What’s this about our newspaper being xenophobic? Is that because we hate f****** Nigerians?”
Perhaps this comment by Deon du Plessis, quoted by Anton Harber in his article in !_LT_EMEcquid Novi: African Journalism Studies!_LT_/EM in 2004, should be taken in jest. It was, Harber noted, after all typical of Du Plessis’s style of puncturing the air of hypocrisy and pretension that often surrounds the elite media. But these comments do take on an eerie tone when re-read four years later, after waves of xenophobic violence have swept across the country.
Could the tabloid newspapers be blamed for xenophobia?
The Media Monitoring Project (MMP) certainly thinks so, having lodged a complaint against the !_LT_EMDaily Sun!_LT_/EM at the Press Ombudsman and the South African Human Rights Commission in May this year. They accused the tabloid of stereotyping foreign nationals as “aliens”, biased representation of government agencies and a failure to condemn the xenophobic violence or offer alternatives.
The MMP has a point. A cursory look at tabloid content will make it clear that these papers have been tapping into the widespread xenophobic attitudes in the country and amplifying them for sensational value. “Clamp-down operations” on “illegal aliens” get prominent and gleeful coverage, and foreign nationals are often glibly associated with crime. And if foreigners were the “problem”, the horrific “solution” witnessed all over the country in recent times is also not unlike the vigilante justice that is often depicted on the front pages of tabloids.
The coverage given to the violent rage of communities lashing out against suspected criminals in their midst often stops just short of celebration. But if the MMP thinks that enlisting the participation of tabloid readers to help construct an ethical code for the !_LT_EMDaily Sun!_LT_/EM (part of the recommendations in the complaint), it might be in for a surprise. In focus-group interviews I conducted with tabloid readers, contention media and xenophobia they complained that there was too little coverage of “the Zimbabweans who come to take our jobs”.
Although the South African tabloids might be extreme in their xenophobia, nationalism is not uncommon in the tabloid genre elsewhere. In his book !_LT_EMTabloid Britain !_LT_/EM!_LT_EMÃ¢Â€Â“ !_LT_/EM!_LT_EMConstructing a community through language!_LT_/EM (Routledge, 2006), Martin Conboy from the University of Sheffield in the UK analysed the rhetoric used in British tabloids to reinforce an opposition between “us” and “them”. British tabloids like the Sun, the Daily Star, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror boost patriotism among their readers by constructing a nationalistic narrative and identifying threats to “Britishness”.
A simplistic version of national identity is created by viewing world events from a British perspective. Symbols and myths (like the flag of St. George or war heroism) are repeatedly evoked in order to keep nationalist clichÃƒÂ©s in circulation. The sports field, especially on occasion of international events like the Rugby World Cup, provides metaphors that solidify national identities.
That all of this is done by tabloids like the !_LT_EMSun !_LT_/EMÃ¢Â€Â“ that belong to international multimedia conglomerates Ã¢Â€Â“ is of course rather ironic, Conboy points out. The point, however, is that nationalism makes money sense in a profit-driven environment. In the UK, the broadsheet paper The Daily Telegraph has recently hosted an anti-immigrant blog by a member of the far-right-wing British National Party (The Guardian, 28 May).
Could such nationalistic discourse, or in its extreme antagonistic form of xenophobia, actually lead to xenophobic violence?
To ask whether the media can cause xenophobic violence is too crude a question. Research into the violent “effects” of media coverage has been going on for decades, and a causal link between media content and violent behaviour is notoriously difficult to establish. When media engage in clear hate speech (like the incitement to “kill the cockroaches” by Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda in 1994) the link becomes clearer, but such instances are fortunately the exception rather than the rule.
Hate speech is normally outlawed in democratic societies like South Africa. Prejudice is less easy to tame. What could be said more safely is that media can, over time, inculcate certain attitudes and cultivate or amplify world views. How do they do that? By, similarly to the British tabloids, constructing a community through language, to use Conboy’s phrase.
An IDASA (Institute for Democracy in South Africa) study from 2005 (quoted again recently in the !_LT_EMSunday Times!_LT_/EM Ã¢Â€Â“ and it would be interesting to see if it got any coverage then, or was only dusted off after the recent attacks), showed how the media often prefer to use negative metaphors to describe immigrants (“hordes”, “floods”, “waves”); how migrants are often associated with crime (how often do we read “A Nigerian man was arrested…”); how migrants are often generalised as “aliens” or “illegals”; and display an anti-immigration sentiment in general.
Importantly, the study also indicated that the media’s response to immigration was often “non-analytical”. As with much else, coverage of migration is often responsive rather than pre-emptive, event-driven rather than in-depth and contextual.
And it seems that tired, right-wing clichÃƒÂ©s are not the preserve of traditional print media Ã¢Â€Â“ as the blogger Jarred Cinman’s contribution href=”http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/burningpaper/2008/05/21/a-time-for-less-compassion/” target=_blank mce_href=”http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/burningpaper/2008/05/21/a-time-for-less-compassion/””A time for less compassion” on the platform Thought Leader illustrated in the midst of the xenophobic debates. (To be fair, the platform was also host to more intelligent responses like that of href=”http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/christivanderwesthuizen” target=_blank mce_href=”http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/christivanderwesthuizen”Christi van der Westhuizen).
!_LT_STRONGWhat would the analytical response to xenophobia entail !_LT_/STRONGÃ¢Â€Â“!_LT_STRONG the lack of which IDASA’s report points to?!_LT_/STRONG
Firstly by going beyond event-driven reports (the tally of the dead and injured) to make links between the current outbursts and socio-economic policies of the government; to survey attitudes among the angry and the disaffected contention media and xenophobia instead of projecting it onto them; to take a historical view of how colonialism and apartheid created a vocabulary with which hatred for the Other could be expressed; to consistently, in reporting more generally, view South Africa as part of the continent rather than an exception on its southernmost tip, which would mean asking how international events impact on the region and continent and not only on the country.
The recent tragic xenophobic violence showed up much that is wrong in South Africa. The clashes were in the first place linked to the dire material circumstances in which the majority of South Africans live, almost 14 years into a democracy. In an environment where the competition for scarce resources is relentless, the poor are turning on themselves. It has to do with an immigration policy and President Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to acknowledge the crisis in Zimbabwe; it has to do with a general culture of violence and an underresourced police force ill-equipped to control crime; it has to do with a general erosion of human dignity after decades of oppression.
In all of this, it would be short-sighted to make tabloids the scapegoats. Even if they are often guilty of xenophobia, they paradoxically also address the root issues of the recent violence. The tabloids point to system failure in the country from the grassroots Ã¢Â€Â“ economic policies that have failed the poor, a loss of faith in the police and criminal justice system, desperate poverty, the demise of hope that the government and institutionalised politics will bring an end to their precarious, miserable living conditions. R
The tabloids, for all their baying for blood, have also paid attention to the lives of the poor in a way that the main broadsheet newspapers and other elite media have not. If the media is to be taken to task for their complicity in xenophobia Ã¢Â€Â“ as they should be Ã¢Â€Â“ such criticism should go beyond a moralistic denunciation of the usual suspects, and ask more fundamental questions about the media’s democratic role in one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Journalism should be at its best when it defends human dignity and respect for life. This is such a time.
!_LT_EMDr Herman Wasserman teaches Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University in the UK. He is editor of the journal !_LT_/EMEcquid Novi: African Journalism Studies!_LT_EM.!_LT_/EM
This article first appeared in The Media magazine (July 2008).