The Washington Post reports on how star CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo advised his brother, the New-York Governor, on how to respond to sexual harassment accusations. This news leads us to examine the relationship between influential journalists in Mauritius and our leading politicians from both sides of the spectrum.
Before delving into the topic, the term “influential”, should be clarified. In an ideal world of journalism, the words “influential” and “credible” should be interchangeable. Or rather, credibility should be nothing but a fundamental building block of the journalists’ power of influence.
Past equations, however, no longer hold true. In an era of social media and their all-powerful [and deceitful?] algorithms, news can be broadcast to the many via potent live platforms like Facebook. A reporter can consequently be influential without necessarily being credible by speaking to the many and appealing to mob mentality rather than to reason.
Comparably, a journalist from a decades-old established media house may yield influence primarily from the notoriety of the brand he/she works for; without having earned or demonstrated credibility through the quality and consistency of his/her work or the value of his/her network.
One has to distinguish here between the freedom of opinion that editorialists enjoy and the duty of fairness and accuracy in journalism. Indeed, editorialists and other columnists are unequivocally entitled to their opinions and political leanings… as long as their commentary and analysis rely on facts and not conjecture or retreaded political discourse.
On the other hand, the duty of fairness and accuracy, though not an “obligation de résultat”, as French law would put it, should absolutely constitute an “obligation de moyen”. Such an obligation would generally be enabled and guaranteed by a solid Code of Conduct for journalists and reporters as well as a mechanism to enforce fundamental principles and good practice in a self-regulatory approach.
Sadly but truly, however, all the recent self-regulation initiatives in the Mauritian Press have failed miserably. The proposed code of conduct of the Newspaper Editors and Publishers Association* (NEPA), which was drafted by a committee composed of representatives of all the major media houses in Mauritius in 2007, was never adopted. Internal divergence arose namely on the mode of regulation and the stringency of the rules to be applied on privacy.
The Canada-inspired code never received wider traction, also because the threat of a Press Complaints Commission, brandished by the then government and its Attorney General, never materialised. The NEPA subsequently died of a slow death due to inactivity and generally unresponsive/detached media leaders.
In 2021, the news media in Mauritius STILL DO NOT have any common and enforceable code of ethics. One of the established media houses, La Sentinelle Ltd [publisher of the major daily l’express and weekly 5-Plus dimanche], has had a “Code de Déontologie” since 2006. A committee ‑ composed of a former Supreme Court Judge, an academic and a respected retired civil servant ‑ was set up to adjudicate the complaints** received by the readers. Following the death of the chairperson of the committee, it was never reconstituted nor reconvened. At least no public announcement to that effect was ever made.
In practice the La Sentinelle Ltd “Code de Déontologie” is nothing but a token document now; since violations to fundamental principles of the Code can be observed on an almost daily basis, either in the main daily or the online publications of the website. Opinion writers of the publication have also taken liberties with facts and shockingly resorted to openly xenophobic if not plainly racist rhetoric all the while copy/pasting primal political discourse elements.
Other media houses seem to be in some sort of Loch Ness Monster situation concerning their code of ethics. They claim they have one, but have never made the document and principles public. Neither have they informed their readers, listeners or viewers of the ways in which they could complain and seek remedy following unethical news coverage or behaviour.
This ethical limbo in which Mauritian journalism operates has favoured persistent and deeply unethical behaviour by influential journalists. The malpractice has materialised in a number of forms and transformed the relationship between leading journalists and politicians specifically from one based on public interest and the right to know to a new one based on transaction. Journalists namely:
- Actively confer with political figures (in government and opposition) about their political tactics and strategy
- Advise political figures on how to shape the news through their discourse. Leading to situations where the line between politician’s discourse and political opinion/commentary in the press is completely blurred
- Provide guidance and help to politicians with the clear understanding that such assistance will be rewarded by ambassadorships or other appointments now or in the future, should their champion currently be in the opposition.
- Favour automatic, immediate, wide and even anecdotal coverage of politicians to primarily spur the people’s growing mob mentality and thus achieve audience records for the sole purpose of numbers and not public interest
- Provide generous as well as lenient and forgiving coverage to politicians in hopes to gain regular, priority and scoop-material access to them
- Favour wide and favourable coverage to one political camp or party in exchange of a personal gratification or contribution to the media house’s finances
- Prioritize personal branding, following and self-aggrandisement to the detriment of public interest and critical thinking, by projecting the reporter and the news he/she is covering in its spectacular dimension rather than contextualising and adding depth to it.
The press, in Mauritius and elsewhere is already facing a deep and enduring economic crisis. Beyond the financial survival of its industry, journalism is facing an even graver ethical and values crisis of faith. The true test for the profession now lays in rebuilding up the trust in news and fair journalism all the while strictly differentiating it from the spectacle that social media platforms so efficiently favour and encourage.
*I was a board member of the NEPA and actively participated in the elaboration of the proposed National Code of Conduct
** Following a complaint by Harish Boodhoo I was called to give explanations to the committee, as the then Editor in Chief of l’express-dimanche. The committee ruled in favour of Mr Boodhoo, having found that the article, published under the watch the previous editor in chief, did not uphold the principle of fairness and “rigueur” contained in the “Code de Déontologie”