The Independent Group was in the news this week over revelations that it had controversially been lent more than R1 billion by parastatal the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) to buy the Independent Group at far more than other buyers was offering. It has since emerged that the IDC (which is entrusted with many state pensions) has allegedly not made much money or any money out of that “investment” in a landscape in which media companies are under pressure with declining print circulations and uncertainty around the future of online income.
This decision by the media house, with a huge footprint in print and digital media throughout South Africa, will once again reopen the debate on whether the media can and should self-regulate, or whether government should create a very controversial “media tribunal”.
The Press Council said: “It’s ironic that Independent Media chose to withdraw from the Press Council in the week that we commemorate Black Wednesday, October 19, 1977, when the World, Weekend World and Pro Veritate were shut down by the apartheid government. The Press Council has been a bulwark against statutory regulation that would violate the country’s Constitution.
“The Press Council has built its reputation over decades, adapting to changes in our environment, listening to readers, and spreading its influence to the rest of the continent and abroad.”
It continued by saying: “This Press Council has been praised for its work by the Presidency, independent academic researchers. Journalism students can study our rulings by visiting our website. And all our hearings are open to the public.
“Independent has cited the absence of a waiver – the declaration that by submitting a complaint to the Press Council, the complainant waives his or her right to continue with the complaint to a court or other tribunal – as the reason for pulling out: ‘The removal of the waiver by the Press Council has the unintended consequence of involving Independent Media and other media houses in excessively high legal costs which cannot be justified in the current economic climate in which media houses find themselves.’
“Truth is that the Press Council has saved publications from the huge legal costs they would have had to incur if complainants went directly to the courts and didn’t have the avenue of the Press Council to clear their names quickly and without having to pay a cent.
“Independent was intimately involved in the 2012 decision to remove the waiver. At a meeting attended by then Independent Media CEO, Tony Howard, PDMSA and SANEF insisted we accept the recommendations of late Chief Justice Pius Langa’s Press Freedom Commission that we get rid of it. This was in direct opposition to the Press Council.
“When Independent first raised its objections to the absence of the waiver, we consulted with lawyers and they advised the Press Council that the waiver could be successfully challenged in a court of law. The Press Council has been working to find a solution to this impasse. In the meantime, we’ve been adjudicating in complaints against Independent – 72 print and 5 online stories this year alone.
“After a meeting with Independent last month, the Press Council sent the company our proposed solution, hoping we would engage on it. Suddenly, this inexplicable decision to abandon the Press Council explodes in our faces.
“The Press Council wishes Independent well, particularly as it says it is still committed to ‘high standards of ethical journalism’ and to self-regulation and is ‘vehemently opposed to any state regulation or a government Media Appeals Tribunal’.
“It’s going to be a struggle creating the type of credibility that the Press Council has built over the years. What would give readers confidence in an Ombudsman appointed by Independent and who has been part of the company for so many years? Why would a waiver imposed by the company to protect itself be more legitimate than the one the Press Council abandoned? Is Independent aware that it’s going to lose some important exemption, for example from some provisions of the Film and Publications Act, the current one and the draft one that is before Parliament?
“In the meantime, this is not a mortal blow to the Press Council and its work. The vast majority of print and online publications continue to subscribe to the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African print and online media: Media24, TMG, publishers of the Sunday Times and the Sowetan, Caxton, the Mail and Guardian, the Association of Independent Publishers and many in the online space who belong to the IABSA.”