Journalism & the antidote to horror By Terry Bell

2 July 2019 — Terry Bell Writes

The French philosopher, Voltaire, once wrote; “Those that can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” That was nearly 300 years ago. But it remains as true today against the backdrop of the explosive spread of social media and the plague of “fake news” it has generated.

Recent history abounds with examples of publicised absurdities leading to varying degrees of ugliness and horror from xenophobic murders to butchery in Rwanda, Nazi Germany and elsewhere. All of these atrocities required widespread and believed-in propaganda, promoted in an uncritical way through the public and popular media.

The antidote has always been the same: an informed public having access to accurate, factual information in an atmosphere where freedom of expression is respected and where open, critical debate exists. And the primary source of information for most of us is the popular media.

Here the provision of information is the province of journalists whose role it is to be the eyes and ears of the public at large. This role, if uncorrupted, is to report facts and critical analysis without fear or favour — and always in pursuit of that elusive concept, truth.

It is a critical role, akin more to a vocation than a mere job. However, given the existence of gangsters, political and otherwise, and of conflicting interests in grossly unequal societies, this antidote to horror will always come under pressure. Even in parliamentary democracies such as South Africa, where we boast of a nominally free press, bribery and bullying can ensure the corruption of major media outlets.

The problem is exacerbated by economic conditions and the rapid march of technology, with resultant major job losses in the media sector. This makes the gathering, production and dissemination of factual news increasingly difficult.

Yet this factual news and critical analysis is essential for any of us to make sensible decisions about how we should behave and react in the best possible way, especially at this time of ongoing economic and environmental crises. This is particularly pertinent when artificial intelligence is powering robotics and automation across the board, spreading insecurity and unemployment for ever larger numbers of working people.

There already exists clear evidence of domestic print and broadcast media corruption. There are similar examples in other parts of the world as well. However, there remain courageous journalists who continue to dig out the facts and to report truthfully and honestly, providing an essential bulwark for the limited democracy that exists.

The work of such journalists in South Africa was hailed last weekend by Hermione Cronje, recently appointed head of the investigative unit of the National Prosecuting Authority. At the annual awards dinner of the SA National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) she noted that without such journalism we may never have got to know about the levels of corruption now being exposed at various commissions of inquiry.

Yet this very media — and journalism — that continues to do the job it is supposed to do, is everywhere under attack, lumped together in the public mind with those clearly compromised elements peddling levels of absurdity. Largely responsible for this are figures in politics and business who are fearful that more skeletons in closets will be exposed.

Because a free, honest and ethical media is essential to the preservation — and extension — of what democratic control already exists, SANEF (I confess I am a member) has established a year-long inquiry into media ethics and credibility. Individuals and organisations will be encouraged to submit their views with the object of strengthening media ethics and to look at ways to prevent state and corporate capture of journalists.

Watch this space.

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