The Jimi Matthews who quit as the SABC’s acting Group Chief Executive was once a fierce and dedicated defender of freedom of the press. I knew him back around 1994 when the SABC lured me from Canada — where I’d been head of TV journalism training for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) — to coach its newsrooms in the ways of democratic journalism.
My job was to lead a team of Canadian TV journalism trainers to help the SABC report professionally and honestly on the new Rainbow Nation’s first-ever democratic election. Our mission was to help turn the corporation from a fascist state broadcaster to a democratic public broadcaster like the CBC and BBC.
By all accounts, we succeeded. The SABC got high marks for its independent, balanced, free and fair 1994 election coverage. It would never get such praise again.
In those days Jimi was a brave and highly respected cameraman and reporter who exposed apartheid’s atrocities with skill and guts. He kept the journalist’s promise — to tell what the powerful didn’t want told, and spoke truth to power.
He believed as we all did, that independent, free and honest journalism would be the cornerstone of this brave new democracy and that the newfound professional South African journalism would guard the nation against inevitable challenges from the powerful — particularly politicians.
But something happened to Jimi as he rose through the SABC’s corporate ranks, moved into bigger and bigger offices with bigger and bigger salaries, and more and more power.
As the SABC lost its innocence and returned to being a propaganda arm of the governing party, Jimi lost his mojo, his cajones.
Last month he got some of his courage back.
The new Jimi wrote in his resignation letter that the “corrosive atmosphere” at the SABC had negatively affected his moral judgement. It had made him complicit in decisions he “was not proud of”. “What is happening at the SABC is wrong and I can no longer be a part of it.”
“I also wish to apologise to the many people who I’ve let down by remaining silent when my voice needed to be heard,” the letter said.
This finally, after all the years, was the Jimi Matthews we once knew and respected.
Enter The SABC’s Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a couple of days after Jimi’s resignation. He bluntly told the corporation’s staff, particularly its journalists during a staff meeting at the SABC headquarters in Johannesburg:
“If you are at the SABC, there is leadership, and if the leadership says you must turn right, you must turn right. If you turn left, you must get off the bus.”
Later that same day, in growing disbelief, I watched Motsoeneng stage a bizarre SABC media briefing.
The “public” broadcaster’s Minister of Disinformation was in full paranoid, megalomaniacal, gunslinger denial. He swaggered, bullied, lied and threatened SABC employees — again including its journalists.
“We are going to deal with people decisively on disciplinary matters within the organisation. People are saying we are censoring … there is no censorship at the SABC,” he said.
Once again, Motsoeneng proved he knows absolutely nothing about the commandments and ethics of journalism and cares even less for freedom of the press. He obviously doesn’t understand that in a democracy journalists report solely to other journalists.
Journalists don’t take orders from corporate managers or their flunkies (Matthews’ replacement, James Aguma was the SABC’s Chief Financial Officer. He’s an accountant, a bean counter, very far from a journalist).
It doesn’t seem to occur to Motsoeneng that journalism relies for its integrity, believability — and, indeed, popularity — on a rigid divide between church and state.
The newsroom is the church. Where journalists independently define, interpret and report the news. Without fear or favour.
The state is the corporation. Its job is to run the overall organisation and its advertising, sitcoms, dramas, sport, managers, clerks, cleaners, drivers etc. Never its journalism.
Centuries of democracy and tradition have made newsrooms sacrosanct. Great walls are built around them to protect their news reporting from interference by the powerful — particularly politicians.
To put it bluntly, in a democracy, the state has no place in the newsrooms of the nation.
In my book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, I try to explain and define democratic journalism. It goes something like this:
Journalism is not a business.
Journalism is an ethical craft holding the powerful to account while serving the weak, the powerless and the downtrodden.
The screwees of this world.
To serve them is a duty, an honour and a privilege.
It is at the peril of our immortal souls that we betray this trust.
MY IDEAL JOURNALIST — and an ideal view it is — has:
- The ability to subordinate every personal interest to the service of the people.
- A high regard for individual liberty and social justice.
- A high opinion of freedom and democracy, along with a low opinion of patriotism and nationalism, those first refuges of the scoundrel.
- An ability to see powerful institutions — political, religious, social, financial etc. — as they actually are, rather than as they would like to be seen.
- The audacity to think independently — to bravely stand by those things you believe to be right.
- A need to challenge conventional mores and accepted wisdom.
- Maturity enough to understand that when you cover a story — any story, including war — you’re not reporting as an employee, or a woman or a black person or a Christian, or a South African. You’re a journalist. You have no gender, colour, religion or nationality. You’re the classic disinterested — but not uninterested — observer
- An undated letter of resignation in your back pocket (Jimi’s letter was a very long time in the post).
The first loyalty of a journalist is not to the employer. Nor to any union. Or cause. Or nation. Our first loyalty is to the people.
We are the protectors of society, guardians of the free marketplace of ideas — one of the glories of democracy — and watchdogs over the use and abuse of power, whether political, economic, religious or any other.
We have, for good or ill, great power.
But such power can lead to corruption. Not usually financial corruption, the curse of politicians and businesspeople.
Ethical journalistic corruption comes when journalists stop being journalists and become part of the ruling class — the Establishment — to live comfortably apart from the real world.
Establishment journalism builds a wall around itself. And Establishment journalists living in the shelter behind the wall start to believe that being bricked in is normal, natural and right.
After a while, they can’t even see the wall that stands there, blocking their view of the outside world.
When that happens, these people no longer make journalistic judgments through the eyes, needs and wants of the people. Instead they make the judgments through the eyes, needs and wants of their fellow members of the Establishment. They stop being independent journalists devoted to the people’s right to know. Instead, they become mere employees, pragmatists serving the greater good of the status quo, the employer, or cause. And when that happens something rare and precious and vital to democracy inevitably dies.
Journalists have a heavy responsibility to the people. We are their protectors, guardians and watchdogs. The same journalistic ethics apply whether we’re the chief journalist, a foreign correspondent covering a war in Syria, a reporter covering a protest in Tshwane or a meeting of the local school board. We really have no choice.
Not if we believe that journalism is public service.
Not if we believe that it’s an honour to be a servant of the people.
For a very long time, my old friend Jimi Matthews forgot these things.
Now, it seems, he’s remembered.
Of course, he could have simply resigned and quietly carried his golden pension off into the sunset.
A good and faithful servant of the state broadcaster.
After a very long time he came clean.
Now, to save his immortal soul, he has to tell the world exactly what happened at the SABC.
Who did what to destroy the people’s network?
When he does that, I’ll join a lot of other journalists around this country and the world to say welcome back, Jimi.
Tim Knight is an Emmy-award winning journalist, writer, filmmaker and public speaker based in Cape Town. Storytelling and the Anima Factor (from which parts of this essay are adapted), is now in its second edition.