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What does it mean to have a free press?

Prof. Johannes Grosskopf
Prof. Johannes Grosskopf

Depends on which country you’re in

My old Journalism professor at Stellenbosch University, Johannes Grosskopf, died October 2014. One by one my teachers and those from whom I learned are,  as George Carlin would say, dead, not “passed” or “lost”. With each one’s death the question arises why should I care? I haven’t seen these people for decades and besides, students are callous things, deeply self-absorbed and lazy in most instances. I count myself amongst those, since I chose to study Journalism while not having the foggiest of what was going on in the world around me.

Until I started studying Journalism I was not aware of the political struggles in South Africa in the 1980s – the height of the resistance to Apartheid, the “total onslaught” mentality, the crackdown of P.W. Botha government on opposition to the National Party, and the ongoing declarations of States of Emergency, the restrictions on the press.

Teaching students how to be journalists

Enter Johannes Grosskopf, a mild-seeming man, yet on the side of the “alternative press”, and doing an extremely risky thing in dangerous times – training youngsters to question authority. What’s more, he and his staff of journalists and editors were teaching this at the Department of Journalism of probably the most nationalistic university in the country, Stellenbosch University. In Grosskopf’s story, and his legacy, there are important lessons to be learned about press freedom today.

Stellenbosch University has been called the “cradle of Afrikaner nationalism” since six out of the seven prime ministers South Africa had between 1910 and 1971 were students there, and all of them were members of the secretive and far-right “Afrikaner Broederbond”. This is their heritage and their burden – while, academically, the university is still placed in world rankings, its past taints it to this day.

The role of the press during Apartheid

I started my course in Feb. 1984 and graduated in March 1985, with no prospect of a job. It was not a good time to be a journalist, unless you had guts.

Writing about Media Freedom from Apartheid to Democracy, on the website of the Helen Suzman Foundation – Suzman having been another stalwart of the free press in those days – former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, John Matisonn, explains that neither the Afrikaans nor the English press were entirely free of blame for withholding information from the public. But the public was itself to blame, as well. Read the full paper here: 09. J_Matisonn – Media Freedom from Apartheid to Democracy “[In the 1980s] while some sectors of the South African media openly criticised the Apartheid system and the National Party government, they were hampered by various amounts of government censorship during the years. For example, journalist Donald Woods became renowned after he fled to live in the United Kingdom in exile after helping to expose the truth behind the death of Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, along with renowned journalist and current South African politician, Helen Zille.”

After the first democratic elections in 1994, the so-called alternative press, published in several languages, was praised at the Truth And Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, held from 1996 onwards, for exposing the realities of repression and fighting the States of Emergency. Representatives of the Afrikaans press, on the other hand, refused to officially appear at the hearings, though several individual journalists made submissions, despite their companies’ reluctance. But the work of the Afrikaans press on behalf of the Apartheid system was demonstrated by the evidence that three of its titles were official organs of the ruling National Party, and all of the papers in the major Afrikaans groups supported it. Officials who worked on the TRC freely admit there was insufficient capacity or time to do the subject justice. As a result, confusion crept into the TRC’s final report. The terms ‘English press’, ‘opposition press’ and ‘liberal press’ were used interchangeably. (J. Mathison, p. 51)

The role of Apartheid propaganda was to continually assert separation (or Apartheid) as legitimate and necessary – and even supported by church leaders, particularly of the protestant NG (Nederduits Gereformeerde) Church. For most South Africans, however, their own experiences very quickly taught them to distrust the press, and many could not believe that people they knew were capable of such horrendous acts and instructions. In the same way as you could ask, did the German public not believe what was going on with Holocaust? you could ask, did the South African public not to believe what was going on with Col. Eugene de Kock and his death squads? for instance, when in fact these were reported on in the press.

In all of this the media was situated as a voice capable of persuading the public, and being responsible for informing them, but it was often difficult for readers to test what they had learnt in the media, against their experiences. (Read the complete analysis in The Role of the Print Media during the Apartheid Era, compiled by Edward Bird and Zureida Garda, here: The role of the Print Media During the Apartheid Era_TRC)

Leftist newspapers like the Rand Daily Mail, from the 1960s on, moved further and further into coverage of the realities of Apartheid. Race classification, the Group Areas Act, forced removals, prison conditions and the impact of removing habeas corpus from the legal system (unlawful detention), all received front page treatment. Its impact was substantial. The Mail was the largest circulation morning newspaper in the country. Its sister papers, the largest morning papers in each major town, carried a large number of its reports. Afternoon papers, especially the Johannesburg Star, regularly led page one with follow-ups from the Mail’s morning lead. Readers were told about Apartheid with their morning coffee in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London. It was the Mail’s financial success until the mid-1970s that allowed its aggressive coverage to survive as long as it did. (Matisonn, p. 52) On the flip side, newspapers in support of the National Party denied and contradicted those exposés.

“It was the worst of times, it was the very worst of times…”

Clearly, the 1970s and 1980s, up to 1994, was the worst of times for the South African press. What roles did Journalism Schools and Prof. Grosskopf, in particular, play in this turbulent period – bearing in mind that journalists were frequently jailed for speaking out against the government?

Ironically, the Department was started in 1978, by Piet Cillié, retired editor of Die Burger, the pre-eminent National Party mouthpiece, owned by Naspers (the National Press / Nasionale Pers). He stated, in 1977: “I personally have no professional or ethical qualms about producing recruits for a job market which I know from direct experience as well as from sustained contact through the chairmanship of the Nasionale Pers [National Press] group”.

Johannes Grosskopf followed him as Department Head in 1984, having been editor of Beeld, another Afrikaans paper. Rival Perskor was trying to sink Beeld with a dirty-tricks campaign of artificially inflating the circulation numbers of Beeld’s competitors Die Transvaler (The Transvaler), Die Vaderland (The Fatherland) and The Citizen. Perskor represented the northern, conservative viewpoints in the National Party while Naspers represented the southern, more enlightened points of view in the National Party.  But both newspaper groups supported the National Party and relied on the party’s support for readership. This cost Johannes Grosskopf his job as editor and definitely muddied the water in terms of which publications were pro and which were against the National Party government and the Apartheid regime.

Die Burger, flagship of Naspers, the most important daily paper in the Cape Province, and the home turf of Prof. Cillié, was the publication most deeply embedded in the “Information Scandal” (or Muldergate Scandal) of the 1970s. Along the lines of the Watergate Scandal, this involved the government of Prime Minister B.J. Vorster and his Minister of Information, Connie Mulder. In 1973 Vorster agreed to Mulder’s plan, executed by Eschel Rhoodie, Secretary to the Department of Information, to shift about ZAR 64 million from the defense budget to undertake a series of propaganda projects. Plans included bribes of international news agencies and the purchase of a Washington newspaper, the Washington Star, to influence opinion in the US.

Training amidst scandals and censorship

Image from Digital Innovation South Africa (DISA)
So, the Department of Journalism of the University of Stellenbosch was formed in this hotbed of propaganda and information censorship. Often the newspapers’ front pages were blank, where articles had been censored. There was a long list of places and people that could not be photographed under the States of Emergency (1985, 1986, 1987 – 1990), and an even longer list of restrictions on media coverage.

Qualifying for a degree at the Dept. of Journalism, modelled on the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, meant that students had to do a practicum of a few months at a media company, radio station or newspaper. I was so incapable of commenting on anything in the real world, that I was the only one in my class to do my practicum at a book publisher, not at a media organization.

However, I did learn one thing: I learned to read the newspapers. I started to think. We began every day by reading all the local newspapers and doing an analysis of the news – or the lack of it – as the only alternative to seeing things with our own eyes. Like Helen Suzman herself liked to say, one must always be “going to see for yourself”, and must be armed with on the ground information and well-reasoned arguments.

A media man’s legacy

It was said, after his death, that Grosskopf was an enlightened man who “….predicted the political compromise which saved the country from destruction” and “…cast light on the dark corners of the hellish country” (Tony Heard, editor, The Cape Times, 1971 – 1987.)

“He was an editor with a sort of fearlessness and a tremendous sense of justice in him – a journalistic role model…He had unimpeachable integrity.” (Tim du Plessis, former editor of Beeld newspaper).

Bun Booyens, editor of Die Burger from 2010 and a student of Grosskopf’s, said that “…he succeeded in this difficult time, of sourcing and training a corps of journalists who not only practiced outstanding journalism in a time of limited press freedom, but who also today fill leadership positions in the industry.”

Former South African journalist, Wilhelm Jordaan, described him as “…having journalistic gravitas: commitment, integrity, fearlessness and fairness….He would sharply chastise weak journalism and meaningless wordiness.”

These accolades are particularly meaningful if you consider that Prof. Grosskopf was the father of ANC member and Umkhonto weSizwe soldier, Heinrich (Hein) Grosskopf, who detonated a car bomb at a South African Defence Force army base in 1987 and then fled into exile.  There was not much of a chance of anyone involved in the dismantling of Apartheid coming out of it with rosy, clean hands. No-one sat on the fence – everyone took a side. It was a dirty business and everyone got smeared, one way or another.

The search was, ultimately, for the truth and who could deliver it. That was what the lecturers of the Department of Journalism tried to drum into our heads.

Learning to be a proper reporter

A bunch of radicals: Class of 1985/1985 - Department of Journalism, Stellenbosch University.
Class of 1985/1985 – Department of Journalism, Stellenbosch University. Piet Cillié, 2nd row from front, second from left; Johannes Grosskopf, 2nd row from front, centre; Dr Williams Edwards (Billy) Trengove (English reporting), 2nd row from front, far right; yours truly, back row, far left.

I remember the endless daily drill for more than a year: reading all the papers, picking holes in the stories, checking the facts of the stories (and remember, this was before the university had internet) and then writing, writing, writing, in English and Afrikaans, always with the 5Ws and H in the opening paragraph – what, who, where, when, why, how. Sticking to the facts, being clear and unambiguous, saying what you mean, not wasting words, being precise. Getting rid of all that fuzzy thinking. Not believing everything you were told. Getting all the sides of the story. Getting your sources sorted.

Lessons for today’s writers

There are lessons to be learned from this time in South African politics. Things can improve – but they can also move backwards. South Africa has recently regressed due to some contentious legislation which places limits on the public’s freedom to access information. The South African Protection of State Information Bill, formerly named the Protection of Information Bill and commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill, is a highly controversial piece of proposed legislation which aims to regulate the classification, protection and dissemination of state information, weighing state interests up against transparency and freedom of expression. It will replace the Protection of State Information Act, 1982, which currently regulates these issues. As of Sept. 2013, the Bill is still being amended, but it has not been set aside. For many people, this smacks of a return to the Apartheid era policies of hiding information about the state’s activities from the public.

Debating the bill, the question again arose of what was in the “public interest”. Of course, therein lies the problem, since it has never been about “what interests the public” but “what is in the public’s best interests to know”. What interests the public may be salacious celebrity news. What is in the public’s best interest may be boring but important information about politics, finances and the behaviour of elected officials. The need to disclose this type of information has to be balanced against personal privacy requirements, convenience and necessity.

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The darker, the less press freedom; the lighter, the more press freedom.

People who have grown up and lived all their lives in countries like Canada where there is a great degree of press freedom, tend to look at me when I mention these subjects as if I were a conspiracy theorist or a crazy radical, or else it’s a matter of “no interest – does not compute”. (South Africa is currently ranked no. 42 of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. Canada is no. 18.) Such people do not realize how important it is – in business, in politics, and everywhere else – to have people who report news accurately, factually, unemotionally and comprehensively.

To slant reportage through personal agendas, spin, emotional loading, underplaying things, overplaying things, distraction, or omission is the same as lying. It’s the thin end of the wedge that leads to bad governance, crime and human rights abuses. It’s the difference between living in a free country, and living under a repressive regime.

Yes, you can have freedom of expression, but with that comes the responsibility of truthful and honest reporting, by a Fourth Estate that knows the importance of what it’s doing – not merely entertaining or persuading, but informing and educating in depth. With that also comes the responsibility of the reader to question everything that is reported and keep asking those 5Ws and H, think for themselves, and demand high quality reporting.

What do you want your legacy to be?

So, the last thought is this – the same principles that apply to national news reporting apply to business news. Communicate consistently, accurately and honestly. Do not cover up, do not lie, do not pretend, it will cost you dearly eventually. What do you want your legacy to be?



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