Quote of the week

Although judicial proceedings will generally be bound by the requirements of natural justice to a greater degree than will hearings before administrative tribunals, judicial decision-makers, by virtue of their positions, have nonetheless been granted considerable deference by appellate courts inquiring into the apprehension of bias. This is because judges ‘are assumed to be [people] of conscience and intellectual discipline, capable of judging a particular controversy fairly on the basis of its own circumstances’: The presumption of impartiality carries considerable weight, for as Blackstone opined at p. 361 in Commentaries on the Laws of England III . . . ‘[t]he law will not suppose possibility of bias in a judge, who is already sworn to administer impartial justice, and whose authority greatly depends upon that presumption and idea’. Thus, reviewing courts have been hesitant to make a finding of bias or to perceive a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of a judge, in the absence of convincing evidence to that effect.

L'Heureux-Dube and McLachlin JJ
Livesey v The New South Wales Bar Association [1983] HCA 17; (1983) 151 CLR 288
4 February 2008

Freedom of the Press and the SACP

I have not been a big fan of City Press newspaper, as I have always had the suspicion that it was just another Naspers publication more interested in selling newspapers than doing the right thing or taking a principled stand to safeguard our democracy.

First there was the fiasco of editor Vusi Moni publishing completely unsubstantiated claims that then NPA head, Bulelani Ngcuka, had been an apartheid spy. When Moni turned out to be somewhat ethically challenged, he was replaced by Mathatha Tsedu who turned the newspaper into a zealous mouthpiece for President Thabo Mbeki and his supporters.

It has not helped that City Press has given space to Criselda Kananda to write an occasional column on HIV/AIDS that is often ignorant and misleading on HIV/AIDS issues and sometimes comes dangerously close to a kind of Aids denialism that must surely further confuse readers who might find her a credible source on HIV/AIDS issues.

It would therefore be natural for me to applaud the letter written by Blade Nzimande, the Secretary General of the South African Communist Party, to the bosses of Mathatha Tsedu at Naspers in which he complains that Tsedu “has reduced a once highly regarded newspaper into nothing more than a political newsletter of the 1996 class project” because it “has jettisoned any pretence towards fair, balanced and informed reporting on Alliance matters, but has become an active party political player inside our movement”.

But somehow the letter makes me uneasy. Especially because it seems to contain a threat to Naspers bosses and really seems to suggest that they need to fire Tsedu or else face the consequences. Nzimande wonders aloud whether Tsedu was not appointed by Naspers to advance this class project, implying that Naspers (who has assiduously courted the ANC in power to secure sweet deals for itself) will have to account for this lapse of revolutionary fervour.

Nzimande argues in his letter that Tsedu had made factual errors in a piece he had written (calling these factual errors “lies” in much the way that President Thabo Mbeki had done over the years in his Blog when he disagreed with someones interpretation of an event) and argued that the piece was also based on anonymous sources.

The problem is that Nzimande’s letter seems to be based on a complete misconception about the way newspapers work. It also seems to suggest that Nzimande does not have a good grasp of the principle of freedom of expression and the media and that he would prefer to replace existing conceptions of such freedom with a more revolutionary one in which only “fair”, “balanced” and “informed” reporting should be allowed by both newspaper bosses and by the rest of us.

No newspaper is or can ever be neutral. Every day newspaper editors must decide which stories to publish and which ones to leave out, how to present these stories, who should comment in its pages and how it should present this comment. These choices are influenced by the views of the editors and his or her staff.

If a story is not favourable to a particular individual or organisation, it often complains that the newspaper is biased. But this is just another way of saying: “we do not like what you are writing because you are not on our side”. To which an editor should say: “tough luck. Read your own pamphlets if you only want to read good things about your organisation.”

In a country with a diverse media and a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, this is not a problem because the many voices will balance each other out in the end. And sometimes the collective media actually gets it right and rightly show a “bias” in favour of a specific issue and campaign for that issue. The way the media supported the TAC in their case against the government to roll out mother to child prevention measures for HIV positive pregnant woman is a case in point.

It is the duty of newspapers to get involved and no party or Alliance is above meddling by the media. Surely, no newspaper worth its salt will merely report the official party line word-for-word. That is not journalism but propaganda. If Blade does not like the way City Press reports on matters he should take them to the Press Ombudsman (if they were unfair) or to court (if they defamed him). Otherwise he could just buy the Sunday Times.


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