As allegations emerged at the Zondo Commission about journalists being paid by Bosasa to write ‘good’ stories about the company, and calls are heard for full names to be released, there are many questions to be asked.
The allegations made by disgraced former Bosasa executive Angelo Agrizzi talk to bribes of as much as R30,000 being paid to individual journalists in return for favourable stories. Allegations also surfaced about intimidation and harassment of journalists deemed too critical of Bosasa.
Agrizzi claims names of paid off journalists were recorded in a ‘little black book’, where account of financial transactions is said to have been recorded.
First, before rushing to conclusions, admittedly amidst very legitimate fears of the spread of fake news and propaganda, we need to assess the veracity of the claims made around cheque book journalism and paid off journalists. The South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) is correct in calling for just such an investigation. As without it the profession as well as general public might be twice fooled. Agenda’s abound in the fight for political legitimacy in South Africa, this is nothing new, but likely to take a stranglehold on public discourse in the run up to elections.
Second, if indeed we can ascertain the veracity of these claims and maybe even the names of the journalists supposedly paid by Bosasa to write favourably about the company, we need to ask what the role of our newspaper editors have been. Surely, with a company such as Bosasa a certain level of scepticism must be exercised with regards to coverage. It would surely, and should surely, have set off alarm bells with editors. This is not trying to pass the buck or absolve individual journalists from responsibility, but simply to point out that good editorial processes and practices are vital.
Third, the allegations made about PR companies and consultants paid to keep bad publicity at bay also needs proper investigation. There is nothing odd about organisations engaging in a wide range of PR activities, however, where the ethical lines are drawn are of utmost importance for the legitimacy of such activities. Punting stories written up by staff gainfully employed by a company to the news media is part and parcel of legitimate PR business.
Journalists being hounded and intimidated to either withdraw stories deemed too negative or pressured and/or paid to compile good news stories clearly fail the ethics test. And while ethical codes of conduct and guidelines are not always legally binding, the intimidation and harassment of the kind alleged to have been directed against journalists critical of Bosasa’s activities are clearly in breach of the Constitution, and as such deemed a criminal offence.
Four, in addition to Sanef’s response to the Zondo Commission and request for an investigation, media outlets and the journalistic corps need to take heed of those calling for greater transparency in news coverage. We have now seen far too many stories go wrong and far too many allegations of fake news stories to ignore this trend. We have also seen journalists pandering to political agendas and falling prey to sources who groom them to write favourable stories about certain companies or organisations. There have also been far too many cases of journalists being paid or groomed to discredit other stories or the journalists behind them. It is time we take seriously the call to clean up our own house and order of business.
We can of course, as already called for, set up a Truth Commission of sorts to inquire into the processes and practices of the news media, hopefully with the aim and outcome of a clearer framework of ethical conduct. However, regardless of the approach we take we need to first start a real soul-searching exercise and a real conversation among ourselves about professionalism and ethics. Such a conversation also needs to centre on the role of the news media in the 21st century and from within the paradigmatic shift of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and rapid technological changes to the news media industry and society at large.
Looking at technology as either an enabler or hindrance to good journalism will take us nowhere without thinking through the role that journalism can and should play in a fast-changing world. This inevitably means thinking through our own role as journalists and the values and ethical commitments we are willing to commit to.
In order to counter the damage that allegations of impropriety do to the credibility of journalism – whether proven to be true or not – we need to have these conversations with our readers, viewers and listeners and take them with us on our journey to build an industry that serves the public interest without fear or favour.