Thursday, September 2, 2010

No News is Good News

I chose this title because the phrase confused me when I first heard it as a child. I thought it meant that all news is bad. (Even then I had a pessimistic streak, and I still think that reading it that way has some merit!) Unfortunately, there are levels where government leaders seem to suffer from the same confusion. During the apartheid era in South Africa there was a variety of legislation which impacted on the “news” in different ways. These draconian measures were always justified as being essential for the security of the state, a necessary evil to hold the terrorists at bay. Journalists were arrested and held under these laws, and often were forced to flee the country (if South Africans) or deported if they were not. Of course, censorship extended further than the press. Any writings which seemed to be opposed to the government’s cultural point of view – or even showed aspects of life contrary to it - such as mixed race sexual relationships – were banned as “immoral”. (In real life such relationships were illegal and lead to prosecution of both parties.) Writers who took on these aspects of the Nationalist culture often found themselves persecuted or at best had chunks excised from their books. One such writer was Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer.

Nadine Gordimer
In 1994 all of this disappeared. It was amazing how quickly things which had been compulsory dropped away, and things which had been forbidden became accepted. For all their literary value and power, books set in the apartheid culture suddenly became historical fiction. And how delighted everyone was with that! The new constitution enshrined freedom of expression subject only to the reasonable exclusion of “hate speech of any form including (a) propaganda for war; (b) incitement of imminent violence; and (c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

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.”

Andre Brink
There has been an outcry from many quarters and not least from writers. Led by Nadine Gordimer & André Brink, two writers who suffered under the old censorship laws, South African writers are signing a petition opposing the new ones. It already has a who’s who list of signatories including JM Coetzee and leading SA mystery writer Deon Meyer. Stanley and I will add our much less significant marks to it as well.

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.


  1. I urge all our readers to send an email to President Zuma opposing any form of censorship. His email address is


  2. Stan - I sent my email to President Zuma.

    Nothing ventured nothing gained. I hope enlisting Americans doesn't backfire.


  3. Sent mine too. Fascinating, thought-provoking post, Michael.