Guard media integrity jealously

THE media fraternity has been rattled by the payola scandal involving former Cape Argus reporter Ashley Smith and former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool.

THE media fraternity has been rattled by the payola scandal involving former Cape Argus reporter Ashley Smith and former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool.

Confirmation that we, the press, had a snake burrowed so deep in our bosom has come as a shock. Journalists have been hurt and appalled. Thankfully, most of us realised quite early that we could not play the debilitating mea culpa game forever.

The vultures that have been hovering above - in the form of vindictive politicians, waiting to pounce - will be disappointed to learn that their self-flagellating prey is not about to bleed to death.

Instead of walking around haggard under the weight of the scandal, media owners and editors have been galvanised into action, not least because of the incessant beating of war drums by those who'd prefer to see the dimming of the media spotlight on their dubious activities.

There's a lot of soul-searching around. Editorial codes are being spruced up and controls tightened to prevent the embarrassment recurring.

No doubt Smith has given the anti-media brigade the whip with which to lash the press. The shrill voices that have been advocating curbs on media freedom have reached a crescendo.

The ruling party has had a field day. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Blade Nzimande, his comrade and counterpart in the SACP, have been rubbing their hands in glee, relishing the opportunity to tar all journalists with the Smith brush.

The pair wasted no time in using the confession by Smith - that he took bribes to promote Rasool - to rail against the media self-regulation mechanism.

Smith's admission to scandalous dealings with their comrade has spurred them into trying to breathe life into the stillborn snake that is the ANC's proposed tribunal to rein in the press.

Messrs Mantashe and Nzimande are highly educated men. They know it is specious to extrapolate from Smith's admission to corruption that journalists are unethical. We may as well take it as axiomatic the usual refrain that politics is a dirty game or that politicians don't have a single honest bone in their bodies.

Having said that, one wonders if rogues such as Smith, who leverage journalism or any other altruistic craft or profession to line their pockets, appreciate the damage they cause.

Credibility and integrity are the hard currency of journalism. Without them, we cannot be society's watchdogs and talk truth to power.

The media can't afford to be sloppy, or to be embedded with politicians, business, the church or anyone or any cause they report on.

Involvement in factional politics, especially, strips us of the credibility needed to carry out our informational role in society, which lies at the heart of the journalistic effort.

Thus, we cannot be dismissive of those who are critical of our conduct, whatever their motives. We must scour even their most disingenuous polemic against journalism for the semblance of truth and make amends accordingly.

Calls for introspection resonate with our own, albeit for different reasons. Those for whom the media have been thorns in the flesh may well be driven by a desire to see journalism weakened and incapable of seeing through the fiction and lies they peddle daily.

Efforts are under way by media owners and editors to strengthen measures that ensure journalists do not benefit dishonorably from their jobs the way Smith did.

The process is necessary if we are to retain public confidence.

The public, the only power to which journalism should answer, must be assured that the Smiths of this world are just an aberration.

May we all live long enough to see the day we can say the same of those who'd love to see us shackled.