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Commercial news media, like the SABC, also answer to his master’s voice

Everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the SABC, has done it again. Unspoken commands from the outside have barged in and, at the last minute, dictated an editorial policy. Either both the Metro FM show’s producer and host neglected to acquaint themselves with the said policy, or the policy did not exist until five minutes before the show was to go on air. In any case, unlike his 16th century forebear, this whipping boy is being publicly flayed for his own misdeed, not the prince’s. Yet strangely the prince, commercial news media, appears the most pious throughout the debacle, when he, too, commits an as egregious an offence.

On Wednesday City Press editor Ferial Haffajee tweeted: “Are the news values of public broadcasting different to commercial news values? If so, how?”

The short answer is no. There should be little difference. Values in public and commercial news should flow from the mission underlying why news is gathered and disseminated in the first place, which is to provide citizens with timely and accurate information to allow them to make informed decisions on the issues of the day. The more intricate and precise answer is that, as with the SABC, voices from the outside also intrude into commercial news rooms and affect decisions on the quality and nature of information provided to the public. Often the decisions swayed by these outside voices results in a compromise of commercial news values.

I’ve had the privilege of being on both the financial and reporting side of news. And my, what perspective that provides. I recall an interview with the financial director of a major news stable who let me in on an open secret about his publications. “We don’t sell news here,” he said, proudly. “We sell advertising.”

There may be a theoretical Chinese wall separating this chap from the lofty editorial ideals of news as a public good, which publishers, editors and journalists cite when press freedom comes under attack. But in practice, at the end of the month, it’s that financial director (and others like him) who approves the payroll. If revenues are down, as they’ve been for years now, he says to the editor: “Make the editorial content boost the readership we sell to advertisers, or I’m letting journalists go and cutting down on training and other editorial costs.”

Under this kind of pressure, reporting news changes purpose. It becomes more about appeasing advertisers and entertaining readers as opposed to informing them. These aren’t mutually exclusive goals, but whether the balance is being struck in these trying times should be a matter for public debate. However, it is barely afforded a mention, especially by commercial news houses, which frequently initiate and stoke public debate around other issues.

Twenty five million rand between now and June 2013. That’s how much BDFM, the publisher of Business Day and Financial Mail, reportedly has to cut from its expenses. Today, December 7, is the last day by which the company’s staff can opt for voluntary severance packages. “Financial newspapers in South Africa are in for a tough ride as advertising revenue generated from JSE-listed companies is expected to decline come January next year,” BDLive reported.

Business Day, the country’s leading financial publication and, according to its publisher “by far the preferred choice for financial advertising” will switch to a tabloid size in the second quarter of 2013. “It will be easier to read,” wrote Peter Bruce. Tellingly, he added, “and offers advertisers more creative and financial flexibility.

“Next year, too, we will begin to charge for access to the digital content of both the Financial Mail and Business Day, much as the Financial Times and other market-leading newspapers have done around the world. If the financial crisis has taught us anything it is that, in the final analysis, our product is the content.”

According to Bruce, making this content available for free has been a mistake.

So it’s clear that the changes to be made to the publisher’s titles are primarily to appease the financial director. Secondary, if at all, are the information needs of citizens. This leaves the citizen, when it comes to financial news, either further out of pocket for a supposed public good or uninformed.

Either the content of these publications is not the public good it’s said to be and the publications are luxury indulgences for the well-heeled, or this scramble to make up for falling advertising revenues runs contrary to the press code. Press freedom runs the full ambit, from the source of the news to the news room and from there to the end user, the citizen. Erecting a sentry between the newsroom and the citizen inhibits the free flow of information and infringes on press freedom.

In whichever case, the press code is under threat, either from cleverly disguised luxury products who summon it when it suits them (and ignore it when it does not), or from publications willing to sacrifice the greater goal for their own survival.

I hear the howls of protests already. Editorial costs don’t just vanish into thin air, of course, and I, a lowly hack writer, offer no solutions. But BDFM does not face this predicament alone. The compromise of commercial news values amid shrinking revenues is the big media debate for our times. Seldom, however, do those in news and publishing business debate it, let alone publicly. If they do they deal only with the shrinking revenue.

“We speak truth to power,” commercial news editors like to say. Seldom, however, do they turn their voices inward, which is why they can look upon the SABC’s failings and simper with no sense of irony.


  • TO Molefe

    TO Molefe is a Cape Town-based freelance writer and editor. He is the author of Black Anger and White Obliviousness, a Mampoer short on how race matters in public dialogue in post-apartheid South Africa when black anger, white obliviousness and politics are at play. He is currently writing a narrative non-fiction book themed around race and reconciliation in South Africa. It should be out towards the end of 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @tomolefe