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When media fails to account, democracies fail, FM failed

By Suzanne Daniels
Acting Head of Legal & Compliance, ESKOM
Financial Mail refused to publish this piece…

 
Tuesday, 09 May 2017: It has been accepted as unimpeachable empirical fact that media serves as THE cornerstone for all successful democracies globally. While other democratic foundation stones, such as strong institutions, are vital, media is the cardinal cornerstone for democracy; without it, democracies can only be south-bound resulting in an unmitigated downward spiral.
 
But it is not only the mere presence of the media that fuels the maturity and strength of a democracy, which in turn results in the maximum socio-economic dividend from the nation’s resources. It is the strong and self-critical media! Self-critical media presupposes mature and responsible media houses and journalists, able to discern the split between the whims of their newsrooms and the truth for the benefit of the nation.
 
The Financial Mail has labored against this ideal – they have used every trick in the book, and out of the book, to obfuscate and undermine the recent finding against them by the Press Ombudsman.
 
The magazine ran a raft of reports on the Dentons report, citing malfeasance and unethical conduct by Eskom leadership. The Dentons report was a consequence of a voluntary decision by the Board to turnaround Eskom which, at the time, had been ravaged by leadership instability and economic-depleting load shedding. And the resultant recommendations have hatched improved efficiencies overall based on single-minded, expedited, implementation.
 
Against our strenuous protest against their coverage, which we considered to have been unfair and inaccurate, their inaccurate reports or violations didn’t wane. As is given within a country with some checks and balances, we took our grievance to the Press Ombudsman who, in turn, on 25 April 2017, handed down a stinging verdict against the Financial Mail.
 
It is at this point when the underbelly of the Financial Mail was revealed - an ominous bell rang and fair-minded citizens should take heed. Through Twitter and mainstream media, both the author, who happens to be senior enough to be Deputy Editor, Sikonathi Mantshantsha, and Editor Robe Rose sought to diminish the impact of the judgment. These are sufficiently senior media officials who should have responded in a more responsible and sophisticated manner than what they did. 
 
Amongst others, Mantshantsha said the following to justify their journalistic violations: “Unlike what @koko_matshela reported last night, the Press Ombudsman found AGAINST @EskomHoldings on 95% of its 25 complaints”, “The FM (it) was merely the messenger in this instance”, “The complaint about the following paragraphs is dismissed. Paragraphs 1,2,….19,20, 21, 22, 23 and 35.”
 
The fact that Mantshantsha took it upon himself to defend his own work has unavoidable pithiness about it - the contradictions cannot be underplayed.
 
Take all his reports on Dentons and other work on Eskom, you immediately realize that his journalistic crusade is mainly predicated on good and ethical governance, which is a noble cause. But by defending himself, he failed the test of humility, in this instance. By not stepping aside to let others engage on the matter, suggests Mantshantsha can’t take the same medicine he gleefully prescribes to Eskom and other entities. What is it called when a journalist self-defends against a judgment by a legitimate democratic structure? Is that not a conflict of interest? Well conflict of interest is what Mantshantsha stands passionately against; it permeates his reports on Eskom.
 
When he brags about the “95”, is Mantshantsha not celebrating naked mediocrity by his own newsroom? How is he different from a convict who, after a stinging verdict, boasts that the judge dismissed certain charges? Eskom and the state generally have been accused, by the media, of being unaccountable. But we have seen some disturbing signs of the media’s unwillingness to self-sanction in the advent of serious breaches. Financial Mail is just but one platform to fail this test!
 
What Mantshantsha and his editor don’t want you to know is the fact that they have been found guilty on Tier 2 offences, which are serious offenses. Consequently, the Press Ombudsman has issued three reprimands which have been ordered for publishing in the magazine itself.
 
“The text should,” Press Ombudsman ordered, “be published on the same page as that used for the offending article; online as well, if the offending article was carried on its website; start with the reprimand; refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office; end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and be approved by me.” He also ordered that the headline should properly reflect the content of the text (read: the reprimand) and that a headline such as “Matter of Fact”, or something similar, is not acceptable.
 
The fact is that media should strive for zero verdict on their ethics; their mandate in a democracy is supremely noble and sinking to shambolic performance is dangerous for our democracy and the state of nationhood.
 
But newsrooms require intellectual maturity to be the force to be reckoned with. If editors are of immature stuff and, as a consequence, can't see the wood for the trees, everyone is doomed. They can’t hold anyone accountable due to their bankruptcy in moral rectitude. As one dear journalist friend of mine aptly put it: “Honesty is our currency. It’s the only way people will keep believing us, if they know we are honest and fair enough to acknowledge even the developments that don’t support the story we initially told them.”
 
Eskom will continue to support media work, but we owe it to the interest of the entity to protect it against malicious media coverage. We will continue to do so without fear or favour!
 
 
ENDS