Speaking truth to power? Media, politics and accountability

 

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The 17th Highway Africa conference came to and end earlier this week. This is the biggest annual gathering of journalists, academics and civil society representatives on the African continent, and is hosted by the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies. The theme for this year’s conference was ‘Speaking truth to power? Media, politics and accountability’. This theme had two dimensions: firstly, it sought to interrogate the claim by media to serve as a ‘watchdog’ on behalf of society. How well are they doing that job? Do they manage to keep governments accountable to their citizenry? And do they also keep big corporate interests accountable to their societies?

The second dimension of the theme pertained to media ethics. How accountable are the African media to the publics they claim to serve? Are they regulated well enough? Are they transparent?

These questions made for lively debate over the conference days. Below is my welcome address to delegates, in which I tried to explain why we chose this theme:

Over the past number of years, the Highway Africa conference has posed some provocative and very timely questions that have been debated by journalists, academics, members of civil society and other stakeholders from around the world.

In 2011 we considered questions of media development and sustainability. Last year we debated the view that ‘Africa is Rising’.

 

The theme of the conference this year is  Speaking truth to power? Media, Politics & Accountability. This theme is again highly topical, and relates to burning issues in the media sphere both internationally and closer to home.

 

I would like to introduce this theme by starting at a place that often inspires deep thought; a place that you will have the opportunity to visit during the course of today and tomorrow.

This place is the bathroom of the African Media Matrix building, home of the School of Journalism and Media Studies up on the hill, where the afternoon sessions will be held.

Responding to the call of nature there is likely to take longer than you had planned.

The reason for this delay would be that you will find yourself distracted by the many interesting quotes relating to journalism and the media adorning the tiles on the walls. It’s like graffiti, just cleverer.

 

One of these quotes is from the famous CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She says:

“Trust and credibility are the commodities we trade in”.

 

I’m sure you would agree that trust and credibility are at the centre of the relationship between media and society. If media lose their ability to speak to people in a language they understand, about experiences they recognise and through stories that they believe to be true, media loses the reason for its existence.

 

Unfortunately we have seen in recent years how easily that trust and credibility can be betrayed. The Leveson inquiry in the UK showed us how the media can prey on the very public they claim to serve. The phone hacking scandal there violated the rights not only of celebrities, but of ordinary people like the murdered teenager Millie Dowler and her family. 

 

This saga reminds us of another quote against the AMM bathroom wall, the well-known one by the poet Humbert Wolfe:

 

‘You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to’.

 

Here at home in South Africa we have also witnessed intense debates about media accountability. In an environment where we are experiencing increased intolerance to the media’s criticism of the powerful, including threats to establish a Media Tribunal and to sign into law the Protection of State Information Bill, it is all the more important that the media guards its credibility vigilantly, and be an unscrupulous custodian of the public trust.

 

After all, the media can only claim the moral right to keep the powerful to account when it also turns that critical gaze upon itself.

 

This is why in recent years the review of the South African Press Council and the work of the Press Freedom Commission, as well as that of the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team – as yet uncompleted – has been so important.

 

If the media then claims that is ‘Speaking Truth to Power’, let us remember that the media, as a central component of a globalized information society, itself holds cultural and economic power . Let us therefore also scrutinise the media’s own powerful interests and find ways in which that power can be exercised responsibly.

 

If the media claims to be working in the ‘public interest’, we need to understand the notion of the ‘public interest’ in the widest possible terms, so that the media remains accountable not only to its readers and viewers, not only to a section of society, but also learns to listen to those who remain on the margins of the public sphere.

 

The youth, for instance, is one such group. In a recent study conducted by researchers in our School, about which you can hear more in a workshop tomorrow, we found that South African young people may trust the media, but find little in its content that resonates with their everyday lives.

 

The poor is another group in society that the media often speaks about, but seldom speaks – and listens – to. In a workshop this afternoon, one marking the centenary of the infamous South African Land Act, you will no doubt be reminded that the legacy of dispossession still scars our country and our continent. It may be instructive to remember that this Land Act was vigorously opposed at the time by a journalist, Sol Plaatje, after which our Institute for Media Leadership here at Rhodes is named.

 

The question of accountability therefore includes the question of how journalists today are defending the rights of the poor and working to counter the legacies of apartheid and colonialism. But, even more importantly, not only how the media speaks truth to power, but also how it listens to the powerless.

 

A final quote from the bathroom wall sums up this imperative to listen. It is by our former president, Nelson Mandela:

 

“Freedom of expression is not a monopoly of the press: it is a right of us all.”

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