Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Still much to be done to persuade the ANC on press self-regulation

President Zuma’s cabinet shake-up on Sunday confirmed media predictions, which the office of the ANC chief whip in Parliament had previously dismissed as “mischievous”, and as “speculation” that was “without any factual basis”.

Instead of the cabinet reshuffle being trashed as media rumour-mongering, the presidency could simply have said — as proposed by tweeter @Marcel_Perform: “We’re considering it, but we’ll let you know when we’re ready … ”

Instead of such a simple response, the knee-jerk strategy was to bash the press.

Irony spewed from another tweeter, @phillipdewet, who wrote a retrospective twit-quip: “That is a mischievous misrepresentation of events. Where is @SAmediatribunal when you need it?”

His tweet hearkened back to the ANC’s Jackson Mthembu having earlier declared it to be “gutter and sensational journalism” for the press to even predict cabinet changes. He rhetorically asked what recourse the ANC had to such coverage, thereby subtly raising the spectre that such reporting should be banned under the proposed tribunal.

But even though newspapers have now been proved right, the tribunal issue hasn’t gone away. The president himself reportedly re-endorsed it as “a viable option” to be explored, the very day before he announced the cabinet revamp. Speaking at an ANCYL meeting, Zuma also reportedly stated that self-regulation was not enough.

As tweeters pointed out, this is a different line to that expressed by his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, who just a fortnight earlier told editors that self-regulation would have a chance to prove itself.

All this reveals is that the ANC has different views on the press, many of which do not tally. The significance of it is that there are many party members with enduring resentments around what the press may do under self-regulation.

Some of these perceptions were evident at a colloquium on media transformation held at Rhodes University last month. They were voiced by Ismail Vadi who heads up the parliamentary committee on communications.

Responding to academic papers dealing with press ownership and control, Vadi’s perceptions revealed a particularly negative view of the press.

* First, he argued that not much had changed in press ownership since 1994, and while newspapers criticised BEE for not trickling down, their own limited extent of transformation had been confined to people like Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa.

“Why is the print establishment not talking about a print media charter with clear targets?” he queried.

These are fair points, even though, as Reg Rumney argued, one reason why there is not much BEE in media, is because BEE is about money, and the media is not big money on the stock exchange. As Rumney also cautioned, “you can change owners and journalists, but that does not always change content”.

* Second, and of more concern, was Vadi’s view that the press was to blame for negative stories about the 2010 Fifa Cup. He accused newspapers of concentrating on delayed construction deadlines, strikes, crime, slow ticket sales slow, the Angola terror attacks, and a possible tourist stay-away.

“The media only changed its tone when it saw public support for Cup,” he said, going on to add that the press had then killed this support through its coverage of the post-World Cup strikes. The parliamentary leader also made clear that he saw a common ideological position between the press and opposition parties.

Lawyer Okyerebea Ampofu-Anti responded to Vadi saying that that it was not correct that the media had killed the positive spirit of the World Cup, pointing to the role of Lead SA in promoting it. She further argued that freedom of the media allowed for the legitimacy of anti-ANC media, and she urged Vadi to consider that it was better to spread diversity, than to constrain existing media.

* Third, and precisely on the issue of spreading diversity, Vadi revealed a conspiratorial analysis relating to the business motives in the press. He expressed the belief that there are economic underpinnings to the press’s negative response to the ANC media proposals. “If 15% to 20% of government adverts shift to The New Age, what then? Is the media raising false flag of freedom when it’s really about economic survival?”

This perspective conflates issues and reduces the genuine fears around press freedom to simple sectoral business interests. The same kind of outlook seems evident in more recent hints from the government about changing the system of public advertising — something that might possibly reward The New Age for its politics rather than its ability to deliver a significant audience for government messaging.

The perceptions expressed by Vadi are not unique to him. They are what continues to fuel wider pro-tribunal sentiments within the ANC at large. Much work still needs to be done to counter these, and point out the advantages to all concerned with self-regulation and a more-nuanced view that avoids the pitfalls of easy press-bashing.

In particular, strong arguments need to be made at next year’s likely parliamentary hearings into self-regulation — not least if they are ultimately slotted into the business of the communications committee chaired by Vadi.

  • david

    Anything that the govt says about accountability in the media, is mroe than doubly applicable to itself.

    ERGO, let’s have a media tribunal, with 20 year mandatory sentencing, but equally a govt tribunal, where fraud, waste, etc are equally heavily sentenced.

    Oh i forgot, some animals are more equal than others …..

  • X Cepting

    Hang on, what Vadi said about government business with the press, or rewarding The New Age with most of their business, is that actually constitutionally correct, or follow the tender procedure? For a moment there it sounded like our government is favouring certain press over others for party loyalty? It also looks like Hogan was axed for being disloyal, doesn’t it?

    Why did the press accept the “no questions” deal after the reshuffle? Is this self-regulation in action? Surely the people have the right to know? I suppose if one starve people enough and torture them with enough crime, media freedom becomes a luxury not high on the list of priorities. As one fellow remarked recently, one cannot eat media freedom or live in the Constitution. Perhaps, instead of engaging the ANC in fruitless debate over this, it is time the media get off their pedestals and engage with the public and educate them on why a free press and free speech are the cornerstones of democracy (in plain English, please).

    The fact that a journalist and cameraman was assaulted by the public for protecting their rights is a clear case in point of the public being unaware of the benefits of a free media and has probably accepted the bull story that the media is their enemy. (ANC Uber Alles?) Freedom to praise the ANC… Sounds familiar? Anyone? What next? What will it take, another Steve Biko dissapearing before people wake up and smell the dictatorship?

  • David Brown

    The media have been a feature of the manipulative functions of contemporary society for a long time. Scape goat figures like Mzilikazi Wa Afrika who stick their heads above the parapet are faced with a terrible consequence. Protecting the truth tellers is becoming difficult in a world of monopoly media and a mala fide state. People who try to understand the world often live in a modern catacomb of intellectual connections. State and big business carve up the territory. Agreement between them will squeeze the Mzilikazi’s of this world as they get forced into the shadows to protect people from hearing the truth. The trail of the murders in Mpumalanga has suddenly discontinued and no questions get no answers. Hear no evil see no evil rules between State and big business.A rentier State based on high unemployment goes forward as does its paymaster with only a minimum of token opposition from the big press. The investigative journalist, the dung beetle so vital to democracy is an endangered species in South Africa.

  • Mike

    Dave Harris, Isabella, Bigman and the other ANC sycophants will soon be here to blame the DA and support the MAT.

  • MLH

    You hit the nail on the head, David.
    There are now enough ‘rich’ black South Africans to open and establish 100% black-employee newspapers. Do it! There really is no need to sulk for the next 20 years about BBEEE and lack of transformation, DIY and take the risks that others have before you. Join, in fact, the mainstream…

  • Kwame

    @ Guy, I find your views disappointing. What you seem to be advocating is that all is well under the current synopsis of media self-regulation, media diversity, ownership and transformation. When in actual fact the media sector has hardly transformed over the years.

    At what point will you advocate that we need better representation of the previously disadvantaged within the media sector? At what point will you advocate for better wages for journalists? At what point will you advocate for better quality news and diversity within the media? At what point will you acknowledge that the current self-regulatory grievance system is not adequate for south african’s, and it needs to be over-hauled?

    You seem to also want south african citizens to intepret the media to be their public representative and for them to ignore critical issues raised by the political bodies that they elected. Did south african’s ever elect a journalist or editor, or replace their political parties for the media?

    Bottom line is media in SA is in the business of SELLING news not SHARING news. No amount of marketing or spinning will change that, and you expect SA citizen’s to say that media is trust worthy and free?

  • Lenny

    @ Kwame,

    You have just illustrated quite well the real problem. It’s not the media’s presentation of the news; its the reader’s poor interpretation that is the problem.

    Where does Guy advocate that the media should replace government? Show me any country that elects its journalists? Where does he advocate that political prties should be replaced at the behest of the media?

    Yes, the business of media is to sell newspapers; they sell the news so that you can share it with others, at your own discretion off course. They don’t make it up as they go along (as some in government are fond of doing).

    As a matter of fact, the bad behaviour of those in government only helps to improve sales.

    Maybe, you should take some time to read the blog again; and see how your poor perceptions leads to poor decisions by government…

  • X Cepting

    @Mike – Well predicted.

  • Dat..guy

    A never ending debate till both parties (press and government)realise their own shortcomings and offer viable alternative solution instead of blowing their own trumpets and giving me a headache. Fact1…the press has failed at self-regulation. No butt kissing and goodie positive stats can hide your bias and failures at self.regulation.fact2..the anc though having some valid critical points, feels threatened, hence the attempt to silence the press…but anybody with half a brain knows this….unless you offer a solution, please refrain from peddling old news from a different view point…………..but at all costs, the anc cannot be allowed silence us.

  • Siobhan

    @”… Kgalema Motlanthe… a fortnight earlier told editors that self-regulation would have a chance to prove itself.”

    “A chance to prove itself”. What nonsense. First off, that statement was a veiled threat and therefore out of order. Second, there is no Constitutional requirement for the press to ‘prove itself’ worthy to exist or for ‘self-regulation’ to prove that it is working.

    How many times do we have point out that the Press Ombudsman has found against the press in a majority of cases where he has reviewed complaints. HOW MUCH MORE PROOF DOES THE ANC NEED? It doesn’t need any; this is a false argument and a diversion from the real issues.

    The ANC is a collection of professional paranoiacs and propagandists. What they seem to be missing is that muzzling the press also muzzles them. The various provisions of the POIB can applied across the board and stifle debate within the ANC itself and the MAT would prevent the press from reporting the dis-empowerment of the rank and file in the ANC.

    How can one discuss anything important if everything, even trivia. is classified? Will all ANC members be given top secret security clearance so that they can challenge government policies and decisions. Not bloody likely. The rank and file will be just as muzzled as the press and public. I think this is called cutting off your nose to spite your face… The ANC excels at it.

  • X Cepting

    @Siobhan – Good point, well deserved shout.

    In the good old days of communist Russia, how much say did the supposedly equal comrades outside of the politburo have? This law will in fact ensure the continued political survival of the few in an inner conclave, unoposed, unexposed, indisputable. Thanks for pointing out that angle.

  • marcus

    Kwame, you make some good points, but your points do not do away with the need for press freedom.

    Yes, the bottom line – for mainstream media around the Western world – is profit. Media sell aproduct – news – and are ultimately beholden to their advertisers and stakeholders. Even journalism departments in universities take money from massive, unaccountable corporates. The discourse is narrow and ‘framed’ within a particular American-style capitalist ideology. This is not peculiar to SA.

    We need to read Chomsky again – and Ed Herman. We need to re-engage with The Propaganda model of the media. The media is embedded with the corporate/political power structures. One of the only journalists worthy of the name today is John Pilger.

    Of course the media is giving us ‘news’ – but it’s news through the narrow lens of what is acceptable discourse to corporates/politicals (who are in bed with each other and whose members move through revolving doors between boardrooms).

    If you want to update yourself – read Guardians Of Power and NewSpeak by David Cromwell and David Edwards of MediaLens. Their website is growing as more people wake up to the Bought And Paid For Churnalism and Stenography that poses as journalism.

    Having said all that, we are lucky in SA to have a couple of excellent investigative journalists whose rights to report without fear and favour must be protected at all costs. Anyone who lived through the apartheid regime should be acutely aware of the importance of this.