Most ominously, from a self-regulation standpoint, the Polokwane conference also added the adjective “statutory” to the words “media tribunal”. Although Polokwane still couched the initiative as a possible outcome of an investigation, the tone of the resolution left no doubt that such an inquiry would be a mere formality. The tribunal was also presented by ANC people as being established by, and accountable to, parliament (rather than government) - but the ANC being, of course, the dominant party in the legislature.
SANEF and others then escalated their criticisms of the ANC position, and engaged directly with many of the party’s top leadership. At one exchange (see Berger, 2009a), the then-President Kgalema Motlanthe’s emphasis was that the initiative aimed merely to “strengthen self-regulation”, and that the operative words for the investigation were “feasibility” and “desirability” of the Media Appeals Tribunal. The press reaction, he said, showed hypersensitivity to criticism, and missed the point that people needed recourse when newspapers trampled rights to dignity and privacy. Veteran ANC leader Pallo Jordan (Berger, 2007a) proposed that the press – which regularly dished out criticism – should be prepared to accept criticism without “arguing and squealing”. He argued that the ANC had always fought for freedom of expression, and that there was no intention to force editors to favour the party. Reminded by SANEF and Press Council Chairperson Raymond Louw that the apartheid government had once proposed statutory regulation of the press, Jordan responded: “The fact that you use the same words does not mean you are up to the same tricks.”
Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffejee put it to Motlanthe and Jordan that the real reason for the proposed tribunal was reaction to damaging coverage of both Zuma and Mbeki, and an ensuing desire to halt this kind of exposure. They disputed this, saying that the rights of editors to critique the ANC were not in question. In this context, it seemed therefore to be a strong possibility that statutory regulation would replace self regulation as far as the ruling party was concerned.
5. The post-Polokwane performance of the Press Council: proof of the pudding