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Time to tell more tales

Published: 03-JUN-05

What is wrong with the South African media? It is now eleven years since the ANC�s election and the brave new world of renaissance media has not emerged. I believe we have a serious problem with selfcensorship in the South African newspapers and television.

Over the last month, I have watched the development of the Mandela art fraud story with fascination. It is a relatively straight-forward narrative that many people have recognised as fishy from its earliest days. And yet through fear of causing offence, our media have been afraid to ask basic questions.

On 17 April, the Sunday Times carried an important editorial discussing the effect of the confidence trick on the Mandela legacy. I agree with their interpretation but one sentence jarred: �At first, such voices (opposing Madiba art) were muted, if heard at all, lest Mandela�s name, be linked to controversy. But, as is now clear, under the cloak of such discretion the scandal has grown ...�.

I have since discovered that journalist Bonny Schoonakker published an earlier story in the Sunday Times (27 October 2002) that provided numerous clues to the fact that something strange was happening in the arena of Madiba art. But something even stranger was happening at the Sunday Times: the newspaper had been offered the story on 5 April 2002 and had buried it for more than six months.

The version that was published in October 2002 had been edited with a blunt instrument; the most powerful quotes had been cut. The Madiba art story which is currently doing the rounds would most probably have occurred in 2002 if Schoonakker�s story had been published in its original version, and many tourists and Madiba art-collectors would have saved their money.

How could it be in a country with solid laws regarding freedom of speech and expression that an important story of the exploitation of a national icon could be self-censored in such a manner? As any reader who remembers Watergate will recall it is always the cover-up that compounds the original misdemeanour.

The Schoonakker story is but one of thousands that tell us something significant about the condition of the media.

South Africa is still in a fragile state: the doors have not yet been locked on the deeper mysteries of business, intelligence and power. The inquisitive can still find their way into �the secret garden�. And yet too many of our reporters and writers are satisfied to be �fed� information and appear too lazy or fearful to ask the questions and make the calls that would propel stories rather than allow them to stagnate.

Why is there a self-censoring quality in our media? Is it the legacy of the history of press controls under the apartheid governments? Or is it due to �dumbing down� throughout the global media � symbolised in South Africa by Tony O�Reilly�s brutal cost-cutting at Independent Newspapers? Or is it because so many subjects are still deemed to be sensitive, whether in a racial, financial or political sense? The unfortunate reality is that if we cannot distinguish between truth and untruth, we will be cast into a moral universe that lacks any kind of anchor.

Good journalism speaks truth to power. It is the little boy shouting out that the king has no clothes. In South Africa, the little boy tends to avert his eyes, acutely aware that the king will be embarrassed by any exclamation. Indeed, not only is the king naked but so are his courtiers and most of the crowd. At what point does the little boy push sensitivity to one side? Or should he just take his clothes off as well?

What passes for argument in the South African media is not debate, it is �noise�. It fails to communicate with power. Far from facilitating discourse, newspaper editors perform a policing role: containing and controlling rather than unleashing, or even entertaining.

Horace Flather, former editor of The Star, described editing a newspaper under the old apartheid press laws as like walking blindfolded through a minefield. The minefield has been cleared but we continue to don the blindfold. It is time for our media to cast off the blindfold and face the future with courage. There are fabulous stories out there waiting to be told.

James Sanders is a former guest editor of independent news magazine noseweek. This is an edited version of an article which appeared in the May 2005 issue of noseweek magazine.

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