The most meaningful impact is through coalition

  Mark Lee Hunter and Anton Harber, two of the foremost experts on media and how it intersects with civil society, sat down for a fireside chat recently to exchange thoughts, theories and ideas. They shared powerful insights into the role of the media, the role of civil society, and the role of social justice organisations – and into how, when co-operating in a transparent manner, they can have meaningful impact.  

 Anton Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism (Adjunct) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He has a 35-year career in journalism, media management and training. He was founder-editor of the anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), Editor-in-Chief of South Africa’s leading television news channel eNCA, and chief executive of Kagiso Broadcasting. He is convenor of judges for the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism and has served on multiple boards, and as a judge on the Sanlam Financial Journalism Awards, the Vodacom South African Journalism Awards and the CNN/Multichoice African Journalism Awards. Harber wrote Diepsloot (Jonathan Ball, 2011)  and The Gorilla in the Room (Mampoer Shorts, 2013). He co-edited the first two editions of The A-Z of South African Politics (Penguin, 1994/6), What is Left Unsaid: Reporting the South African HIV Epidemic (Jacana, 2010), and Troublemakers: The Best of SA’s Investigative Journalism (Jacana, 2010).

 Dr Mark Lee Hunter is a founding member of The Global Investigative Journalism Network, the principal author of Story-Based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists (UNESCO 2009) and an adjunct professor and senior research fellow at the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre in Fontainebleau, France. He has taught and trained in 40 countries on five continents. Hunter’s journalism earned him IRE, SDX, National Headliners, Clarion and H.L. Mencken Free Press Awards. In 2018, he pioneered investigative collaborations with NGOs in an eight-country investigation for Greenpeace. His scholarly work has been published widely. He is the author or co-author of Modern Investigative Journalism: A Comprehensive Curriculum (2019), Power is Everywhere: How Stakeholder-driven Media Build the Future of Watchdog News (2017), The Hidden Scenario and The Story Tells the Facts, among others.

MARK: I’ll start with a provocative comment, with Anton’s permission. For me, civil society organisations, NGOs, et cetera, are media. They own their own media. Some of them actually have budgets. Some of them have capacity. In some cases, the NGOs actually did the work when journalists were not doing it. And that still continues today. If we consider the media and NGOs working together, on some kind of reform or accountability agenda, which I assume is the goal, then the audience-reach and capabilities of those organisations should be considered part of the asset base, on condition that there is some kind of guiding principle that brings people together. But this would assume at least some level of coordination; it’s not going to be the sort of thing where journalists do what they do, and NGOs do what they do, and if by chance it comes together, then is that not wonderful? I think we’re past that. So, that’s my opening remark. 

ANTON: One, let me say that Mark makes the point that it’s not new; and in this part of the world, it is not new. Particularly in times of stress in the media, which has brought non-profits, governments and civil society together with journalists when they have a common purpose. But it can.

MARK: Anton, allow me to ask: is that how it worked during apartheid?

ANTON: Yes – it worked in a number of different ways. So sometimes… I will say this: sometimes, as journalists, when we were having trouble publishing something we knew – either just because of the law, or because we were… or our newspapers were threatened with closure, or our editors were – 

MARK: – were threatened with jail?

ANTON: Yeah. Or were nervous about publishing it – we would take it to civil society, and say: “Look, if you can put this together into a report or if you can say this in a statement, it makes it easier for us to report it.” So we had a number of options when we were under pressure. One of them was to take it to foreign correspondents. It was then printed overseas, and then became more publishable at home. But then, another [method] was working with human rights organisations, for example. 

I’ll tell you a story about quite a strange cooperation between human rights organisations and ourselves at the Weekly Mail. During the state of emergency, in the 1980s, what happened was that the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee – which was an organisation that gave support to people detained during the state of emergency – wanted to publish the full list of people detained, for obvious reasons: they wanted their names, the full extent of the list, the families’ names. They wanted to know these people who had been identified, et cetera. 

There was a tough legal issue; and the tough legal issue was that they came up with quite a tough imaginary legal opinion that said: ‘If you do it in a certain way, we think you’ve got a defence if you’re prosecuted.’ It was saying that ‘we will publish the names of confirmed detentions’ – because, since they have been confirmed by the authorities, they [the authorities] had published those names. 

So it was a bit of legal dancing around. But we were extremely vulnerable at the time, because we were threatened with closure. So this is what we agreed to do. It was like a triple step. It was like, “I’ll tell you what: we will write about it in our paper this week that we are going to do it [publish] next week. I bet you one of the mainstream papers will do it to pre-empt us.” And sure as hell, we found a way to publish a list of the detainees’ names: “We’re going to do it next Friday, when we publish our newspaper.” And of course next Thursday, The Star – which was the big mainstream paper at the time – published it.

And we thought, “That’s great, we got it out!” The NGO got it out, the journalists worked with them, and we even got the mainstream media to carry it out. So I think that was a particularly interesting dance we did with civil society, to get out important information. 

MARK: It is particularly interesting. You know, one of the assumptions that – it’s embedded in that story, if I’m not mistaken – is that the story was more important than the credit you got for it. 

ANTON: Yes – under those conditions, the important thing is to get it out, and that is what matters.

MARK: You know… I’m not comparing what I have to live with to the apartheid era. But I will say that in 2018, I did an investigation with Greenpeace – Greenpeace sponsored it. It was about agricultural pollution. And we were going to publish in eight countries. And I knew that no mainstream media in France would touch the story. Greenpeace is considered an enemy of the French state, because they are anti-nuclear, and there is a long history – that includes assassination. I never believed for a moment that we were going to see this [investigation] in Le Monde, or Le Figaro. They would say, “Greenpeace? They are an activist group. Suspect.” Or whatever. Regardless of how good or bad the investigation was. I think it was pretty good, but… you know, I’m biased. I wrote it! 

So the Greenpeace people were saying, “We are going to pitch this,” and I was saying to myself (I didn’t say it to them!), “No way.” But I didn’t care about that, because Greenpeace has 70 million social media followers and three million paying members, and I said to myself: “They are a news network.” And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with them in the first place. And I thought, you know, if they publish it, the story gets out. And what happened was, the report was downloaded 150 000 times in France – which is more than the circulation of all but Le Monde and Le Figaro

And a mass of environmental news websites in France picked up the story, and the farmers attacked it, which meant more people were hearing about it. To me, that confirmed that under certain conditions, civil society organisations are in fact an alternate distribution network. They get to the people who care about the story. They don’t persuade people on the other side of the aisle to jump in; but they do represent an alternative channel that, if it’s properly set up (Greenpeace had already done that), then it’s not a problem, if the issue is getting the story out rather than getting credited in Le Monde. Which I don’t give a shit about, being credited in Le Monde; I was concerned about having the investigation out. 

Greenpeace activists demonstrate with a bowl of liquid manure and banners reading “Manure in the water is shit!” and “Keep the crap out of our water!” in front of the Reichstag building housing the Bundestag in Berlin on June 21, 2018. (Photo: Tobias Schwarz/Afp via Getty Images)

ANTON: But Mark, let me ask you this question: do you find, in your experience, that it opens one up to a charge of partisanship?

MARK: Yeah. Sure. But that’s the audiences’ expectations these days. And not only in the United States, where we see that tendency carried through to a really dramatic level, where I think the latest information is that 70 per cent of the people who watch Fox News think that [Donald] Trump won the election. I mean, my God! There are information silos and information bubbles. And the digital news report by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen at Oxford documented the growing partisan nature of the public. 

ANTON: I agree with you. I suppose one is… just being aware, and conscious of that limitation. But what it also tells me is that it’s critical to be transparent about that relationship, and the purpose and the nature of that relationship – is it not?

MARK: Yeah, I agree absolutely. And by the way, for me that ties into a larger trend, which is that our 20th-century stance in the news business was that we were going to be objective; we present the facts, and the public makes up its minds. I’m not going to diss the intrinsic merits of that position – I find it very noble, in many ways. I’m not convinced that it corresponds to contemporary reality. For the reasons we have evoked previously, but also because, you know, for many years – and I know you’ve heard this too, Anton – for many years, people in our classes, on the streets, in dinner conversations, would say, “Oh, nobody can be objective!” And we always thought, “Well, what do they know?” 

Well, maybe they were right. Maybe they were expressing something, in a relatively inarticulate way, that actually makes some sense. Now for me, objectivity resides in verifiable facts. Facts that will be established by any person of good faith. Not everyone is of good faith. But if you and I are standing at the crossroads and a tank comes by, it’s going someplace, and something is going to happen when it gets to that place – those are facts. And if somebody says, “What tank?”, then either they weren’t paying attention, or they’re lying. So that level of objectivity is there and is always going to be important. Reality counts. 

But what is increasingly taking its place is transparency. This is who we are. This is what we want. This is what we are prepared to do to get it. I don’t mind working with those people, to the extent that I know who they are, what they want, and what they are prepared to do to get it. Due diligence, if you will. I have no problem with that at all: this is what we stand for. This is the community we defend. I think the idea of defending a community is very central. And I would be astonished if you differ with that point, given your history.

ANTON: I don’t differ at all. To respond to what you’ve said, ‘objectivity’ is a word I try not to use, because –

MARK: What makes you say that?

ANTON: It’s no longer valuable, in my teaching and my discussion about these things. It’s one of those phrases, I guess, like ‘fake news’, that is better not used; because they are so used and abused that they are no longer particularly useful. I would much rather talk about accuracy, balance, fairness and honesty. And transparency. I think there is a growing demand among journalists to be fully transparent about their interests, their involvements, their history, their biases, and whatever partisanship there might be in what they do. I think that is incredibly important.

Honesty is an incredibly important issue. Let me put it to you as a question. (And I say ‘honesty’ in the sense that sometimes, if you’re a journalist trying to make point A and you come across a fact which contradicts that point, you have an obligation as a journalist, I think, to deal with that fact – not to dismiss it or hide it.) Does a civil society advocacy organisation have the same ideal, or is there a potential contradiction there? And I say that because I know of experiences where a civil society organisation – or a lawyer one is working with – where you both know something which does not serve your case; and they are tempted to argue, “Let us avoid it – let us put it aside.”

I do know of occasions where the question of what I am saying – honesty, or openness, or transparency – can conflict with a civil society organisation. If they do not have – 

MARK: With news organisations, too.

ANTON: That is true. But it is clear to me that if you’re a journalist, and you know a fact that you’re uncomfortable with, you cannot ignore it. You have to deal with it. You cannot hide it.

MARK: Well, actually, you don’t have to deal with it; you can hide it. People in news organisations – certain news organisations – do that all the time. I don’t think you have had a lot of luxury in your career, in terms of freedom; but I do think you have had that luxury. 

The luxury of being honest, even if you had a fight about it with CSOs and, I am sure, the African National Congress, and all that…

ANTON: Yes, I think you’re right. I suppose I come from a position where I say, in an oppressed society – as we had until 1994 – the rules and the ethics are different. In an open society, I think we re-assert more strongly a set of journalistic ethics, based on –

MARK: Well, I hope we do. I cannot say that, based on what I see at Fox [Fox News] and its competitors on the right in Breitbart. There are things they [Breitbart] do not deal with. There are things they just sweep away. This is a major dividing line in ethical journalism right now. Now; do civil society organisations lie, do they conceal information? I have not had that experience with Greenpeace. Never. They ask this for stuff we could not do, but that is for something else. Those things did not include lying, they included documenting problems where we could not get the data. And when we put it to them that way, they said, “Okay, you cannot get the data; we do not do it.” They are evidence-based; not everyone is. 

So that requirement to accept facts whether you like them or not is central to what we are talking about. And honestly, if you cannot agree on that with a civil society organisation, you are talking to the wrong people, in my view. It doesn’t matter how many members they have, or how much money they have; you are going to have a problem. Because sooner or later, you’re going to say, “This is what it is”, and they are going to say, “Well, that is not what we want it to be – change your story.” I don’t see why anyone who respects themselves would put up with that crap. 

ANTON: So, you’re saying there has to be a synergy of value between the journalist and the civil society organisation…? 

MARK: Well, you’re taking it up a level of abstraction and I agree. I’ll make it more specific: the key value has to be that reality comes first, period. Whether or not you like what the reality is. You do not hide facts that have a material effect on your community. That is treachery. It is taking them for fools, it is playing with their futures. Then, with their security. How dare you? How would anyone do that? I am not saying you ever did that, Anton. I know very well you did not. But, you know… there are people who do. And they call themselves journalists. Which is like a jackal calling itself a lion. 

ANTON: Right. Right.

MARK: And I suppose there are civil society organisations that do the same. I know of a couple on the right, there is James O’Keefe, there is David Daleiden, who leave out the part of the story that doesn’t suit their agendas, and who publish stuff that ruins peoples’ lives. They are punishment organisations. They are not truth seekers. This is part of the landscape. But it’s not the people that I would choose to work with – or you, or the people in The CHARM Initiative. At least, I hope so. 

ANTON: Well, one experience I have had is that within our journalism department at Wits University, we have a project that brings together civil society and journalists, called the Wits Justice Project. It focuses on exposing and tackling problems in the justice system, particularly people wrongly imprisoned. We created that project precisely because we saw the power of civil society lawyers and journalists combining to tackle social problems. We wanted to demonstrate it working with our students. 

Interesting example. A couple of years ago, the Wits Justice Project produced a major story, about a person who had managed to get out of prison after 17 years who had been wrongly imprisoned from day one. It was a great story, and he was a very interesting guy. The Guardian in London were about to run the story when they realised the Wits Justice Project were an advocacy organisation – and they declined it. And we were surprised, because we thought the Guardian would get this relationship; and naturally, we were transparent with them in the initial product of the Wits Justice Project, which brought these interests together, and we thought it was fine as long as we were transparent about that. But they declined what was in fact a very good story, that in every other respect they were ready to run.

MARK: Well you know, to me, these situations… you know, we always frame these things in terms of ethics, in the purity of our ethics. To me, the underlying question is about value propositions. It is about the economics. If what you are selling to people is a certain concept of independence, including neutrality towards the outcome of stories, then you find yourself having to make that kind of decision. I had to deal with a situation like that as well. It was on a transnational project that I worked on the year before I went to work with Greenpeace. And in fact, it was the trigger that made me say, “I have got to go and work with Greenpeace, or someone like Greenpeace.” 

It was an investigation on the European parliament which did not start with a clear hypothesis. It started as a data collection project. We were trying to see how people in the European parliament spent an allowance they had – a significant piece of money, for me, 4 300 euros a month – on their national offices. So we compiled all this data… we didn’t really know what we were looking for, it was not the best project I’d worked on. We realised that a third of these deputies had no offices. They were just taking the money. They could not spend it on an office, because they did not have an office. 

So we got that story out in 28 countries; and then, civil society organisations – notably Transparency International – came to us and said, “We really want your data.” And the other journalists on the project said, “Oh, no – that’s our data.” I thought, “Well, actually, that is our work product – the data is public.” But then I challenged this position, and I was told, “We are not activists.” 

And I thought, “We aren’t activists.” So why are we doing this story? Are we doing this story to say, “Oh, you have been bad – you’ve taken the European Union taxpayers’ money.”? [Or] are we doing this story because we want it to stop? If we want it to stop, we have to work with someone who has the lobbying and organising capacity that we lack, and that will make something stop. That was my point of view on the thing. I was not working on that story to say, “Oh, what a cool project.” I was working on the story because I wanted something to stop. 

And when that divide became clear in the group, I was in the minority position. Which is what I seemed to be fairly comfortable in, but… I was in the minority position. I said: “Okay, fine – you do it your way. Next time out of the box, I’m working with someone who is set up to change.” I am not going to pretend that simply because I say something in a newspaper one day, it emits a flood of other information [that means] something is going to happen. And by the way, that view of how investigative journalism obtains results was directly challenged in a book by David L. Protess et al. that I’m sure you know, Anton – it’s The Journalism of Outrage

ANTON: Yes, an important book.

MARK: Probably the greatest single work in the history of agenda-setting studies, okay? The single greatest work. Okay; if you look at the co-authors, they are all the heavyweights in that field. They knew exactly the importance of what they were doing. And I find it astonishing that the journalism business largely ignored that book. Okay, I mean, I never see references to it (except in my own writings). I never hear it come up in a discussion. When I mention it to people, they’ve never heard of it. 

So, for the basis of the recording, I will simply say that what Protess and his people did was to look at six investigations that led to results. And they discovered that in every case, behind the scenes, behind the publication, the journalists were forming coalitions with people – with civil society groups, with activists’ lawyers, legislators, prosecutors – to get something done. And I mean, they didn’t broadcast it, they didn’t say they were doing it; but they did it. And they got the results. 

If you look at different pieces from the history of investigative journalism… Clark. R. Mollenhoff – who, you know, was a great reporter – began his career in Iowa City; and in his memoirs, he discusses how that [Iowa City] was one of the most corrupt, crime-ridden cities he’d ever seen. And to bring it down, he formed an alliance with a prosecutor, an honest cop and a newspaper. And they chased the crooks out of town. Or put them in jail. I mean, you know, to me this should be Journalism 101. 

Even if you look at the Watergate case, there was a de facto coalition. It wasn’t the Washington Post that brought down Nixon; it was a de facto coalition of powerful social forces, of government institutions… notably the judiciary and the FBI. These guys opened the door and kept the heat on. I’m not dissing their [the Washington Post’s] work; they did a great job. They did an important job, a historic job. But to pretend they brought down the president of the United States all on their lonesome is grotesque. And you know, I’ve talked about this with Gerard Ryle, who I actually exchanged emails with because I was going to say something in a book about how I see IJ [investigative journalism] work. And I said, “They didn’t just depend on public outrage. They had lined up allies who were going to put the message forward after the story came out.” And Gerard said, “Yes – that is exactly what we do.” 

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon announces his resignation on television, Washington, D.C. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I’ll return to the initial point, okay? If your value proposition is, “We are neutral, and we are hands-off,” then of course you’re going to have a different point of view on whether or not you should be taking more or less [of an] activist-reformist role. 

And another side riff is – excuse me for that – historically, that is not what the news media did. They went on crusades. News organisations were crusading organisations as well, it was one of their roles. We have gotten away from that. Okay, fine; somebody else took on that role, and they are called civil society organisations. But if what we’re selling is neutrality, and we don’t care about what we actually achieve, that is one business model. There is value in that for a lot of people. It’s one of the key values that is left to heritage news organisations – great. 

But there is another standpoint that says, “We are in the game to change the world.” Or as Karl Marx said – with resonance even for a non-Marxist like myself – “The point is not to understand the world, but to change it.” If that is the value proposition, then you have to have allies. There is no other way you’re going to get anything done. The single most important insight in The Journalism of Outrage is that a lone journalist is a loser. They always lose.

And even in the contemporary era… if you look at Andrew Jennings – the extraordinary figure who brought down FIFA – Andrew set up a worldwide coalition: of other media, of law enforcement, of civil society groups. How shall I put it… he was not exactly running an army, but he was accompanied by a growing cohort of other forces who could keep up the pressure on FIFA. If he had not had that, he would have been painted as a lunatic, screaming in his corner. Andrew was not a lunatic – he does scream sometimes, but he is certainly not a lunatic! And he inspired this movement. And that is how he won – with the help of the FBI, who eventually noticed what he was doing, came to him and said: “Do you have any information that might be of interest to us?”. And Andrew said, “Only about 30 years’ worth…” 

ANTON: No, you’re making a very important point. Certainly in our experience, as David Protess illustrated in his work, in his book, the combination for me of journalists, civil society and lawyers are a special change – 

MARK: Yeah, that’s very insightful, and absolutely true. 

ANTON: If we say, “The starting point is a positive one. What is the best way in which we can drive social change on a particular issue?” To me, we can demonstrate very clearly that it is that combination. 

MARK: Yes. No question.

ANTON: And then it becomes a question of managing the relationship between them. Because they’re working for the same goal, but they have different methods, and different approaches. And sometimes on detail, conflicting tactical issues – not broad strategic aims, but tactical issues. And you have to manage that relationship to their mutual benefit. It may mean the journalist waits to publish when it serves the other tactically. For example –

MARK: It may mean that publication is co-ordinated to the launch of an NGO campaign.

ANTON: Correct. Correct. If your starting point is social change, then those are the pacts you make to harness those forces which together are incredibly powerful forces for social change. 

MARK: They are certainly a lot more powerful than media by itself. 

ANTON: Exactly. 

MARK: Yeah. Yeah. So, these tactical things… this brings us back to the issue of due diligence: can you actually trust the motives of the people you are working with? Are they going to play by the same rules and same interpretation of the values you are talking about? If that is not the case… I’ve never been involved in a situation where members of a coalition betrayed each other around an investigation, but I am sure it could happen; or maybe, someone is not going to want to listen to the lawyers – “Screw you, I’m braver than them…”

ANTON: Yeah.

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame speaks to reporters on July 26, 2010 in London, England. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

MARK: …you know, maybe they’re not going to listen to sense. You know? I mean, I happen to be one of the people who thinks Julian Assange made a historic contribution to our profession. And I have to say that I think he would have been in a better position if he’d spent more time holding his coalition together, instead of constantly getting out in front of them and presenting them with faits accomplis.

ANTON: Yes, it was a major setback for everyone when his relationship – with the media, for example – broke down. With his media partners.

MARK: Yeah… I don’t think he’s entirely to blame for that. But, you know… honestly, you know, I’m on the record as saying, “I think he was betrayed.” I could be wrong about that, I don’t know what pressures The Guardian were subjected to – except from a distance; they looked hellacious from a distance. But yeah; that relationship broke down, his relationship with his funders and protectors broke down, you know, he lost lawyers as he went along. All of this stuff was… you know, it was consistent with his character and his values. Which I wouldn’t call extreme, but I would certainly say were… I don’t know, it’s hard for me to think of a compliment to return. Maybe ‘extreme transparency’.

ANTON: Radical? 

MARK: We can call it ‘radical transparency’, if you will. But you know, it’s one thing to be radical, and it’s another thing to think about the practicalities of ensuring that you don’t end up alone.  

1 March 2021