Accountability of the media to society - reality or myth?
Department of Journalism, Technikon Pretoria, 22-23 July 1997
      by Guy Berger, July 1997

When you open an account, you get called on to pay the bill. The question is: do journalists open an account? And if so, with whom - and who calls on them to pay? In the final analysis, there is just one answer: they open an account with themselves. They are accountable to their own consciences and corresponding interpretation of the ethics of the profession. Not even the verdict of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) can remove the ultimate burden of accountability from the individual journalist.

It is a celebrated myth that in a democracy the media should be independent and accountable only to the professional ethics of journalism as located within a general philosophy of the role of the press.

Like all myths, there are various interpretations possible and one can see this in the diverse ethical codes for journalists even within democracies, and in, for example, the distinction between the libertarian and social-responsibility theories of the press (as spelt out by Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm, 1956, and others). The codes are not absolute.

But what all these interpretations of the myth still share is the notion that journalism and the media represent something higher than responsibilities to vested interests, including even accountability to democratically-elected governments. The assumption is that journalism and the media operate in the public interest (and for Habermas (1992) in the public sphere) rather than in any particular interest (even where the latter claims to be representing the general interest).

This is a powerful myth. How real is it?

That ethics are open to various interpretations is supremely illustrated by the reality of South African history, where a Press Council was set up by the press itself to police the ethical/political performance of the press - a kind of in-house accountability. Ken Owen (1997) recently pilloried the record of this body in the Mail & Guardian, highlighting how the practise of the council sorely dented the independence of the press. Headline: Reality batters myth, no arrests made. The battering was particularly severe during the apartheid years, meaning that the myth then had little credibility. But even in a democracy, how real is the myth?

One can also challenge the myth by pointing out that, as Sowetan editor Mike Siluma has argued (1996), editorial independence - paradoxically - has to depend on interdependence. Discussing the concept of an Editorial Charter, he says that the role of the press cannot be defined by journalists alone. "You can't expect someone to bank-roll a publication and then walk away without worrying what will be published. That's not the real world". Siluma sets out the interests of editors and journalists, owners and shareholders, politicians, government, and civil society in being stakeholders in the editorial character of the media. He excludes advertisers from having "a direct stake in the information side of media". But looking more broadly than the question of an editorial charter, the reality is, however, that commercial media cannot ignore the interests of advertisers entirely, and I would therefore include this constituency as an important factor in discussing the accountability of the press. Another key constituency is sources: in particular, the professional newsmakers and their publicity machinery have a very fundamental impact on the editorial character of the media.

The myth of an independent media, therefore, needs to weighed against the reality of all these stakeholders. The reality is that the media is accountable not to the myth, but to the interests of these parties: it has to be simply in order to survive. Moreover, these interests often conflict with the protocols of the myth. One of the more prominent of these is the interests of the state in securing information through Section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act, and the journalistic ethic of protecting one's sources. There is potential for the journalistic quest for truth to contradict the mission of reconciliation. The precepts of journalistic scrutiny and selection through sheer news value are often over-ridden by the conveniently packaged ready-to-roll story submitted by professional newsmakers. The myth, in short, often comes off second-best in relation to the reality.

Yet what is also important to note is that the various stakeholders to whom the media ends up owing some accountability are often incompatible. Owners may have to sacrifice their own preferences because of the need to keep up a credibility with audiences. A shareholder may need to compromise his/her editorial prejudices in order to reach accord on more general parameters with fellow shareholders. Advertisers may behave like Rembrandt and boycott a medium like The Star which editorialised against smoking, but their power to directly intervene in editorial is limited by the other interested parties in the media. Finally, government and politicians may dislike some things about the media, but would come up against opposition from other stakeholders if they were to legislate themselves as the sole or supreme centre of accountability for editorial content. Not even the apartheid government could go that far.

The significance of this is that the press might not be independent, but it is also not fully accountable to any of these vested interests. On the contrary, journalists can - and do - play them off against each other, and did so under apartheid too. The result is a continuously changing compromise, achieved by ongoing aggregation of the diverse interests at play.

But going further, the press also enjoys what Althusser (1967) called a "relative autonomy" of all sectoral interests simply because of its own institutional character. If the media may be a tool of the powerful, according to a classic Marxist view, it is a pretty cumbersome instrument. It has its own rhythms and bureaucratic processes, personality conflicts, internal struggles, all of which make the most determined managers tear their hair out. It is very hard to make the media accountable in a narrow sense to one centre of power. And frequently, the reality is that cock-ups rather than conspiracies are more frequent in media.

Stuart Hall (1977) has also argued for the analysis of the media's relative autonomy by reference to the dynamic nature of the business. He proposes that rather than reflect pre-existing assessments and biases of a hegemonic grouping, the media helps to formulate these. The point is that there is not necessarily a pre-decided position on breaking stories, and the dynamic role of the media is to help formulate positions and interpretations - and therein to create new and diverse constituencies of meaning. This is very clear in South Africa where the media has generally had to tackle the unpredictables of transition without any well-defined policy or position. The reality is that the media helps make the representations of reality, it is not simply an expression of reality. How the media accounts for its role, as in narrating the TRC's investigation is a fascinating exercise, revealing whether it accounts for its past through the character of its present coverage.

The effect of all the competing interests in the media, and of the relative autonomy of these particular social institutions, is that the media is not really accountable. I am not suggesting that the media is a law unto itself, nor that it is a loose cannon. But in a democracy, the mass media is not elected. No one voted for it, and it is not accountable in that sense. Even publicly-owned media (like the BBC) in a democracy is not accountable in the same way as government medium is, and a SABC journalist has more independence of government than a PR official editing for instance the "Eastern Cape Review", a Bisho mouthpiece. The media, in short, does not operate in terms of an "accountable" agenda.

Is this a bad thing? The real situation is that we don't have the myth of independence, nor do we have proper accountability to anyone. I think this is a strength. It means that the media escapes the totalitarian aspirations of any single sector (to varying and shifting degrees). People in the media have the opportunity to push the case of ethics and a philosophy of the press - i.e. to use the myth as a weapon in fighting for editorial autonomy. Myths, as Roland Barthes (1973) has pointed out, are not necessarily without real significance therefore. And nor are they by definition bad.

Some may say that it's a bad myth that privileges the practioners rather than those whom they serve. For example, one often hears the criticism that print journalists are writing for themselves, not for the reader. So a different myth may be posited, whereby the media should be accountable in the last instance to the audience, that the interests of the readers/viewers/listeners should be the final arbiter of media content. The fact of the matter is that media ignores these interests at its peril, but the fact also is that the interests of audiences are not always compatible with journalistic ethics. The British public moans about sensationalist intrusions into the lives of the royals by unethical journalists, but laps up these lapses of journalistic virtue. The South African public may lust after capital punishment and feel horror at pro-choice abortion legislation - but should the media therefore pander to these prejudice? To be accountable, as a goal, towards higher ethics - such as giving various sides to a story - and to be accountable to a role of the press that respects human rights and which leads (not only follows) the market, isn't this what we should strive for? In these terms, a journalist should be accountable primarily to his or her own journalistic conscience - not personal conscience, journalistic conscience. Those who spied or lied were not journalists in my view. Nor were those who propagandised, as I did, against apartheid.

Journalists are not free agents, but at least they are not public relations slaves. They have a first-class myth to fend off the pressures of people with non-journalistic agendas. But journalists are, however, prisoners of their personal pasts - and their class, race, gender and generational identities. This conditions their sense of reality and may impact adversely on their journalism - on what and who they think are important, and how they structure their stories. Accountable to themselves, they are also fettered by themselves - and especially so in the apartheid past. Here again, we must look to myth to move us beyond our limitations. In this light, the myth of independence and accountability to the craft (with an ethics and a philosophy), has a seldom recognised value. It not only has an external significance for journalists - as a defence against intruding realities; it has a direct internal relevance as means to challenge each one's own reality.

To call the media to account means calling on it to account for how well it approximated the Myth, in the past and in the present. And how it did this approximation not only as an institution with relative autonomy from social interests, but also in terms of how each journalist personally measured up against the Myth. And of those who do the calling to account, the most important should be the journalists themselves - and each individual journalist him or herself.

Sources cited:

Althusser, Louis. 1967. Contradiction and overdetermination. New Left Review, Jan/Feb, vol 41 pp 15 -35

Barthes, Roland. 1973. Mythologies. Frogmore,St Alban: Paladin

Curran, J; Gurevitch, M; Woollacott, J, eds. 1977. Mass Communication and Society. London: Edward Arnold

Habermas, J. 1992. Autonomy and solidarity : interviews with J|urgen Habermas. Edited and introduced by Peter Dews. London: Verso.

Hall, Stuart. Culture, the media and the 'ideological effect', in Curran et al.

Owen, Ken. 1997. Media bosses who played the apartheid game. Mail and Guardian. July 18, 1997

Siebert, F S; Peterson, T, and Schramm, W. 1956. Four theories of the press : the authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet communist concepts of what the press should be and do. Urbana, Ill. : University of Illinois Press

Siluma, Mike. 1996. Guest Editorial. Rhodes Journalism Review, no. 13, December