Friday, March 18, 2011

Print Media -- Self-regulation

By Reg Rumney

The proposal for a Media Appeals Tribunal last year caused a lot of agitation among the Press. Journalists have tended to see it as a way of controlling the bad publicity some individuals in the ANC and the Alliance have received.

If you accept this thesis, it is no surprise that SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande was a strong supporter of such a tribunal. He feels aggrieved at the reporting of his personal lifestyle. After his elevation to the Cabinet as Higher Education Minister, his purchase of luxury vehicles and his stays at expensive hotels have proved embarrassing for a man of the people.
In the process of promoting the MAT, proponents have devoted energy to attacking the present system of self-regulation, specifically the Press Ombud, which is part of the Press Council. Ordinary citizens who don’t want to use the courts can approach the Ombud for redress, most often in the form of an apology from the newspaper or magazine.
The criticism of the Ombud system, which acts in terms of the Press Code, seems to rest on its efficiency in getting redress, and the fact that applicants to Ombudsman have to waive their right to go to court if they are not happy with the Ombud’s judgment.
The reason advanced for this provision is that the Press Council doesn’t want complainants to use the complaint to the Ombud as a fishing expedition for any damaging evidence to be used later in court. This would disadvantage the targets of the complaint, and possibly lead newspapers to withdraw from the process.
The main reason newspapers submit to the Ombud’s judgment is to avoid legal costs.
There is nothing inevitable about an Ombud system or self-regulation. The Press Council itself was born out of attempts to avoid Press censorship during the Apartheid era.
Editors do not necessarily buy into the self-regulation system. While supporters of the MAT seem to want the tribunal to be an add-on to the Ombud, some editors initially vowed to ditch self-regulation entirely if the MAT came to pass.
Whatever happens with the MAT, there is a good case for enhancing and improving self-regulation. This is to help journalists recover public trust, serve the public better, and enhance the professional identity of journalists themselves. The Press is already facing assault on the technological front. The Internet threatens to pull the rug out from under the professionalism that is arguably the Press’s best reason for continuing its existence as an institution, through dispersing sources of information.
So how could the Press enhance self-regulation? In a paper prepared for the SA National Editor’s Forum summit in August 2010 ( made a few proposals:
·         More publicizing of the office of the Ombud office so that justice can be seen to be done. This could include public meetings, and the equivalent of paid ads with the full Press Code, as well as a more prominent display of information about how to contact the Ombud.
·         Devising a new communication strategy.
·         Workshops in newsrooms to educate journalists themselves about the Press Code.
·         An analysis of the effect of the Codes and the Ombud system so far, and regular updates of this research.
·         Easier access to the Ombud and speedier resolution of complaints. Regular revisiting and revision of the Press code itself, with the Press Council regularly inviting recommendations from the public for its improvement.
·         Improved capacity in the Ombud’s office.
Measures could also be taken to increase the credibility of the Press council as well:
  • A more transparent way of choosing the public members that balance the members of the Press on the council. Seats could be set aside for the SA Council of Churches, a union movement representative, a representative of the committee of university principles, of the Law Society, and of civil society, for example, as well as individual members.
  • Strengthening other Media Accountability Systems, of which an Ombud system is only one part, such as supporting the appointment of in-house Ombuds, more education about news media ethics and even greater professionalization through education and training of journalists.
Self-regulation will never please everyone, but it is important to realise that there are costs attached to regulation. These are economic as well as political, though the two are hard to separate, as I argue in another paper (

Reg Rumney is in charge of the Centre for Economics Journalism in Africa, sponsored by the South African Reserve Bank and the Standard Bank of South Africa. The aim of the centre is to improve the coverage of economics, finance and business on the continent. Reg is researching the landscape of the business media in South Africa.


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