Publication: Cape Times Issued: Date: 2003-09-16 Reporter: Nigel Bruce

Media's Pursuit Vital to Democracy



Cape Times

Date 2003-09-16


Nigel Bruce

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Trial by the media of those in public office, much complained about in the wake of the arms scandal, is a prurient form of societal fox hunting. Its virtue is that while justice is rough, at least retribution is evident. Its vice, that the presumption of guilt allows for little defence.

Generally speaking, the victims run until the pack drags them down.

In a modern Western society this is a barbaric means of identifying corruption and administering justice. Yet at times it is a necessary barbarism - especially when the functioning of a parliamentary democracy does not allow, or is manipulated to prevent, a more equitable trial and appropriate form of retribution.

In the 1970s, the Information Scandal came into the public domain through the investigative work of two devout opposition newspapers - the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express.

Among many astonishing deviations from acceptable standards of governance, Infogate involved the illegal use of government money to set up a daily newspaper to counter criticism by the liberal press.

The National Party's enormous majority in parliament meant neither parliamentary procedures nor the courts were likely to investigate and ensure retribution. This provided a field day for the liberal press. It remained in hot pursuit until the until the state president, his information minister and two top officials were drummed out of politics in disgrace.

Their corruption did not extend to personal enrichment. It was the grandiose, profligate work style and shameful ethics of the civil servants involved that alerted the auditor-general to their misdemeanours.

This prompted the inevitable leaks to the press, although may newspapers failed to react - even when the brave Gerald Barrie published some of his disturbing findings in his auditor-general's report.

The way the government is handling the arms scandal today makes trial by media inevitable, especially as it hinges on corrupt tender procedures and the accumulation of dubious personal wealth.

Government has blatantly manipulated and intimidated parliament, so democratic procedures are blunted. It has allowed an incompetent audit to exonerate the cabinet and avoided a thorough investigation. Investigation by the Scorpions of irregularities, lies and questionable practices continues without real signs of progress.

The interesting thing about the arms scandal and the embarrassment of Deputy President Jacob Zuma is that trial by media has not been confined to the minuscule opposition media. Most media managements have not capitulated to government intimidation. Democracy is lost if they do.

During the Info Scandal the English-language liberal press was unrelenting in its harassment of the government. It had the most to lose from what the government was planing to do. The Rand Daily Mail, the government's main target, was in dire financial straits as its political stance had led to advertising malnutrition.

The government had control of the SABC and formidable laws restricting political coverage. Yet its propaganda apparatus was pitiful compared with that of the ANC government : apart from the SABC, it has a large information department - indistinguishable for the ANC press office - that is a dab hand at disinformation and intimidation. It also determines access by the presidential press corps.

The government also has its own news agency, backed by a particularly pernicious appendage, the International Marketing Council, that monitors the media, pays for tendentious advertising and employs nine journalists to turn bad news into good. This propaganda apparatus provides spin. Trouble is, spin makes for notoriously unstable propaganda weaponry.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his former right-hand man, Alastair Campbell, are the most notable exponents - and victims - of spin. They have had to learn most painfully that about the law of unintended consequences. The danger for a government engaged in cover-up is that spin can be so blatant in its excesses that it fans scepticism.

Allister Sparks's article (Cape Times, September 10) illustrated a case in point. He advised President Thabo Mbeki that he should have quickly disclosed all the facts of the arms scandal so there was nothing left for the media to pick over. Why did Mbeki not do so? The charitable answer is that Mbeki may not have known the extent of the depredations.

But enough is now known of what happened with some naval sub-contracts to suggest the main contracts need investigation. The involvement of the ANC elite in the sub-contracts is not something about which government should be sanguine. It is clearly the tiny tip of an alarming iceberg.

If Mbeki could have disclosed all the facts he would have done so and would not have needed to subvert parliamentary processes - nor prevent Willem Heath from being part of the joint investigation that sanitised the cabinet.

Sparks, who was editor of the Sunday Express and Rand Daily Mail, is sympathetic to the ANC. In his article he says he understands Zuma's inability to run his financial affairs because his involvement in the struggle left him devoid of rudimentary understanding.

That judgement would be out of order in a formal trial or parliamentary proceedings. Which begs the question whether the country should have a deputy president who is so under-resourced.

I would far rather see the arms matter settled through due process. The alternative will not help the future of democracy. Regrettably, due process is not going to happen.

Apart from those crimes the Scorpions may or may not bring to the courts, there are enough civil matters arising from the arms scandal to ensure the media will track and pin down its prey for years to come.

Sadly, this appears to be the only way to get at the truth and bring retribution to the guilty.

When democracy is subverted into failure, responsible guardianship of the public interest falls to the media pack. Its dread work is vital for democracy.

Bruce is a Democratic Alliance MP.

With acknowledgements to Nigel Bruce and the Cape Times.