Will this bring an end to bad journalism?

What you think has been achieved by the Press Freedom Commission depends on what you hoped it might achieve. An improvement in our journalism? An end to careless errors and mistakes? Better protection for news subjects, particularly the vulnerable? Less pressure on the media from the government?

The commission, a body of notables led by former chief justice Pius Langa, made its recommendations this week. It considered all the possible ways of regulating newspapers – ranging from having none at all (as in most of the US) to state control imposed from above (as in China). They opted for a modified version of the self-regulation we have, allowing for stronger public participation. There will even be a citizen majority on the press council and its appeal panels.

The commission called this independent co-regulation, a partnership between the press and the public to monitor the newspapers (and not co-regulation in the sense it has been used elsewhere, a partnership between the state and the media). This is a smart idea, recognising that new technology brings much more public participation in the media and it is timely for the press to take this on board.

The internet allows for more of a dialogue between journalists and their publics, a breakdown of the barriers between journalists and their audiences – and these proposals embrace this significant advance.

The commission introduced a system of penalties: “space fines” for editorial transgressions, and monetary fines for repeat offenders, along with the possibility of suspension and expulsion for those who refuse to comply. Another good measure, recognising that it hurts more to have to give prominence to a retraction and apology in one’s own pages than to quietly pay a modest fine. Harsher punishment is kept for serial transgressors, and that seems appropriate.

Those who go to the Press Council will no longer have to waive their right to go to court. This may complicate evidence, and lead to forum-hopping, but it seems reasonable to allow contentious decisions by the Council to face the full scrutiny of the courts.

They propose greater protection for children in the media, and it is hard to argue with this. Some of the other changes they propose to the Press Council may prove complicated. For example, they propose the removal of the exception that allows journalists to avoid offering right of reply to the subjects of their report if they fear that person may take legal action to prevent publication. Quite right: journalists have to be prepared to defend their right to publish potential defamatory and damaging information in court, even though it can be expensive and time-consuming and is open to abuse.

They also say that a right of reply should apply not just on allegations of fact but in “the case of comment … where a person is seriously criticised”. Does this mean that editorials criticising politicians have to canvass their opinions as well? Does every comment article which criticises authority have to carry the counter-view as well? This cannot be the intention, unless we want our newspapers filled with bland on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand opinion.

Less thorough are the Commission’s proposals on media transformation and improving the quality of journalism. The commission does a quick safari of transformation issues, and then says this does not fall within its brief. Nevertheless, it makes a few cursory recommendations on the need for a transformation charter and the setting of targets for content diversity. This part is best glossed over, as it is too thin to make a serious contribution to an important debate.

To improve the quality of journalism they suggest more investment in the up-skilling of journalists, again a passing remark rather than a substantive contribution.

On the main part of its brief, though, the Commission has made some valuable proposals and one can only hope that these are now implemented. But one must be realistic about what to expect. These measures will help eliminate the worst of our journalism, but not guarantee that we will have good, quality, in-depth reporting and commentary. That is much more complicated and beyond the scope of this Commission.

They have added to the tools we will have to lop off the bottom 20% of our journalism, the really bad stuff, but can’t really tackle the need to expand the top 10% quality stuff. They have highlighted the need for a tighter control of slopping reporting, and provided the means to do this, but the rest is up to editors, senior journalists, trainers and others to change newsroom culture and practice.

Will this lead to better government-media relations? It won’t – and why should it? In an open society, there should be distance, even tension, between government and media. It is when they are too cosy that our democracy is in trouble.

Will government stop criticising the media? I hope not. They should continue to engage, dispute, argue, question and challenge. One just hopes they stop threatening.

Hopefully, if there is less bad journalism then the media will be able to defend itself better and we will take more notice of the good journalism. And there might then be more mutual respect.

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