Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Taking the ANC media tribunal at face value

Most media responses to the ANC’s recently released discussion document have come out fighting.

The particular target is the proposed media appeals tribunal, a body that would give ruling party the final say over what the press can publish.

A few media responses, however, have been mea culpa. But where problems have been acknowledged and apologies tendered, these have been co-opted as admissions to give succour to the tribunal proposal.

There are good reasons to support the combative approach over the apologetic one.

As a special interest group, the press is absolutely right to defend its turf. Newspaper owners are entitled to defend their business interests which, when last I checked, are legitimate within our national economy policy. Their journalist employees generally aspire to generate news and views in cause of public service, even though media freedom encompasses the right to be sensationalist and do low-quality journalism.

While there are often contradictions between the commercial and journalistic interests within the media, both are correct to unite against the tribunal. This is because the proposed tribunal is a political intervention that will constrain free speech and especially serve to curb criticism of those wielding state power.

There is an argument that the tribunal will not involve pre-publication censorship — but the ANC document, conveniently, pays no regard to the effect over time of post-publication punishment by a tribunal.

In ominous words, the SACP’s Jeremy Cronin has written in support of the tribunal: “Saying sorry after the event is just not good enough.”

Enabling vs constraining regulation

There’s a different kind of political intervention that could expand, rather than reduce, the range of opportunities for more voices — like funding broadband access for the masses or providing for toll-free SMSs to be sent to the SABC.

The ANC’s document all too briefly touches on this kind of intervention. It calls for public funding for SABC, community broadcasting, local content development and rural transmission and it urges more support for the Media Development and Diversity Agency, as well as government advertising in small-scale media.

These kind of interventionist recommendations are not the ones eliciting media opposition. It’s the tribunal that’s being seen as negative and correctly so.

The reason why everyone should support a self-interested media fight against the tribunal intervention is simple. It is because, as an earlier version of South African Press Code of Professional Practice puts it:

“The freedom of the press to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces that shape society is a freedom exercised on behalf of the public.”

In short, the interests of media owners and editorial staff in opposing the tribunal are simultaneously in the wider public interest in helping to hold the powerful accountable.

That’s why all democratically-minded people, especially in the ANC, need to say “hands off” as regards the tribunal.

Myths and realities

The trouble with this argument, however, is that the ANC also claims to be acting on behalf of the public in pushing for the tribunal. You can see this from the title of its document: “Media transformation, ownership and diversity.”

When the ANC looks at the media, it sees a reality that’s quite different to fine-sounding rhetoric about the role of the press. Likewise, when the media looks at the tribunal proposal, it is similarly sceptical about whether the ANC’s motives are honourable.

At the same time, both perspectives also have telling blind spots.

* The media’s critique of the ANC discussion document has, quite symptomatically, largely ignored the proposals around ownership change.

* Meanwhile, the ANC document has absolutely nothing to say about the political and economic crises which have wracked the SABC for the past three years.

These mirror-opposite omissions reflect the vested interests of each side. And, ironically, each side also overlooks its own stake in the contest, accusing only the other of having particular interests.

Thus, the ANC sees (print) media as white business, conspiring with nameless sources to tarnish the cause of transformation. For its part, the press sees the ANC’s proposals as coming from corrupt fat cats planning to close down criticism.

Suppose, however, we set aside these long-standing suspicions, and operate instead on the hypothetical terrain of highlighting bona fides on each side. How then does the ANC proposal stand up?

Taking ANC at face value

To start with, the discussion document says the ANC respects media freedom. It also calls for journalism that reflects on “how our souls are being poisoned by the spirit of conspicuous consumption in a socio-economic formation that encourages greed”.

One would have therefore thought that the exposés of high living would have been welcomed. Instead, however, the document motivates for the tribunal by proposing that “many who find themselves ‘in the news’ are unhappy about the way their story has been presented or the way journalists have obtained information”.

It adds that “people need recourse when media freedom trampled their rights to dignity and privacy”.

Yet, supposing the document’s authors genuinely see the tribunal as being in the broad public (rather than the narrow party) interest, what is their reasoning? Here are the key assumptions embedded in their case:

* Unlike broadcasting, print media remains untransformed in terms of ownership and hence the newspapers retain an ideological outlook contrary to the ANC’s within the “battle of ideas”.

* This situation, combined with commercialisation and ethical corruption, produce negative journalism. According to the discussion document, to date any journalist who “dared to acknowledge progress in service delivery and government performance was condemned by peers as a lapdog”.

* The masses do not have access to, or redress from, newspapers, hence diversity is limited. In particular, the existing self-regulation system is simply a self-serving gimmick by the press.

* Contrary to all this, newspapers should be “instruments of transformation” in building a better South Africa.

* The ANC is a united political force guided by progressive values, enjoys a popular mandate and can be trusted to set things right.

It’s in the light of this analysis, that the discussion document regards the press (as a whole) as a problem, and then suggests the solution. Among the elements here, the most important are:

* A parliamentary investigation into ownership and control of print media, and into whether there should be a media charter for ownership transformation.

* A media appeals tribunal which will be “accountable to the people through parliament” and which can discipline “journalistic scoundrels” and ensure “objective reporting”.

The document refers to the Complaints and Compliance Committee of the regulator Icasa as if the tribunal is a justifiable equivalent. It does not deal with the argument that print is not like broadcasting which attracts special statutory regulation for relying upon a finite public resource — the airwaves.

Flawed assumptions

The assumptions listed above simplistically ignore a great deal of nuance and contradiction among and within newspapers. Like the good faith of many journalists and editors who do ethical and high quality in the face of challenges, and who don’t want statutory regulation.

And while treating the press as homogenously opposed to reporting on progress, the document also mistakenly assumes the ANC is homogenous.

It pits the ANC and the press against each other, instead of regarding each as sites of struggle. The results are:

* A failure to recognise the value of an uncontrolled press to open ideological contestation within the ANC itself.

* Blindness to the value of the watchdog role of media (even newspapers that act as a guard dog of conservative interests can provide a check and balance on government and business).

* The way the self-regulation system has been used by ANC people, and occasionally ruled in their favour.

The document says that the ANC was voted into power on a platform of services that government should deliver: job creation, rural development, land reform, better education and health, and combating crime and corruption. It observes: “They are not the stuff that sell newspapers and make news, but they are what people want … ”

Not discussed is that the public don’t usually buy or read pro-government “good news” newspapers, making for a problematic business model. In this way, the document ignores the economics of ownership concentration in a sector that’s not in the finest health — and where even the tabloid press has reached a plateau.

You may grant the ANC concern about ownership issues, but the issue involves more than owners’ selfish reluctance to have a charter for substantial BBEE.

More generally, the document proposes that because the ANC stands for progressive social change, “we must take charge to ensure they dominate the national discourse and that our voice is heard clearly above the rest”.

This admission is made unashamed, because it assumes the correctness of the self-regarding view that the ANC is singular and that it intrinsically represents the public interest.

Assessing the rhetoric

The press, it can be accepted, is somewhat further away from being in touch with public interest than is the ANC. As an illustration, take the massive amount of reportage that missed the Zuma rise to power.

But that’s not to say the ANC is exactly in touch, as evident in the rash of community protests and the 2008 xenophobic violence

Yet, let’s still stick with the position that the ANC’s intentions (like those of journalists) to approximate the public interest are honest. Is the tribunal then acceptable?

The answer here is no. This is because of the underlying ANC notion that South Africa’s default should not be minimum regulation (eg via general law and via self-regulation).

Instead, for the ANC, the “developmental” state must intervene against “market failure” and harness (literally) newspapers to its project.

Whether you accept this project or not, you would need to acknowledge that this perspective is a totalising one. It is at odds with a libertarian one that prefers pluralism to centralisation.

The point of the document is to seek to subordinate the newspaper institution to the state institution.

If you think you can trust Parliament to appoint a neutral tribunal, which will invoke state power to enforce its rulings, then you may reflect on MPs discomfort at the Travelgate scandal coming to light.

But leave aside whether that control involved could be politically abused; the matter is whether institutional autonomy is a good thing or not.

If it’s good, then it’s a bad move to put paid to press autonomy. That is the case even if we accept ANC claims that the tribunal will be in genuine public interest motivation, working to promote fairness, diversity and access in newspapers.

Ultimately, it’s a sign of weakness when the ANC want to use force, rather than persuasion, to change what newspapers do. That’s why the tribunal can and should be resisted.