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PROJOURN ORAL SUBMISSION TO PRESS FREEDOM COMMISSION - Michael Schmidt, Administrative Secretary

30 JANUARY 2012
Good afternoon and thank you to the Commission for setting up this series of hearings. We trust that the political establishment takes these hearings seriously, as an important public contribution to democratic debate on our hard-won freedoms. I was a newspaperman for 19 years before becoming a journalism trainer four years ago; today I am the Administrative Secretary of the Professional Journalists Association, appearing here on behalf of our General Secretary, Samantha Perry. I will first provide a brief sketch of the Association so that you can assess the constituency I represent, then highlight some aspects of the current media environment that we believe are, ironically, underreported, and conclude with what we believe are our constructive proposals to the Commission on the question of media regulation.

1. The Professional Journalists Association


ProJourn, as we call it for short, was founded in March 2010 at a Congress in Johannesburg that was the culmination of over two years lobbying and negotiation to try and fill the void that had opened up due to the collapse several years previously of the South African Union of Journalists which, apart from being a union, had also taken up professional issues. It was troubling to me and other former SAUJ shop-stewards that at the very moment that hardpressed journalists were facing the great drama of our transitional society, they had no collective voice to grapple with ethics, standards and other professional issues. It seemed that everyone from academics to politicians was having their say about journalism except for the working journalists who did the leg-work. So in 2010, the Association was born as a non-partisan national umbrella body at a Congress attended by a wide range of media organisations, from the Southern African Journalists Association and the Southern African Freelancers Association, to the Press Council of South Africa, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, the Save Our SABC coalition

and others. In other words, it was very broadly endorsed by those concerned with bulwarking and defending quality journalism. The Association is run operationally by a Secretariat which consists of three secretaries, of which I am one, and seven Sectoral Delegates, representing working journalists in the sectors of Newspapers, Magazines, Radio, Television, Wire Services, New Media, and Associate Members, the latter covering members who support working journalists: media academics, lawyers, unionists and educators such as myself. We have an Oversight Board of veteran journalists chaired by Raymond Louw Jabulani Sikhakhane, Mary Papayya, Max du Preez, Phyllicia Oppelt, and Fikile Moya who have no voting rights but who lend us gravitas and give us guidance. As an all-volunteer organisation, run in what little spare time journalists have, we are still in the process of being fully established, of converting our proven support base of more than 1,060 people across South Africa into a formal dues-paying Membership. But this is a lengthy process, so I need to be up front and say that we are nowhere near as representative of our profession yet as we aim to be but we are functional and are broadly endorsed by the profession.

2. The Current Media Environment


In our written submission to the Commission in December, we as an Association took what might be considered a controversial stance on the question of media regulation by turning the debate away from the dominant narrative of the threats emanating from government and the legislature, to the operations of the media houses themselves. While we believe it is unproductive to trawl through the record of the media houses under apartheid, a record that emerges far from blamelss regarding racism, job reservation, segregation and tacit support for the insupportable, we do think it is important to look at the record of the media houses now, under democracy. Also, we are not unaware of the ongoing issues over ownership, transformation and editorial control and ideology, but for the purposes of this hearing, lets leave those aside also and rather focus simply on the money. In our written submission, the Secretariat stated that the media as a whole and the print journalism industry in particular must take responsibility for its own debilitating role in undermining quality journalism by its drastic staff-reductions in newsrooms over the past few years, [] the issue of a free press cannot be separated from that of a professional and thus responsible press We said this because we as an Association are committed to quality journalism, not only for reasons of professional pride, but because the service that unimpeachable journalism provides to the public whom we serve makes it harder for the enemies of our freedom to assail. Two brief examples of what we termed the asset-stripping and juniorisation of our newsrooms and the consequent erosion of quality journalism will, Im sure, suffice. Firstly, there was the rarely brave 2009 article in Business Day which amounted to biting the hand that fed you crumbs by Chantelle Benjamin, on Avusa CEO Prakash Desai being paid out share options worth almost R25-million, plus a bonus of R3-million which was one hell of a windfall for someone who pundits argued created no value for Avusa, but merely benefited from an unbundling. Sure, Desai was forced to exercise his options, and yes his windfall occurred just before the recession really bit and Avusa asked most of their journalists to tighten their belts, and others to leave, but in ProJourns view, this sort of profit-taking amounts to asset-stripping. Media analyst Gill Moodie rightly termed it obscene, and frankly immoral and yet Desai was honoured last year by industry body Print Media SA with a fellowship for his integrity, determination and dedication to the betterment of the South African newspaper industry a contribution that I find hard to discern, in the circumstances.

The second case is more anecdotal and involves the Irish owner of Independent Newspapers, Tony OReilly, who purchased the group in stages in from 1994, who is reported to have boasted that the parent company takes home each year from its South African operations in profit about what they paid for the entire 14-newspaper group in the first place. I dont have figures for the total purchase, but the first 31% portion of the then-Argus group, was purchased in 1994 for 19,2-million, at a time in which the group made a profit before tax of 10,5-million. This is an unsettling situation, given the fact that the newsroom of its flagship The Star is a fifth of the size it used to be a decade ago. Anyone walking through the editorial floor at Sauer Street will be struck by the echoing vacant spaces where a much larger staff complement used to work. From such spaces, a shrinking corps of underpaid, undertrained, and demoralised journalists have watched an inexorable process of attrition of capacity, and therefore ultimately of quality: experienced seniors axed, bureaus shut down, grievous errors of judgment compounding simple mistakes, and attacks by disgruntled readers, whether politically-motivated or not, mounting on their profession. It is for most working journalists a condition of famine, in the face of the image of plenty in which the owners are known to roll.

3. Our Contribution to a Solution


Regarding press regulation, the Association notes with alarm that many of the reasons raised by the ruling party for desiring a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal are bogus. For example, the sole complaint that the ANC under President Kgalema Motlanthe claimed that Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe had failed to deal with was proven by the Ombudsmans records not only to have been dealt with, but to have been settled in favour of the ruling party. However, we are just as alarmed at the many instances of obvious, embarrassing and even damaging editorial qualitycontrol failures which have dogged the mainstream media houses in recent years, resulting in the rapid exits under clouds of various columnists, the shamefaced retractions of front-page splashes, and even, arguably, the fomenting of xenophobic violence. The public at large, it would seem, does have many legitimate gripes against the media that need to be urgently dealt with. But the Associations approach is not to finger-point, but rather to find solutions. So our suggested intervention has seven elements which consolidate into three legs: 1) Firstly, on self-regulation: We endorse the proposed Press Council reform, in particular the creation of the new posts of Director to engage with the public on quality journalism, and of Public Advocate to assist complainants in formulating their applications. We believe the process should be open to third parties so long as the Public Advocate assesses that the third party complaints those brought by people not directly affected are not vexatious, that is, are not pursued merely to harass the Council, the title or the journalist. We have also argued that access to the Press Council be improved regarding community print media, and for disadvantaged communities, by the mainstream print media houses paying for a series of annual public engagements in such communities as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes. We also endorse the revised Press Code of 15 October 2011, which is an exceptionally clear document that details the protections extended to children, and which deals with conflicts of interest and questions of privacy and dignity. We believe

the key points of this Press Code should be integrated into every accuracy check-list that journalists run through as they are producing their stories. 2) Secondly, on improving internal editorial processes: We argue for the extension of the existing system at some mainstream titles of the post of Public Editor. Our idea is that such Public Editors will be the first port-of-call for complainants and that they will then forward reports on how they have adjudicated complaints to the Press Ombudsman for review as soon as the process has been completed. We recommend that Public Editors in each province elect a provincial representative, who will collectively form a nine-member Public Editors Advisory Committee. This Committee should then submit quarterly analyses and recommendations to the Public Advocate on the Press Council on issues arising from their adjudication processes. Dovetailing with the Public Editors, we argue for the hiring by the mainstream titles of experienced senior journalists as newsroom Mentors whose task is to mentor the juniors, improve the general quality of the titles journalism, and report to their Editors, Public Editors and to the Provincial Public Editors on diversity of content in the news, to ensure that coverage is extended beyond the confines of narrow elite concerns. Such diversity of content, based on the public interest, is intended to groom journalists to break out of the current trap where bargain basement he-saidshe-said reporting is the order of the day.

3) Lastly, on journalism skills development: We argue for the strengthening of the system of Workplace Skills Plans, requiring them to be based on genuine career-pathing, transformation and successionmanagement that is substantive and not merely window-dressing. In particular, we argue that such training must focus on the holistic training of news editors, many of whom are young and untrained in the managerial aspects of their tasks, and that journalists be given adequate safety training for operating in potentially volatile environments. But again, we cant just leave the community print media in the wilderness, and argue that the South African National Editors Forum, Print Media SA, the Association of Independent Publishers, the Media Development and Diversity Agency, and the relevant SETA, get together with ProJourn to discuss creating a pool of vernacular-language journalism trainers who can work through the Media Development and Diversity Agency to improve the quality of community print journalism, especially in our disadvantaged urban and rural areas.

We believe that our submissions treat legitimate complaints and concerns about our profession with the seriousness they deserve, that they redress the damage done to quality journalism by the media houses without being punitive and that they are constructively aimed at improving our craft, and by doing so, our free society. Thank you. Are there any questions? [ENDS]