The South African Press Ombudsman has criticised the media (see link http://bit.ly/yYwYsW) for failing to respond to and ignoring complaints about published articles. Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe criticised The Times newspaper owned by Avusa Media, amongst others, early this week [13 March 2012] that his office experienced “problems… with the way [it] ignored correspondence from the ombudsman’s office”.
Thloloe said the speed at which the newspaper failed respond to requests for feedback on a complaint from 12 September last year and January 19 this year was quite disappointing (my emphasis). These related to the alleged biased reporting against the ruling party, African National Congress. Even after a meeting with Avusa editor-in-chief and South African National Editors’ Forum chairperson, Mondli Makhanya, Thloloe said the newspaper “continued to discredit the [self-regulation] system”.
He said “naming and shaming the newspaper among its peers at a South African National Editors’ Forum council meeting produced some results” and this resulted in his office getting a response from its editor Phylicia Oppelt, leading to a “speedy resolution [of the complaint]”.
Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief seemed to downplay the problem, saying this was not common but said “on the whole, newspapers rarely don’t cooperate in the system”. Retief said “the problems we have are the exception, but still they are serious.”
But because the complaints system was informal and did not have procedural rigour, Thloloe said a new IT system would be put in place to help his office track the turnaround times much more rigorously. “From now, we will send a publication a reminder that its response is due in a few days’ time and if we still have no joy at the end of the 14 days, send it a warning that if we still don’t get a response within seven days, we will make a ruling without its input”, he said.
Thloloe added that where applicable, the editor-in-chief and CEO would also receive a copy of the warning. He however maintained that his office “will continue to be informal and bend over backwards to accommodate the slow complainants as they might find it harder to follow formal rules”.
Although it is “acknowledge(d) that most editors cooperate… and respond on time”, Thloloe said, however, that “it is the few bad eggs that critics will always remember.”
For an industry that claims government’s proposed Protection of State Information Bill and ANC’s Media Appeals Tribunal would hamper the press and media freedom rights in a constitutional democracy like South Africa’s – it is very worrying that the very same media does not want to live by the standards and rules of the self-regulation system it had set up for itself.
As a result, some would say, unfortunately, the ruling party is correct to want to subject the media to a legal system that it would have no other way of avoiding unlike it now does the current ‘”informal” system whereby it does as it pleases and even takes its own time to respond to inquiries by the Press Ombudman office. This behaviour, I must add, is not only unprofessional but that it’s also disrespectful as it disregards the very self-regulation system the media industry is claiming to be the best in the world in as far as keeping it in check.
With this attitude one then wonders how the media in South Africa intends contesting the government’s proposals on media regulations especially where many of its reports are seen as unethical and not in line or conformity with the South African Press Codes which all newspapers in the country should subscribe to.
And with the Press Ombudsman having released figures (see link http://bit.ly/zOZQiz) in early February this year on the increase on the number of complaints against many publications – and taking into account their attitude and tendency of failing to respond to Thloloe’s office timeously – it therefore remains to be seen how these increased complaints figures will be addressed in time without any unecessary prolonged delays as it now is the case.
Retief told Sanef in Cape Town at the time that there had been 70% increase over the last three years in the number of complaints about incorrect or unethical newspaper reports. He said the complaints grew from 150 in 2009 to 213 in 2010 and to 255 in 2011.
This increase was apparently attributed to the heightened public awareness of the Ombudsman office as a result of the political debate on newspapers’ ethics. It was further noted that despite the ruling party’s criticism – the majority of the findings were however against newspapers. That the self-regulation system has always come under scrutiny from ruling party for being ineffective, “toothless” and not responsive to its expectations may have also contributed the heightened public awareness.
According to Retief editors indicated that 53 complaints had been received between mid-November and the end of January this year. He further noted the despite the baglog (often probably attributed to the slow response of newspapers to inquiries like The Times’) – there were about 60 cases pending at the time.
So if our media really wants to retain the self-regulation system they claim is the best model in the world of keeping it in check – then it is about bloody time they complied with the Press Codes: their own baby, if not a self-made bed they should sleep on now more than any other time in our democracy.
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