Freedom of the press doesn’t entail facilitating bias

An edited (see strikethrough in text) version of this column for The Daily Maverick

Reactions to the Democratic Alliance’s delisting of Sowetan journalist Anna Majavu have ranged from outrage to disinterest, although it’s fair to say that outrage is the dominant tone, with one organisation (the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) going so far as to say that the decision was “Goebbels-inspired”. However, very few people seem to have considered the argument in favour of her delisting.

More problematically, nobody seems to have contemplated the possibility that it could sometimes be sometimes permissible to facilitate the work of some journalists and not others, while still being committed to press freedom. The basic question is this: If you believe a journalist to be biased, and therefore not to be trusted to represent events accurately, is it incumbent on you to continue providing them with material to distort?

It’s entirely possible that the majority of Daily Maverick readers – not to mention writers – will disagree with me on this one, but nevertheless: The DA was perfectly within their rights to delist Majavu, and it was not hypocritical or a contradiction of their stated support of media freedom to do so. But the way in which their decision to delist the journalist was communicated betrayed a lack of courage, and a failure of principle.

A brief recap: Majavu is a former spokesperson of the SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), and was dropped from the DA mailing list sometime in August 2010, on the same day that the DA laid a complaint with the press ombudsman regarding what they considered to be false reporting by Majavu. While some reports have described the DA’s actions as constituting “blacklisting”, this seems unnecessarily emotive – and in fact false. Blacklisting implies measures like barring Majavu from press conferences, but no such measures have been implemented.

Instead, Majavu is simply no longer receiving regular emails, keeping her informed as to DA speeches and the like. I say “simply”, because all of this information is available to anyone who cares to browse to the media section of the DA website. In other words, while she might have to work a little harder – perhaps by speaking to her colleagues, who still receive the emails, or by pointing her browser at the DA website – she hasn’t been prevented from getting the information she needs in order to do her job.

Liberties can be understood in a positive or a negative sense. A positive liberty is one that others have an obligation to provide or facilitate, and a negative liberty is one where others have a duty to not interfere with your pursuit of that liberty. An example of the former would be something like right to housing – seeing as the provision of housing cannot be guaranteed, it is always foolish to read such a right as anything other than a general statement of intent to provide housing.

A negative liberty, by contrast, is relatively easy to safeguard. The right to free speech is satisfied merely by not censoring the would-be speaker, and the right of a journalist to express her views is safeguarded by allowing for an independent media, free to write what they like. Freedom of the press does not however require that anyone else does the journalist’s job for her, or even that others make that job easier to do.

We are free to speak to whomever we want, and to ignore those we do not wish to speak to. Here on The Daily Maverick, anonymous commentators cannot express their views, and it would be difficult to argue that this impinges on their freedom to any significant extent – they can comment anonymously at TimesLive and the Mail & Guardian, not to mention other news websites and thousands of local blogs. Their negative liberties are not being compromised, and they have no legitimate expectation of the positive liberty which would be provided via The Daily Maverick facilitating the trolls’ paradise that some other websites have become.

Majavu has also experienced no threat to her negative liberties – she is merely not being facilitated in writing articles that the DA found to be not only unsympathetic, but maliciously so. Note that Majavu is not a columnist, but a journalist, and is thus expected to represent the news without the shadow of an ideological axe hanging over her words. If there is bias in her reportage, she would no longer be doing the work of a professional journalist, but would instead be (in this instance) an anti-DA campaigner. She has the right to perform that function, but the DA has no obligation to help her to do so.

But this is of course a logical approach, rather than a political one. From a political perspective, any such decisions are prey to public sentiment and exploitation by opposing forces, meaning that no matter whether you’re right on principle, you might nevertheless be ill-advised – from the perspective of getting favourable press coverage – in sticking to those principles. No matter whether you think, for example, that the DA’s position and response to the Makhaza toilet situation was logically defensible, there is no question that it was politically disastrous.

This case is similar in at least one respect, which is that a principled argument could perhaps be made for the delisting of Majavu. If it is true that her writing showed a systematic bias, then it appears entirely appropriate for the DA to not facilitate her work, so long as she could acquire her information elsewhere. But instead of making that principled case for her delisting, including releasing a detailed record of misrepresentations and bias, the DA response has been to point to something which doesn’t look like evidence for that, but instead appears to be simple evidence of hypersensitivity – and therefore, evidence of intolerance towards criticism.

What they pointed to, through executive director of communication Gareth van Onselen, was the press ombudsman’s ruling in the case of Majavu’s Sowetan article dealing with DA MP Pieter van Dalen’s shooting of rubber bullets at two children in Khayelitsha. The comment by van Onselen asserts that the ombudsman found in the DA’s favour, and ordered the Sowetan to publish a correction.

Van Onselen also claims that this correction has not been published, but it appears that this is false. But regardless of whether the correction satisfies the DA’s expectations, this detail is not directly relevant to Majavu’s alleged bias or to the claim that the ombudsman found in the DA’s favour.

And yes, the ombudsman did find in the DA’s favour, but only in respect of two points in the article (including a misleading headline), while the rest of the DA’s complaints were dismissed. The basic concern expressed in Majavu’s article (available on the Sowetan website, with a clear link to the ombudsman’s ruling) seems unaffected: that a DA MP shot rubber bullets at two children, and that this action apparently resulted in no internal disciplinary action.

Whether or not Majavu has demonstrated bias on other occasions (or even in this instance), the article presents material facts that invoke legitimate public concern around the DA’s attitude to the public conduct of its representatives. If Majavu is indeed a biased reporter, I have no issue with the DA not facilitating her work, thereby publicly protesting against biased coverage, so long as they make a compelling and honest case that her political agenda is compromising her journalism.

But this particular story does not aid that particular case, and that case is not made elsewhere. Instead, this story simply serves as more fodder for those who – wrongly or rightly – think that politics is sometimes about more than principle, and that the DA could do with some sensitivity to public perception. Worse yet, seeing as van Dalen has been promoted since this incident, we can perhaps worry that for the DA, politics can sometimes also be about less than principle. And until they tell us otherwise, delisting a journalist without giving us the full set of reasons for doing so can’t help but encourage such suspicions.

A note on the edit: Van Onselen did not make this claim, and my summary was the result of a misreading. He said that the “Ombudsman found the story was factual inaccurate, ruled the Sowetan should print a correction, a summary of the ruling and reprimanded the paper for its misleading headline. The Sowetan failed properly to comply with the ruling”.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.