UK Prime Minister David Cameron will sit down in the next month to consider his response to the Leveson Inquiry into media standards and must then decide whether to accept its recommendations on media regulation.
When he does so, I wonder if the changes to the South Africa system announced last week will be brought to his attention.
The press in both countries have until now been self-regulated. While the context and circumstances are vastly different, journalistic practices and ethics in both have been under scrutiny and politicians and disaffected publics have been threatening to rein in the media because of a perceived failure of self-regulation.
South Africa’s print media last week announced it would adopt a system of independent co-regulation between the media and the public. A retired judge would head a new press council, equally divided between media and members of the public, eliminating media bias.
In the UK this weekend there was much debate about which way the government would go. Cameron promised no state regulation of the press. However he said he would take heed of Leveson’s recommendations, unless they were bonkers or heavy-handed.
Cameron was responding to the advertisement in the Observer newspaper, taken out by fifty celebrities who have their phones hacked, urging Cameron to change the way the media is regulated.
Much of the debate in the UK stems from justifiable complaints about the behaviour of the tabloid press and bringing those journalists and newspapers papers to book. In South Africa, the source of the irritation is not so clearly defined and is often a result of the tension between media and state. There have been objections to invasion of privacy by journalists and also lapses in standards, but all too often the complaints about media are in response to exposés about corruption or reports which people believe affect a person’s right to dignity.
Others like President Jacob Zuma and his spokesperson Mac Maharaj have taken their grievances against newspapers to the courts.
The case, in which Zuma is suing the Sunday Times and cartoonist Zapiro, is due to be heard later this month.
The UK casts itself as a leader of the free world, a mature democracy. South Africa on the other hand, has one of the best democratic Constitutions in the world but in terms of its democratic development, at 18, is like a troubled teenager, challenging and questioning the hierarchy of the values in its Constitution.
So when David Cameron sits down to chose how to respond to Leveson, he should be reminded of where the UK is in the world and the responsibility he has to support and protect the freedom of expression. The media should no doubt be reminded of the responsibility to be fair, accurate and ethical.
Hopefully, the South Africans will eventually get to the same point.