Put yourself in the media’s shoes before criticising

There is a reason why discussions about sport and religion are banned at family gatherings. They have the potential to turn friends against each other. In South Africa, it seems one should add politics to the list of banned topics and, if the events of the past week are anything to go by, then we should probably also ban discussions about the media.

It has been a long time since I have seen so much division over what I consider a simple issue: media freedom. However, if comments on social media are to be believed, then there is still a lot wrong with our media.

I think many people who criticise the media do so because some in the industry have reported critically or negatively about them or their political leaders. They forget the many times the media reported positively about those same people.

Criticism of the media is nothing new. Nobody, it seems, learns from history.

I recall writing an open letter as editor of the Cape Times in December, 1997, to then-President Nelson Mandela, who had been critical of the media in his speech at the ANC’s 50th national conference in Mafikeng.

It is appropriate to revisit Madiba’s comments as we come to the end of what would have been his centenary year.

He said: “During the past three years, the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as a force opposed to the ANC.” He accused the media of campaigning against “both real change and the real agents of change” and decried a situation in which the “majority has no choice but to rely on information and communication on a media representing the privileged minority”.

Madiba questioned the media’s ability to deal with criticism. “When it speaks against us, this represents freedom of thought, speech and the press. When we exercise our own right to freedom of thought and speech to criticise it for its failings, this represents an attempt to suppress the freedom of the press.”

A few days later, he also made some comments about black editors, calling us “mere tokens”.

Despite all of this, Mandela had a good relationship with the media. My response to him started by sketching the history of some of the people he criticised and the role the media had played in exposing apartheid atrocities. It has always been the duty of the media to explore issues on behalf of those who do not have the same access and opportunities.

I pleaded guilty, on behalf of my colleagues, for not always getting things right, but blamed this on our inability sometimes to understand our complex society - something we continue to work on. I also said that the best way to respond to his criticism would be to produce consistently good journalism.

This, I believe, is still the best way to respond to detractors of the media. And there are many journalists who continue to do this, despite all the pressures on the industry in recent years.

Those who criticise the media need to try and put themselves in our shoes. Most of us genuinely believe we can play a role in reporting what is happening in our country and, in this way, contribute to making our country the great place we all know it can be.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 1 December 2018)