence did not flow from the South African context as a whole. It operated within a confined Afrikaner Nationalism or British liberal corporatism. It did not even begin to operate within a genuine South African context.

When negotiations started in 1990, there was a frenzy of activity leading up to 1994 to ensure freedom of expression, freedom of the airwaves and a profession that was editorially independent. Leading journalists and activists were involved in initiating efforts to free the SABC. Many of these efforts have yet to be recorded in detail.

As the idealism and euphoria took hold in 1994 and the first five years of democracy (the Mandela years), there was enormous hope and opportunity to lay the foundation for a truly free profession and industry.

The independence of the SABC was enshrined in law. South Africa’s first Independent Broadcast Authority came into being leading to the flourishing of community radio, new commercial radio stations as well as independent television. Suddenly South Africans of all hues and shades were seeing themselves on the screen and long-suppressed talent burst onto the national stage. With investments from the union movement, eTV arrived, introducing a competitive edge to the industry for the first time in history. Since then DSTV and community TV has taken off and more recently came ANN7, the baby on the block. The potential for quality journalism has soared.

Twenty years after those first euphoric steps, editorial independence has taken many different turns in the hurly burly of change in the media scene.

There are some who argue they have never been freer at the broadcast media, both television and radio. They enjoy an editorial independence they have never enjoyed before. There are others who experience interference from government and political parties and say they are under pressure.

This is part of the territory when the stakes are high and is experienced all over the world with some countries having sophisticated ways of tricking journalists into using false information. Remember the widespread lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? “Governments and other outside interests, not being eunuchs or wallflowers, will always try to influence free media, “ said Tony Heard former editor of the Cape Times and advisor in the presidency. “It’s in the nature of the beast.  So don’t be naive.  It’s their right. Best advice is:  Distill or ignore. If they threaten, ignore but kick up fuss,” he said. And finally get the public on your side, he said.

Thankfully, the SABC did not buckle under pressure at the time of our greatest shame when the workers of Marikana were massacred. “It was the SABC that reported, day after day, the plight of miners at the Lonmin Mine in Northwest before the tragedy of Marikana, “said Jimi Matthews, head of news at SABC. “This is not to deny that there is pressure, sometimes enormous pressure to toe the line. Political, social and commercial entities will try their best to influence you, as an editor, by any means necessary,” he said. Matthews is responsible for 4 TV channels, 18 radio stations and the new media.

I would imagine different media entities experience this to lesser or greater degrees. What the profession needs to do is to examine the practice and experience of each media house and provide practical examples where independence has been safeguarded and where it has been placed in jeopardy.

In practice, these things are difficult, says seasoned journalist, Pippa Green.

“Ebrahim Patel is correct that government has a perfect right to ask for coverage of important infrastructure projects. The key thing, though, is that well-informed editors need to make the decision about the type and extent of that coverage without pressure from their bosses who may well have another agenda for keeping government happy. This is central to credibility,” she said. (See the full text of Minister Patel’s statement in response to suggestions that he put pressure on eTV management to provide coverage.)

The greatest difficulties will come now as we find ourselves in the middle of a tight economy where companies are scrambling for resources and profit.

Media companies face the same constraints since they are in the main run as businesses. It is a different time and South Africa is a different place.
“Media determined to be free wins out in the end in a democracy,” said Tony Heard. “ It should be recognised in the basic law, and widely among the public it serves, as an institution in its own right. It is not “given” or  “granted” rights by outside interests; it’s no adjunct, it’s simply independent. It has the inherent right to make up its own mind, even if attacked as unco-operative or unpatriotic.”

The question for us is how do we conduct ourselves in practice. The policies are in place. As a profession we have chosen to commit ourselves to the construct of editorial independence. But how do we as professionals carry out this core element of our craft? It requires journalists, media owners and those who hold power in society to be conscious that we all hold together the edges of a fine web that requires right conduct from all of us to allow South African journalism to mature and grow. The drama at eTV provides an opportunity for us to refine what such conduct means.