Published in Sunday Tribune, 22 August 2010

There is a class of citizen in our country whose occupation gives them enormous influence. They are capable of spreading unsolicited opinion and news that affects us profoundly. What they say can cause stock exchanges to fall, reputations to be destroyed and public fear and panic to be sown. Despite the incredible power they wield there are no formal qualifications needed to hold this job nor do practitioners have to pass any professional enquiry into their moral fitness. They are appointed by their bosses and are answerable largely only to them.

Naturally, there is some oversight in the industry but it takes the form of self-regulation. This self-regulation is weak if the work of their ombudsmen is surveyed. Unlike doctors and lawyers getting struck from the roll for misconduct, that does not occur to them. When wrongdoers are chucked out it is only into the recycle bin. Soon enough, they come back, either rejoining their old employer or, very often, a competitor.

There are horror stories about how people in this unregulated industry conduct themselves. Brown envelopes are regularly exchanged. Outright lies are told. Conflicts of interest abound. This is, however, only to be expected in environments where there is weak accountability and an absence of independent oversight coupled with strict penalties for bad behaviour.

There is an argument that statutory regulation will stifle the independence of this sector which, whatever its faults, is essential to a flourishing democracy. Closer inspection reveals these claims to be hollow. It is not as if the trade is performing as noble a role as it would like us to believe. It is notoriously lacking in diversity and is beholden to all sorts of nefarious commercial and factional interests. It pursues these under the guise of objectivity and speaking the truth.

These arguments lack merit. Time and again, people in this racket have been shown to be in the service the powerful and wealthy, notwithstanding pious denials. There are even cases where workers in this industry have blatantly served the interests of foreign powers, Washington for one. This business of theirs is exactly that – a business.

In service of their multiple hidden agendas and private efforts to amass wealth, operators in this trade pursue disinformation campaigns, verging on character assassination. There is very little anyone can do about it. A victim of their abuse may approach a civil court for relief but this is expensive and many months down the line. A grudging apology may eventually be forthcoming but by then the damage has been done.

There will be self-serving howls of indignation at our proposal for sure but, in light of what we have described, there is indeed an urgent need for an independent tribunal to hand out prison sentences for irresponsible, unethical and dishonourable conduct within what has become a cowboy industry.

We speak of course about politicians.

There are hundreds of them practicing their tawdry craft at all levels of society. There are the big nationals and the small community knock and drops. Without any academic bar to test their grasp of issues and despite often very serious ethical and criminal lapses, they continue to exert enormous influence in our society. They dress up their right to proclaim on social issues in the name of transformation and development of society. However, the shameful regularity with which entrepreneurs within this career cash in their influence reveals a different motive. From Smuts, (I did not struggle to be poor), Ngonyama to Tony (Armani) Yengeni, to their family members, nominee shareholders and shady associates, it is all the same thing. The bottom feeders at municipal level are just as adept in making a quick buck off a quick tender, “for jam”.

The regulation of the behaviour of the political sector is shockingly ineffective. Whatever one thinks about the sanction passed on Julius Malema by his bosses, there is no way he has undergone anger management classes. The Speaker of Parliament, the chief whips, party disciplinary committees and the Public Protector have been similarly woeful. Any civil remedies one may pursue after being at the wrong end of a tirade by Diane (Rottweiler) Kohler, for example, are expensive and without satisfaction. Those politicians who are disgraced know that it is only a matter of time before redeployment beckons. In this way, an Ebrahim Rassool is off on the most senior diplomatic posting and a Carl Niehaus will no doubt be given a spot on Board, the gambling or sharks board spring to mind.

We do not expect a Politicians Tribunal to get off the ground. But there may well be a Media Tribunal soon. The central complaint that the ANC has against the media is that it sometimes acts irresponsibly and that the lack of accountability breeds damaging conduct. But they have yet to mention what sort of irresponsible behaviour they have in mind, beyond the leaked hotel bills of their cabinet communists. The simple fact is that the ANC is losing its hero status, is riven with factions and is intensely insecure about what new scandals may be exposed to further erode their claims to legitimacy. There is nothing in itself wrong with increasing accountability in our society, including among journalists but the Media Tribunal is being proposed for an ulterior purpose.

To be clear, the lack of diversity of ownership in our big media houses is real, dangerous and in need of fracture. Opposition to the Media Tribunal should not be understood as endorsement of the status quo. However, it is hardly open to the ANC to complain about business oligarchies or lack of ideological diversity. The proportional representation system creates levels of group-think that would have made Stalin proud. The Tribunal will not create diversity of ownership or opinion. It will merely police existing media outlets with greater severity.

Post-Polokwane we were promised a New Age of transparency and vigorous public debate on the major issues of the day. Today those promises are as dead as the Rand Daily Mail. It appears that the Media Tribunal is a fait accompli. What remains only is to see which ANC linked landlord gets the lease. But who will report on this?

ASHWIN DESAI & HEINRICH BöHMKE
Sunday Tribune, 22 August 2010