[By Verashni Pillay]
The saga of the Sunday Times Facebook racist story has taught us one thing: we don’t need a media tribunal when we have Twitter.
Whatever the merits of the case — and the Sunday Times has argued vociferously to its detractors that there were several merits to publishing a three-year-old seemingly racist photograph as front-page news last week — we can take one lesson away from the mini-saga: that journalists are more accountable to their readers than ever before.
Think about it: pre-social media, the most the newspaper would have had to deal with was a few angry letters published a week later, if at all. (Indeed, on this week’s “Reader Views” page, the newspaper published a careful selection of letters penned prior the revelation that the photograph has been covered in the media before.)
Were there any more of a fuss, say by an independent authority like the press ombudsman, a brief clarification or apology would have been made in a small unobtrusive box in the paper.
But the real-time reaction last week Sunday to the story on Twitter and elsewhere made for a very different scenario. The debate was loud and heated and the scrutiny of the paper’s credibility intense: just as it should be in a vibrant democracy.
Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley had to deal with a flood of complaints directed his way on Twitter and Facebook as journalists like Eyewitness News’s Mandy Weiner tweeted that she had uncovered the photograph several years prior, and that the Mail & Guardian had subsequently published a more in-depth look into the problem.
The reaction from the country’s largest newspaper was swift: Hartley said on Twitter and Facebook on the day of publication that the story was still relevant, as the photograph was this time being used by a different Facebook user who needed to be monitored. He expanded on this defence in an interview on Talk Radio 702 the next day, although conceding that the paper should have at least made mention of the many previous articles published in 2008 about the photograph, including a story done by his own publication at the time, The Times, the daily counterpart to the Sunday Times.
The next Sunday rolled around again, with promises from rival newspaper City Press that it would reveal the real whereabouts of the seemingly lifeless black child in the photograph. In the photograph, he lies beneath a grinning white man, who kneels holding his rifle in an apparent “hunter pose”.
The City Press story said the child was alive and well, that the whole thing was a joke between loving farmers and their workers. Of course, this claim must also be interrogated, but that will come with time. Meanwhile the Sunday Times came out on the same morning with a string of plaintive defences of its previous lead scattered throughout the newspaper.
There were news articles about the state of the “multi-pronged probe” into the incident the paper had reported on the previous week (or rather initiated with various departments, as deeper reading of the original article revealed). There was an editorial about the “twits” who criticised the paper on social media. There were the aforementioned reader letters commending the paper for exposing the story and then, to top it all off, there was a vitriolic column by Marvin Meintjies, attacking the paper’s detractors. Indeed, his column “Twitterati have broken story … can u fix it?” seemed more like a brief BBMed to him by the paper’s head honchos than an actual column headline.
There was, to sum up, reaction: to cover the paper’s tracks and plug the holes that were revealed (this week’s stories made sure to reference and acknowledge previous coverage of the photograph). The paper understood its credibility was being questioned and moved to take action.
Fact: internal regulation does work and, where it fails, readers will sure as hell let you know. The business of ensuring the media is credible and accountable is messy. We make mistakes, which get exposed and recounted again and again. We don’t get off easily. The Sunday Times learnt this the hard way.
But our government refuses to believe this. With their own accountability mechanisms in question, our guardians have turned on the watchdogs that have exposed their weaknesses and corruption too many times. In addition to rumours of the ANC’s proposed media tribunal being put back on the table, the other attempt to regulate the media is doing better than ever.
In case you’ve missed the latest news on the Secrecy Bill, the ANC has used its majority in the committee to muscle through a final draft of the flawed bill which will be rubber stamped by an ANC-dominated parliament. The bill in its current form still makes life ridiculously hard for those wishing to expose corruption, as, despite some concessions, it lacks a public interest defence to protect whistleblowers and provides backdoor means to classify all sorts of dubious information.
The media’s enemies will seize on incidents like the Facebook racist story to prove that we need to be regulated. What they will fail to realise is that regulation is happening every day: on Twitter, on Facebook and any other platform available to our readers. An army of intelligent, social-media savvy and immediately responsive critics is far more powerful and thorough than any panel of would-be media regulators.
- Verashni Pillay is deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian Online
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