02/10/2020

The media, which is facing a threat with a downturn of the economy, needs to be saved, writes Gregg Nott.

The media, which is facing a threat with a downturn of the economy, needs to be saved, writes Gregg Nott.
My first encounter with newspapers was as a young lad, pictured on the front page of the Daily News in Durban, feeding the pigeons with my great-grandfather, Jack Collins, a First World War veteran, while my mother, Mavourneen, queued for her unemployment benefit.
It was the 1960s and, although South Africa’s economy was growing, my mother and others had hit hard times. Making it onto the front page of my local newspaper left an impression on me and stirred a passion for the Fourth Estate that has defined much of what I do and how I do it. 
I believe that there lie clues for each of us in childhood about our eventual vocations in life and, from very early on, I had wanted to become a journalist. My uncle was the accountant for the Daily News in Durban and I vividly recall how I would get taken to watch the press roll. I was always waiting for the Thursday edition of the local community Highway Mail. And to this day, the morning drill of running my fingers through my dose of dailies still excites. 
As a young adult, my mother had discouraged me from my romantic notion of studying journalism at Rhodes University because she said I would end up with a drinking problem. The irony is, I did, but it wasn’t because of Rhodes or journalism.  
I studied law instead and ended up working for a Johannesburg law firm in the 80s, where we concentrated on media law. Freeing journalists and safeguarding the press became our most riveting late night and weekend adventures.
State of nation, reflected in state of media 
Throughout my life and legal career, I have danced to the tune of justice, human rights and democracy, courting journalists and media moguls in this duet. Where we found our feet and matched our steps, the symphony of democracy was beautiful, romantic and, on occasion, history shaping. 
The state of a nation I think is often a reflection of the state of its media. Where society is committed to democratic values and truths, journalism in its finest form will break through into the public discourse. 
I recall the 1980s where I was regularly defending journalists against the apartheid regime with Section 205 of Criminal Procedure Act so that they wouldn’t have to disclose their sources.  hose experiences came full circle again not so long ago, when we had to protect the source who had originally had the Gupta tapes in their possession. 
I was responsible for smuggling the Gupta tapes back and forth across our borders on behalf of a client whilst the Zondo commission was being set up. The experience will forever be etched in my memory as that moment in history when our democracy hung in the balance. And it all depended on the protection of journalism and its sources. 
When amaBhungane journalist, Stefaans Brümmer was a young reporter for the Weekly Mail, I started briefing him about the 1994 murder trial of former Security Branch captain Michael Bellingan. We were smoking cigarettes on the steps of the magistrate’s court upstairs and so the search for truth began.
Brümmer pursued the case right up until the end and whist we did all the legal work, Brümmer’s writing put the heat on Captain Bellingan, and he eventually faced his indictment for the murder of his wife. There have been many other historic duets with journalists, and it saddens me that my opportunities are numbered for supplying newspaper journalists with stories. 
Essential workers 
Media are essential workers in any society, not just a nice-to-have profession.
Even a small committed journalism corps can uphold a democracy, and history has shown us that time and time again.  
Girded by truth, independence and transparency, they keep the fires of Lady Liberty blazing bright without fear or favour. When a society loses its moral compass and principles, it loses respect and appreciation for the art and trade of journalism. 
And so it has been with sadness – and trepidation – that I read about the SA National Editors’ Forum’s (Sanef) announcement that during the pandemic, at least 80 small, local publishing houses have closed their doors, around 700 journalists have lost their jobs, and retrenchments are at hand at Media24, SABC and Primedia.
Will the children of tomorrow know the thrill of reading the written word, unconcealed and rock solid, unlike the paper it’s printed on?
For every generation, a lack of knowledge and defence of the truth is a slippery road into captivity and loss of all freedoms. 
Sanef said last week that, “what is particularly worrying is that the media industry plays a powerful, democracy-deepening role in society – this is in terms of ensuring a free flow of information in society to keep citizens informed and to hold the powerful to account, both in terms of government and the private sector. We are thus worried that the collapse of the media in small towns, and the shrinking of the industry as a whole, will have a devastating long-term effect on the health of our democracy”. 
Media fund 
My memories of encounters with journalists have reminded me again that journalists need the support of those in society to do their important work, which, as Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University Prof. Anton Harber says is “that we seek truth, that we aspire to balance and fairness, that we hold all those who wield power up for scrutiny, that we speak for all of our fellow country-people. Most of all, we need to reassert journalism as a public service, for it is in that role that we bring value and can hope for that value to find its proper place and recognition in our society”. 
It’s now up to those of us who have lived long enough to remember the enormous victories won for our democracy on behalf of journalists to remind those who live and work in the Information Age to remain committed to the principles of journalism and to seek to support the trade. 
Sanef launched a media relief fund for journalists who have lost their livelihoods as a direct result of the Covid-19 national disaster and the Social Justice Initiative (SJI) will act as the fiscal host for the fund and provide oversight to ensure the funds are fairly and transparently distributed. And for those with money, now is the time to show our appreciation to the journalism comrades amongst us and to make a donation to the Sanef Media Relief Fund https://sanef.org.za/
If you can donate, please do so. Protect our journalists, defend the truth and preserve our democracy. 
*Greg Nott is a Director at Norton Rose Fulbright and the Head of the Africa Practice.
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