JOTTINGS FROM JOHANNESBURG
Time to tell more tales
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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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