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.