Seasoned and acclaimed journalist Niren Tolsi gave the 15th Ruth First memorial lecture on 18 October. Tolsi, contributor at New Frame and co-founding editor of The Con, has worked at a number of leading South African newspapers. He writes about social justice, constitutional law and the politics of the judiciary, grassroots mobilisation and the state’s (often violent) responses to it, politics, the arts, jazz, and the politics of cricket.
His presentation, Fire and Media: Towards a New South African Journalism, was widely discussed in the days after the lecture.
New Frame asked him if journalism can still empower and inspire.
New Frame: Most journalists are aware of their role in the politics of representation, and their increased efforts to cover stories about impoverished and marginalised people is evidence of this. But some journalists’ attempts to represent their subjects fairly have failed because greater attention is given to people’s marginality rather than the structural issues they face and what they are doing to change their circumstances. How can journalism empower instead of broadcasting pity stories?
Niren Tolsi: I think that comes down to how journalists understand their basic function. Ours is to bear witness and to tell other people’s stories. We are messengers who must be cognisant of the effect our presence in any context may have in how events unfold – such as the presence of cameras, which heighten the theatre and performance of protest or stop the police from being more violent in these situations.
To avoid a pornography of violence, trauma, poverty, pity and so on, journalists are required to constantly, and relentlessly, challenge themselves and their subjectivities. We need to be introspecting always.
For every story, we must break ourselves down, cast aside our preconceptions and prejudices, and inculcate empathy in how we understand and interact within a particular situation. We should not speak for anybody, but, through our work, we must widen the public sphere to include those marginalised by power – whether state, corporate or patriarchal.
NF: What lessons can journalists learn from icons such as Ruth First and others?
NT: I revisited Ruth’s journalistic and academic archive in preparation for the memorial lecture, and what strikes one immediately is her obvious empathy for the oppressed, the scope and variety of her journalism, the depth of her investigations, the fearlessness with which she conceived of the journalist’s role in opposing an unjust system through her searing reporting on injustice and her navigating the intellectual overlaps between journalism and academic writing.
What was also apparent, and this is something that I hold very dear to my own journalistic method, is her ‘returning’ to people and places – to the shack settlement of Tobruk, in Alexandra, Johannesburg, to the forced labour camps of the Mpumalanga farms and the various political anti-apartheid formations that were cohering in the 1950s.
These are all vital inspirations for journalists, but there is a more prosaic part of her work that I believe is very important to recognise in this digital moment of the 24-hour news cycle.
At times, Ruth was producing as many as 15 articles a week, on a variety of topics, yet she tackled each one with rigour, depth and detail. I believe this is important for journalists to be mindful of in an age when newsrooms have been eviscerated and fewer people are being asked to do more reporting.
Online reporting on an event need not be dull, basic and clichéd. We should challenge ourselves to be iconoclastic and singular in every sentence we construct.
NF: How can journalism maintain integrity and at the same time embrace the change that technology has brought with it?
NT: By understanding that while the platforms and mediums used to disseminate our work might have changed, the basic job and methods of journalism remain constant: enquire to illuminate, especially into spaces that power would rather remain shrouded in darkness; build contacts whose evidence and agendas you weigh constantly; keep the people on the streets close to you; follow paper trails; always remember that no one you meet on the job is your friend; and corroborate everything.
On technology itself, I think it is time to take back the internet from fake news sites, aggregators and rapacious social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. We need to innovate new technologies that are journalism-centric.
NF: What are the fault lines that have compromised the media industry?
NT: In South Africa, it is certainly the structural biases that still permeate media houses, which suffer because of the concentrated nature of their ownership. These prejudices are palpable to the majority of South Africans.
South African media is anti-poor, anti-black, anti-female and anti-queer.
We have not fully acknowledged the media’s role in supporting apartheid and a capitalism that, since 1652, continues to subjugate and denigrate people. Through this denialism, the worst traits of South African journalism continue to flourish. These biases have been entrenched in a digital moment that encourages individualism, societal atomisation and the breaking of the sociopolitical bonds that connect us as communities and families.
NF: What factors are contributing to the decreasing numbers of critical news consumers?
NT: Do you include social media as part of media industry? If not, its role, mainly through the unethical design of their platforms for smartphones, means we are constantly hooked into addictive feedback loops, echo chambers and outrage cascades that feed our dopamine pathways and exacerbate the sociopolitical atomisation I mentioned.
Also, the emergent politics of the post-truth, hyper-capitalist moment underlines a recalibration of the global order where the divide between rich and poor is widening, and fascism and anti-intellectualism is being normalised.
These all have an impact on whether, in the present or in the future, we, as society, actually care about things like news, facts, speaking truth to power, our relationships to society’s most vulnerable on one hand and most powerful on the other, and so on.
NF: Can you tell us a bit about the journalists who influenced you and why they had such an impact on you?
NT: There are journalists that all journalists need to engage with to figure out how they want to tell stories, whether by embracing or rejecting their methods. These include the likes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson.
Then, there are the luminaries such as Ruth First and the Drum-era writers who urged us to explore how we conceive of ourselves as people and journalists before considering how we conceive of that which we write about.
Local journalists I have learnt from include Paddy Harper and Peter McKenzie – dear friends who made me realise there should be no self-importance or narcissism attached to one’s identity as a journalist, that we are only there to tell other people’s stories and that we should humble ourselves before them.
Photographer elders such as Omar Badsha, Cedric Nunn and Rafs Mayet have influenced me because of the politics and aesthetics of their work.
Journalists I look up to include Percy Zvomuya for the literary beauty of his writing and his mind, and Gary Younge for the lucid, interrogative beauty of his journalism. John Berger is another great stylist.
But I think I learn more about storytelling — which is what journalism is – through non-fiction and poetry, from Mahmoud Darwish to Ivan Vladislavic.