The ‘tone’ of SA Journalism: Our Own Failure

Media Freedom Month Special

Starting this week we are running a series of articles reflecting on the status of South African Journalism. Zubeida Jaffer Publisher of The Journalist threw down the gauntlet with a challenging position paper. See our Thought Leader “Where Is SA Journalism Headed”.

On this forum it seems we all are in agreement that in one way or another we are somewhat frustrated with South African journalism. If I read correctly, the problems mentioned are loosely centred around dominant perspectives, attitude towards the majority of the country and something undefinable which we call “tone”.

Pippa Green

Pippa Green

I want to describe two scenarios in which these issues are manifested. The first happened when I was part of the ‘new’ SABC Radio team at parliament under editorship of one of South Africa’s best journalists, Pippa Green. We were covering the ‘new’ parliament writing the new constitution and were brimming with many languages and good intentions.

During this time Kader Asmal, then the recently appointed Minister of Water Affairs, contacted me. We knew one another from before and I knew that he was an avid poetry lover. He was to open a project bringing water to the place where Chris Hani was born and he wanted poetic words, poetry, for his speech. We worked together on it and there was high praise for the speech.

About six months later he contacted me for a tree-planting event and I set out looking for poetic texts. As I was putting photostats down next to my computer, Pippa was sitting in our office and asked something about them. As I explained, she frowned somewhat and called me into her office: “But Antjie, how can you assist a minister with his speeches while you are a journalist who is supposed to report on ministers’ speeches?”

As she said it, I realised the absolute truth of her words, yet it hit me like an iceberg. I was appalled that I could be so unethical so easily! What happened to my compass? Much more upsetting was that something which made me so proud to be of any assistance, something which I so absolutely agree with, found so worthwhile, could be completely unethical and wrong.

I think I was confronted then with a common dilemma of many journalists up until today: how does one’s reporting assist one’s government to do the right thing? Exposing wrongs is crucial, but equally important is to do it in a way which helps and not aggravate things? Sometimes I think it is here that the concept of ‘tone’ comes in: in English journalism there is sometimes a tone which one suspects does more harm than good.

Snuki Zikalala

Snuki Zikalala

Example: I was working in Johannesburg just when Snuki Zikalala was appointed head of SABC news. We were all excited, because not only had he won several awards for journalism, but unashamedly put the needs of reporters first in his vision plan for us. My workstation was near his office so I could sometimes overhear heated conversations. Week after week he was ridiculed in the Mail and Guardian by Robert Kirby, the High Priest of that ‘tone’. Whenever Snuki was up for a specific acerbic smear, he was referred to as Sikalala (Phd Bulgaria!) as if this was unbelievably hilarious – with one sweep completely dismissing South Africa’s discriminating past in which people could not study where they would like to and that many exiles received their education at institutions supporting the liberation struggle.

It felt to me that one could see Zikalala change from weekly insult to weekly insult, joyfully taken up by other media, into a deeply hurt, twisted and angry man who saw the ANC political structure as his only security in life.

To summarise: our frustration with journalism is our own failure to create a kind of sustainable journalism that is ‘building’ South Africa, consisting of an in depth association with the majority and the poor, sharp and insightful criticism and ruthless exposures, but without destroying people through ridiculing.

Which brings me to language. In 1998 I was appointed SABC political editor in parliament. The team was more or less still the excellent multilingual one that Green had put together in 1994 with only one mother tongue English speaker.

Every reporter had to file stories in his or her own mother tongue but also an English news story to be distributed to all the bulletins. As editor I was to edit these stories, but my English was, and still is, not nearly good enough. My own work needed grammatical editing. So I asked stalwart George Mason Jones, who worked for endless years at parliament, to edit all the stories I sent through.

This was entering a new domain. Between me and George and the SABC news in Johannesburg (where English mothertongue speakers worked) more things than just the grammar was changed. Some stories lost their edge, others suddenly got an edge or an angle that made us uncomfortable. All of these changes could be well explained within a journalistic grid, but it meant that despite having other backgrounds and languages on the ground and in the newsrooms, the ‘sound’ of radio news bulletins never really changed.

One can blame our language inadequacies on the education system, our non-existent reading culture and our non-exposure to good newspapers from a young age, but as newsgathering is more and more becoming an internet-user activity, we perhaps need not bother improving the quality of journalists. The core of the internet exists out of ‘user-generated content’ given for free. Nobody places any value in our skill, as anybody now tells the news as he or she sees fit.

Despite this, many things have changed. Excellent journalism by non-traditional English journalists is being produced daily and thank god, many of us have not mastered that ‘tone (yet?).