A bunch of intellectual crybabies

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Credibility is somewhat like virginity, I told interns at my weekly class not so long ago. Once it's gone, it's gone for good.

"But what about hymen reconstruction surgery?" one smart-ass in the class asked, reminding me that there were a substantial number of women who undergo the procedure prior to marriage generally to pay lip service to cultural values.

Journalism in this country today is undergoing a lot of hymen reconstruction surgery. It all began at the point at which the ANC government turned its spotlight upon the print media in particular, threatening to impose a statutory media tribunal as well as controls over what may be disclosed in the public interest.

There followed an unholy scramble on the part of my media brethren to paint government as intent on destruction of hard-won media freedoms while at the same time claiming to display sensitivity to public complaints.

For my part, I'm needing to walk a fine line between doing my utmost to ensure that our rights as citizens to freedom of expression and access to information are protected, while ensuring that I am not corralling myself with mainstream journalism.

I'm reminded of the words of Alexander Pushkin:

"The mob reads confessions and notes, etc, so avidly because in their baseness they rejoice at the humiliations of the high and the weaknesses of the mighty. Upon discovering any kind of vileness they are delighted. 'He's little, like us! He's vile, like us!' You lie, scoundrels: he is little and vile, but differently, not like you."

We lack philosophers in the media today. I doubt many of colleagues in the media would be aware of the etymology of the word philosophy — derived from the Greek "philo" (love of) and "sophia" (wisdom) — let alone have any respect for the concept. More's the pity because journalism, to my mind, should be about the spreading of wisdom.

Instead, our journalist fraternity today is populated by a bunch of intellectual crybabies who are unable to critically examine local issues through a philosophical prism separating law, principle,1 international best practice, local mores, fact, opinion, and spin.

Which brings me to the issue which sparked this chain of thought: over the past week, the SABC's head of news and current affairs, Phil Molefe, has been suspended (the phrase used by SABC is that Molefe has been "put on special leave").

Newspapers have quoted written exchanges between SABC CEO Lulama Mokhobo and Molefe. The core issue appears to be that Mokhobo asked Molefe to forward a daily news diary to her so that she could monitor which stories were covered and how.

Molefe appears to have refused to comply. He is quoted as saying: “In my view, the fact that the group CEO bears the title of editor-in-chief does not axiomatically give the group CEO authority over editorial decisions. In fact, the editorial policies make clear that ‘as a rule and as a matter of policy, the authority for editorial decisions is vested in the editorial staff’.

“I am, therefore, of the firm view that news will be abdicating its duties were it to accede to the request to give to the group CEO its daily news diary,”

The general thread running through coverage of the issue is around speculation that Molefe is being taken to task for giving coverage to the ANC's enfant terrible, Julius Malema The newspapers then go on to quote a range of third parties, including the ANC Youth League, the Democratic Alliance, the Media Workers' Association, the United Democratic Movement, expressing concern about interference in editorial independence.

The SABC is the most widespread source of information in this country. The president of the country, in terms of Section 13(1) read with section 13(8) of the Broadcasting Act of 1999 (Act 4 of 1999), appoints members to the SABC board. So the ability of government to influence the direction of the SABC is not something we need debate.

But we need to be philosophical. Would the CEO of the SABC be within her rights to question why particular editorial decisions are made? Absolutely. Editorial decisions are about allocation of resources which have financial consequences.

My quick calculation is that uplinking a satellite feed of Julius Malema addressing a gathering in Tzaneen would cost around R10 000 plus US $4 per minute bandwidth costs plus the costs of the associated broadcast engineers. I would expect a competent news editor to be able to justify why those resources are being utilized.

Can a manager use a financial justification to influence an editorial decision? Absolutely.

Has that happened? We don't know yet.

But our suspicion that government might be abusing its power should not displace common sense.

In any organization, there is a chain of command, and any manager in any chain of command has the right to demand of a subordinate an accounting of the subordinate's daily activities.

If that subordinate were unable to account for said activities, or specifically refuses to account for said activities, any manager would be within his or her rights to call that subordinate to account.

My question is, does the head of news and current affairs report to the chief executive?

It's a rhetorical question.

  • 1. I misspelled this as "principal" in the print edition