The British phone-hacking scandal seems to illustrate that a country’s media will get the scandal it deserves.
Journalists at the News of the World thought it was reasonable to hack into the phone mailboxes of young murder victims and the families of British soldiers who died in Afghanistan because they were part of a media culture with an extraordinary fixation on people’s private lives and a sense that anything is permissible in the hunt for sensation.
The world of the British tabloids is one where a sexy headline matters more than almost anything else: certainly more than rights to privacy and minor matters like accuracy and fairness. Who can forget the apocalyptic reporting on South Africa in the run-up to last year’s Fifa World Cup?
The results of the phone-hacking affair have been dramatic, with great damage to media credibility and to powerful business and political interests, several arrests and two inquiries promised. It seems unlikely that Britain’s self-regulatory structure, the Press Complaints Commission, will survive in its current form. There’s no question the affair will influence our own debates on self-regulation.
Is there something in the United States media culture that allowed the Jayson Blair affair, possibly the worst American journalistic scandal ever? What was so shocking about the story of the young, promising reporter who, in 2003, was found to have plagiarised and made up material on a grand scale was that it happened at one of the greatest newspapers in the world.
“The gray lady”, as the paper is known, with an editorial staff of more than a thousand and some of the most experienced editors in the business, failed to detect the fraud. The paper has a host of policies and structures designed to maintain ethics and the paper’s reputation, policies which proved to have a major blind spot: they did not allow for the simplest of possibilities – that a reporter would deliberately make things up.
In another major scandal the Times — and most of the media in Britain and the US — too easily accepted official claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as the Blair and Bush governments prepared for war. As is now well known, the claims turned out to be expedient invention designed to swing public opinion behind the war. Critics have spoken of “pack journalism” in the US, in which a kind of media consensus develops that may prove to be entirely false. It’s not a uniquely American phenomenon though.
All of this raises the issue of what kind of scandal South African journalism needs to fear. The answer is clear. Journalists are vulnerable to allowing themselves to be used by political and other factions who use leaked half-truths to fight their battles.
We’ve had a string of stories of this kind. Last week’s allegations about the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, seem to be the most recent example, coming, as they did, at the critical moment when she was about to release findings about dodgy lease deals by the police.
At its simplest, the recipe involves finding a document that paints the opponent in a bad light and passing it on to a reporter keen to build his or her career with a screaming front-page headline. A document is not essential, but it helps considerably since journalists tend to believe things when they are written down and look official. It’s possible to cook up the document, but a real one is better, since it will more easily stand up to some attempts at corroboration.
For the plotter much can be achieved by relying on a lack of nuance and context, or on the kind of hype that slips easily into reporting. It is easy, for instance, to present a claim in a police or other document as fact, when it may be no more than somebody’s view.
Where the facts alleged are true and significant, the newspaper is perfectly justified in running the story. But even then the fact that there is an agenda at play is an important part of the context that readers need to evaluate.
For some reason sections of the security services seem to see it as their job to compile reports about internal ANC politics and these surface from time to time with fanfare in the media. I suspect in the months to come, as ANC electoral politics heat up, we will witness more reports of factional plots being found in this way.
For my money those headlines are a waste of time, except as an illustration of the misuse of public resources. Security services have no business getting involved in these issues and their political insight is very limited. Above all, such leaked documents are likely to be weapons in their own right.
Readers don’t trust information that is deployed with a hidden agenda and our credibility suffers when we allow ourselves to be used in this way.
There is nothing in our journalism that has greater potential to generate a major scandal than allowing ourselves to be used by some factional interest to peddle half-truths.
This column was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on July 18, 2011.