The trouble with bad news is that it invariably upsets somebody, and that person – or group of people – would like it not to be known. Unfortunately, often good news isn’t news. It’s the shocking, surprising, unpleasant that seems to grab our attention. Achievements often get overlooked in the rush of such material. This is disappointing and discouraging for leaders who feel that their contributions are minimized, misreported or neglected altogether by the media. This is unfortunate. But it also comes with the territory.
One of the first flickers of dissatisfaction with this state of affairs came with the issue of crime statistics. There was, and is, a great deal of popular concern and dissatisfaction about crime in South Africa. Using the upcoming World Cup as an excuse, the government banned the publication of crime statistics by the simple expedient of issuing them only off the record. This had the predictable result that everyone imagined that violent crime had risen steeply. In fact that wasn’t the case. In the absence of news, people imagine the worst.
In recent years the local press has become vociferous about corruption and the less than transparent dealings of some branches and leaders in the ruling ANC. This has led to a great deal of accusation of the press victimizing certain persons because of their political stands or economic successes. The government is under stress anyway because the ruling coalition includes trade union organizations and the communist party (yes, there still is one after all that has happened) and the government’s good economic approaches sit badly with these people. And now, they say, it seems, the press is out to get us, too! Recently a respected journalist was arrested, held for a few days, and then released. The purpose was obvious.
Make no mistake, South Africa has strong laws on libel; anyone (who has the money to fight) can sue and get a very fair hearing. But the government feels it necessary to introduce a Protection of Information Bill and a Media Appeals Tribunal (why does this sort of legislation always have a 1984-esque title?) As the Guardian newspaper points out: “The measures would allow the government to ban the publication of material deemed detrimental to ‘the survival and security of the state’. The catch-all phrase ‘national interest’ would allow it to close down discussion of any topic which threatened to embarrass those in power.”
Will it make any difference? Embarrassment is what it’s all about. Maybe we can embarrass the proponents of these embarrassment avoidance measures into a rethink. Maybe not. No news really is good news – for some.
Michael – Thursday.