A call for radical transparency among journos

In the wake of relentless criticism of our journalism, some of it justified and much of it unjustified, and following the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal, we need to confront a basic reality: public trust in our work is at a low point. Even the best of our work – and there has been some very fine journalism in this country in recent years – is often treated with disdain.

We need to rebuild public faith in journalism. It is not enough for us to know and love what we do, and proclaim that we do it in the public interest. We have to ensure that our publics believe this as well.

In the current debates about media freedom, responsibilities and regulation, we need to ensure our defences are in order, that we are not leaving holes in the ramparts which allow the enemy in.

The current problem is brought about by two fundamental changes:

The first is new media technology, which has changed the nature, production and consumption of the commodities in which we trade: news and information. The rules and rituals we developed to deal with ethical and professional challenges, those encapsulated in our various codes of conduct, were developed in a time when the news cycle was slow and predictable, when our output was packaged, complete, edited and verified. Now, we seldom have the time and resources to follow the rules of old. We are required to change the way we work, and therefore the rules and rituals by which we ensure our work has credibility, authority and value. We assume that journalists still process, balance, edit, verify and complete reports before information is circulated. But this is not the case, and we need to revise our ethical codes, rules and practices to bring this in line with reality.

Allow me to give you a couple of examples.

At the very outset, paragraph 1.2 of the SA Press Code tells us that “news shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation.” As our reporters tweet 140 characters at a time, live from court and meeting rooms, they cannot possibly even attempt to meet this goal. So they might tweet to millions, in a medium where these rules don’t apply, and then they come home to write for tens of thousands, and suddenly the press code applies?

The broadcasting code, I should add, contains almost identical, anachronistic wording.

Paragaph 1.5 of the Press Code enjoins us to “seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication; … [and] if the publication is unable to obtain such comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

This is a rule that can only apply to old-fashioned broadcasting, where news was packaged whole rather than sent out instantly, with reaction, alternative views and balance following later; or in old fashioned print, where there is time to collate a range of views and seek verification and balance. In a world of the internet and live 24/7 news, it just does not work that way anymore.

At the same time, we have had to adjust to living in a constitutional order and one that prescribes accountability and openness for those who wield power. Etienne Mureinik famously talked about the constitution as a bridge to a culture of justification, a political and administrative world in which those who wielded power were forced to explain their decisions in the public arena, and subject them to scrutiny. We expect such openness of those who wield political, administrative, judicial and economic power, but we have not yet fully taken on board that it might apply also to those who wield media power. So politicians and judges must declare their interests, public servants must limit their personal business activities, political parties should tell us where and how they get their money, and what favours are owed to whom. For journalists, the rule is much lighter. Paragraph 3.1 of the Press Code says: “Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism.”

So, we must avoid conflicts of interest but we do not have to declare our interests. This is about as much as we expected of judges and MPs in the old era. In a culture of justification, we demand that those other centres of power spell out their financial and other interests, their memberships and affiliations, so that there can be public scrutiny and debate to ensure there is no conflict of interest. But we do not yet demand that of journalists. We have not yet brought journalists into the culture of open and public justification.

Some would say that we, as journalists, are different. We are not elected officials and the rules of public accountability and justification apply to those who are paid by the taxpayer, who wield public power. It is true that we do not fall into this class. Others in private enterprises – such as company directors – might be obliged to declare their interests internally, but not publicly. We have not even done that of journalists. I know of no South African media house which has implemented an obligation on its journalists to declare their interests, even internally. But I think we need to go further than this. We need to hear the calls for journalists to be made more accountable, and, while we fight attempts to make us accountable to politicians, we must strive to be more accountable to our publics. If we are to give weight to our calls for those who wield power to adopt the culture of justification, then we must ourselves set an example.

If, as Justice Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant, I think we can agree that journalists can do with a good scrubbing.

Fortunately, the internet provides us with the tools to do this. It provides us with the space to quite easily put up a declaration of interests and affiliations; we can also put up documentation that supports and verifies what we write, we can explain decisions we make, such as not naming a source, we can run full transcripts of statements or interviews from which we take one or two quotes. All of this can be there for those who are interested enough to look at it.

Now I know that some of this is done already. Quite often, a report will refer to background or verificatory documentation provided online. There are some media whose editors go online to write blogs to explain and justify difficult or controversial decisions. There are some journalists who declare their interests online, though not many of those.

But we do this haphazardly and tentatively, we certainly don’t do it consistently. I am suggesting that we need to review professional practices and obligations, codes of ethics, procedures and rituals of our work to make this fundamental to the way we operate. This is a call for us to embrace radical transparency and to rewrite our codes and practices to include this notion.

I know there are complexities, and there is certainly information, certain sources, certain decisions, that are difficult to speak about as openly as we might like to. But at least we can be made to explain and justify why we may hold back information – and give the public the data, background and engagement they need to scrutinise our decisions and ensure that they hold up to it.

I also know there are constraints of time and resources, that under pressure it is not always easy to do the extra online work that this would entail. I understand a need to be realistic about what is practical and possible.

But we need to engage with these issues and debate a new set of rules, a new code of conduct, that takes this on board and launches us into the age of accountability and the culture of justification. I am not sure what the new rules need to be, but I am confident that we need to update our rules.

If we want to build public confidence in our work, then this is a powerful way to do it. If we want to show that we are prepared to be accountable not to politicians, but to our publics, then we need to take real steps to do this. If we want to force others to sign up the culture of justification in the exercise of power, then we have to do it ourselves first. Visibly and demonstrably.

In the short run, the practice of radical transparency for journalists will cause headaches. In the long run, it would enhance, assist and boost our credibility, our standing, and therefore the impact of our work.

*Clarification: Both City Press’s Ferial Haffajee and M&G’s Nic Dawes tell me they have introduced internal declarations of interest. I argue that these should be made public.

*This speech was delivered at Omega Investment’s 2nd Annual Constitutional Conference, held at the JSE on March 7, 2012. It was reported in Business Day thus.

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