TWO important events for press freedom in SA occurred within hours of each other on Thursday of last week.
At lunchtime, the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) launched what it called the Press Freedom Commission, a body headed by a former chief justice, Pius Langa, which will find better ways for the media in this country to regulate itself.
A few hours later, Rupert Murdoch, the world's most powerful English-language media mogul, announced the immediate closure of a profitable and century-old newspaper, The News of the World, in London, after it had become impossibly mired in a scandal in which its reporters had paid bribes to police and hacked the telephones of possibly thousands of people, including missing children.
The two events are linked by tradition (S A's media is largely modelled on the UK's) and circumstance - as government in SA has become angered by local media, successive British governments have been at odds with newspapers there.
What is happening in the UK is a lesson for us here. The hacking of telephones and bribing of police are extremes to which even our often- criticised newspapers here have probably never stooped. But the reactions to it (after years of investigations by, chiefly, the Guardian newspaper) are instructive. Not only has Mr Murdoch decided to close down the offending newspaper but the prime minister, David Cameron, has all but called time on the industry's self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission.
Here in SA, the media - chiefly print - has been under fierce political attack from the ANC. It wants to create a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), reporting to Parliament, to replace the current self- regulator, the Press Ombudsman. It argues editors and newspapers ruin lives and reputations without having to take responsibility for their actions; and that they must be held to account by a body that can dish out punishments for bad behaviour that really hurt.
The MAT would bring the press under political control, which is why the media and civil society have opposed it. They argue that while the current instruments of self- regulation may be weak, they should be strengthened, rather than replaced with political control.
The ANC is sensitive to the argument, it appears, but is not convinced that, left to themselves, editors and publishers would always do the right thing.
Indeed, ANC officials at the launch of the Sanef Press Freedom Commission last week scoffed at the effort. Why, they asked, create a commission to investigate self- regulation when there were many other forms of regulation to examine? They have a point. The brief to the Langa Commission should have been much wider. It still could be.
The whole thing puts this newspaper in a quandary. We do not approve of self-regulation for professions like lawyers and architects. Why should journalists be exempt?
Part of the answer is that we regard journalism as a trade, like plumbing, and not a profession, like the law. It has always been a trade, something you learn while you're doing it. The fact that it is taught in universities is because "media" is fashionable and therefore profitable. The wave of new-entrant "journalism" spawned by the internet eloquently makes our point.
But there has to be a better answer. People expect it. While our heart is with the self-regulators in the media debate, our head isn't. We have to ask this question: If media regulation needs to be independent of politicians, does it not also need to be independent of journalists and publishers? Where self-regulation is insufficiently convincing, genuinely independent regulation surely would be.
The point, anyway, isn't what regulation works or doesn't. The point is what the public is comfortable with.
If this is where we depart from Sanef's prescription, that's OK. For the ANC or anyone to expect editors to respond uniformly to anything - story or threat - is just another consequence of the frankly stupid belief that we collude rather than compete with each other.
We believe it is possible to form a politically independent institution, financed by media houses, with enough resources and power to investigate and punish egregious editorial behaviour, including the ability to impose fines. Publishers would keep money on deposit with the new authority and forfeit all or part of it in severe cases of wrongdoing. There should be no journalists or publishers anywhere near its structures. And no politicians or even vaguely state-financed institutions. It would be run by retired judges, aided by civilians elected or appointed through transparent and fair processes that can be agreed. They would all swear to uphold the public interest above all else.
A set-up like this would in no way prejudice a free media. If the ANC turned its back on it and continued to insist on its tribunal, we would at least know its intention all along has been to place the media under political control.
But if you genuinely believe in a free press, then you also have to accept that mistakes will be made. What should matter is that you have the right tools to fix things when they do go wrong and the only people who can tell you whether you're getting it right are the public. This should be their regulator.