Guy Berger
Guy Berger

See SA media in a bigger and changing picture

Lifting your gaze from the gritty business of fighting for information and press rights, it’s pretty interesting to consider South Africa in wider international context.

How does the country’s media system stack up in comparison to the US, Italy, Russia and China? What’s common, what’s changing, what’s relevant?

Here are the highlights of a conference in Stockholm last week on the topic “Media, Politics and the Public”, convened by former Financial Times journalist John Lloyd and South African scholar Janice Winter for the Axess Programme on Journalism and Democracy.

US — finding the funding for journalism
According to media historian Paul Starr, the US initially thought the internet would boost journalism, only to find it has fragmented audiences and weakened finances. Donor funding, he told the conference, has played a role in moderating the worst effects of mass retrenchments of journalists — but it’s only a tenth of the money that’s been lost.

The implication of Starr’s analysis is that the survival of journalism in the US will depend on subsidies from public funds. In his view, after a period in which Europe’s media moved in an American direction, a reverse copying — of the subsidy system — could be on the cards.

Interestingly, a 2004 book by Starr called The Creation of the Media shows that the press historically only flourished in the US because of massive state subsidies for the postal distribution of newspapers — and through a system that kept government influence out of editorial content.

Much South African media is also taking financial strain, and so we might look more closely at the models being explored in the US for a system of impartial state funding.

Not that the US’s journalism itself is only in need of money. Another input on that country’s media came from Rodney Benson of New York University. He called for the US’s journalism to expand from only acting on behalf of the public, to valuing everyone’s perspectives and promoting a more participative democracy.

And, while journalism in the US tends towards a fragment-at-a-time stories, he said, there was space to adopt the more integrated approach of French journalism.

Who wouldn’t argue that similar recommendations could apply to South Africa?

Europe — an end to independent journalism?
Swedish academic Mattias Hesserus argued that capitalist owners in Europe had allowed journalistic independence because it made money for them, but staff cuts had now become the order of the day. Journalists could no longer bite the hand that fed them.

The answer, for Hesserus, is to encourage different kinds of ownership, such as by churches, co-operatives and political parties. An issue he didn’t mention was ownership by communities — as in South African community radio.

Likewise, ownership by journalists. That’s something to look at besides BEE ownership issues in South Africa.

A BBC journalist speaking from the floor pointed out that as journalism jobs are in retreat in developed countries, PR jobs are in expansion. (Coincidentally, I heard that a new book called The Death and Life of American Journalism gives the ratio in the US as four PR people to each single journalist.)

On the brighter side, the news that does continue is growing a longer tail via social networks. Sweden, I’m told has 100% Facebook penetration among young people. The result is that journalism is reaching many groups who were previously outside the circuit of journalism. And these people are also new sources and content producers as well, even though that doesn’t quite replace professional journalism.

What seems to be getting impetus among all the changes is the increasing partisanship of journalism in Europe. Talking about the Italian case, Lloyd suggested that country’s increasing integration between politics and media could be a vision of the future elsewhere.

Researcher Ferdinando Giugliano painted a picture of Italy where audiences rewarded partisan media with attention, and ignored the independent media. The result is that populist editors and journalists are slugging it out as much as their political patrons do.

This is a model where there’s a pluralism of views across different media, but not within any single outlet. Media analyst Paolo Mancini who has dubbed this as democracy with a “polarised-pluralist model of media”, reminded the conference that most democracies around the world do not in fact subscribe to the independence model of journalism.

He didn’t say it, but a serious problem with the Italian system is that people mainly consume the media that agrees with their prejudices. And a consequence is Big Man politics — as epitomised by Berlusconi who entertains and succeeds across sports team ownership, business ventures, politics and media ownership.

The significance for South Africa? Our media could do well to continue aspiring to the model of politically independent journalism, and also encourage audiences to see the value of this.

Russia and China
A control-oriented political role is being played by journalism in Russia and China. According to the Economist’s Moscow bureau chief, Arkady Ostrovsky, “doing serious journalism in Russia is a luxury, and talking about it is a double luxury”. The Russian media operate in a context where politics was all about business, not ideology, and there is a descent back towards authoritarianism, he said.

Through the media, Russia’s government is successfully purveying a myth that the West hates the country and is jealous of its national resources, according to journalist Julia Latynina. For the view that Russia was great, she said, “you switch off the reality and switch on the TV”.

From China, researcher Haiyan Wang said that the old style of Communist Party journalism now had to compete with non-party journalism and market-oriented journalism, as well as with critical and professional journalism. Journalists had to navigate simultaneous adherence to the party line and the bottom line.

She outlined three intersecting zones in Chinese journalism: the forbidden, the permitted and encouraged, and the negotiated.

• Forbidden topics are the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the new Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo.

• The permitted and encouraged zone encompasses reportage about the Communist Party and the economy.

• But journalists also negotiate boundaries of vagueness by reporting protests with phrases like “people gathered for a stroll” and strikes as “taxi drivers stopped work and went to tea to discuss common concerns”.

Chinese professor Zhan Jiang spoke about the evolution of “Yulun Jiandu” — which is watchdog journalism “with Chinese characteristics”. It was currently contributing to “media-driven public-participation” and the growth of civil society, he said.

This is a country that, according to Zhan, has one billion TV viewers, 200 million newspaper readers, 700 million mobile users, and 400 million netizens.

South Africa may have aspirations to join the Brazil-Russia-India-China (Bric) category of countries, but our democratic system makes for pretty different government-press relations in at least two of these. I doubt we would want to emulate authoritarian regimes.

To sum up, South Africa has a lot to learn — both positive and negative — from the US’s funding issues, the Italian partisanship model, and the dependent context of journalism in Russia and China.