The media will always be a contested space. Some insist there should be no controls over the amorphous beast that is the media; others insist we cannot have a free-for-all. In South Africa we presently walk an uneasy middle road between a free press, a powerful public broadcaster as well as corporate and political oligopolies, which wish to place self-serving limits on our freedom of expression, writes Glenn Ashton for the SACSIS.
The sleazy British phone hacking scandal within the extensive Murdoch media empire poses a fascinating counterpoint to our situation. Our media is fairly broadly controlled and while there are some powerful media houses, we are apparently not as prone to the bias in the UK and USA.
Amongst most mainstream media outlets – print, newspaper, radio and television – corporate ownership is the rule rather than the exception. Yet the rise of citizen centred, Internet media has radically changed the playing field. Many credible news services have emerged over the past decade, forever changing the power dynamic.
Were it not for the emergence of this open web based media, scandals such as those exposed by Wikileaks may never have surfaced. The alternative media directly and constantly challenges the status quo of the mainstream media. This is highlighted in reactions to Wikileaks. Many mainstream media outlets have expressed outrage, while the Murdoch controlled Fox News stated that Wikileaks should be declared ‘enemy combatants’ and dealt with accordingly. The power of the corporate media has been diminished but is not yet dead.
Most South African media is corporate owned, with Avusa, Independent News Limited, News24 and Primedia the most prominent. Government accusations of media bias are primarily directed at this media bloc, which is not nearly as homogeneous as its critics claim.
Accusations of bias have led the ANC – more particularly a clique within the party – to initiate both a media tribunal and an ill-considered Access to Information Act. This has nothing to do with national security. Instead it is a rushed and clumsy attempt to control what are projected as critical, corporate friendly, conservative perceptions. History is being forgotten, only to be repeated.
The South African Broadcasting Commission (SABC), which should be assiduously objective, remains hamstrung by its historical state alliances. It shifted from being His Masters Voice for the old apartheid regime, to reinventing itself to become His Masters Voice for the ruling ANC, with a few examples of good, independent journalism occasionally slipping through the cracks.
At the other end of the spectrum is what has happened to press freedom in our northern neighbour, Zimbabwe. Objectivity has been replaced by sycophantic grovelling. The state has crushed, bombed and persecuted the independent media, with scattered remnants active in exile. This experience illustrates the dangers of state interference and control of the media.
While there is little in common between the UK and Zimbabwean media, some alarming parallels exist. No ruling UK government since Margaret Thatcher has come to power without the support of the Murdoch News International media empire. Mugabe too has relied on media control to entrench his power.
In the UK the media controls government; in Zimbabwe government controls the media. The chilling effect on democracy is the same. A compromised media clearly corrupts the democratic process. Mugabe is no less manipulative than Murdoch – each wishes only to centralise their control on power and profit.
In the UK public opinion and hence political policy has been shaped by Murdoch and his News Corporation with titles like The Times, The Sun and the News of the World and perhaps more importantly his TV holdings like Sky and BskyB. The Murdoch empire’s jingoistic support of wars in the Falklands, Yugoslavia, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan and most recently in Libya illustrate his malign influence. The situation in the UK has become so serious that journalism professor Karl Grossman has said that this “could go down as the greatest press scandal in the English-speaking world.” And so it should.
It was thought that the heyday of the imperialist press barons – Lords Rothermere, Beaverbrook and Northcliffe in the UK, “Citizen Kane” Randolph Hurst in the USA and more recently Cecil King and Robert Maxwell – were behind us. In reality the multinational influence of the Murdoch empire across the world, and particularly in the UK and USA, is unprecedented.
Grossman comments further that the “media machine built by Murdoch … is the most dishonest, unprincipled and corrupt of any media empire…and it is gargantuan, the largest…ever.” Bill Moyers, Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary commented that, “Rupert Murdoch is no saint. He is to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity.”
What is important is not only that the Murdoch empire has undermined democratic processes, the objectivity and independence of the media, but also that it has actively sought to compromise legal institutions. Such influence over the executive, the legal system and the media is a toxic mix, as evident in the UK as it is in Zimbabwe. South Africa cannot afford, with its fragile new democracy, to permit such abuse of power.
A crucial point in all of this is that the sordid rot that permeates the Murdoch empire was exposed through the truly independent media, namely the UK’s Guardian Newspaper group. While it took more than five years of investigative slogging, it appears Murdoch’s power may be waning. Julian Assange has insurance against Murdoch, stating he has files implicating NewsCorp and Murdoch if they target him. Deniability can only go so far and no further. Murdoch’s empire must be dismantled.
There are many other examples of privately controlled media trumping the democratic process, just as there are of totalitarian states undermining democracy. Silvio Berlusconi would certainly not have nearly as much political clout and credibility were it not for his extensive media holdings throughout Italy. His is an almost unique example of self-serving corporate media ownership. Pravda and China’s news services illustrate the other extremes of media control.
The Murdochs have exploited their power across nations and continents, affecting global history for several decades. They have fought against curbs on global warming, against peace, covered up bribery and corruption with the Saudi regime and fought against taxation for the wealthy. In return they have entrenched their wealth and power.
Despite South Africa’s concentrated corporate ownership, a willingness remains to project diverse views. However the system does remain imperfect. There are sectors, particularly amongst the print media, where conservative and reactionary views are given inordinate coverage. The poor majority remain effectively voiceless. The government supporting The New Age has provided little new insight. The Daily Maverick remains inaccessible to most and speaks to existing media consumers. How to open up the media?
Difficulties arise when irrational interest groups and vested interests demand preferential treatment. Just as reporting on the cause of Afrikaner rights is anachronistic, calls for nationalisation by tenderpreneurs like Malema, who flaunt their wealth in the face of grinding poverty, claiming to speak for the dispossessed while perpetuating the status quo, cannot seriously or honestly be accommodated.
How to deal with this media disjuncture? While the ruling party objects to media bias, it is equally guilty of the continued marginalisation of the voices of the truly dispossessed. Movements like Abahali baseMjondolo remain far more marginalised than those of faux pro-poor posers seeking to entrench their own power. Instead of speaking for the poor, the ruling party intentionally marginalises these and other disadvantaged groups, misrepresenting them as “ultra leftists” and “single issue NGOs”.
While the poor and dispossessed majority may not be overt media consumers – they have more pressing things to spend money on – it does not mean their voices should not be given equal weight. Despite some presence in the new media and being heard amongst themselves, where they live, their reality is hidden
Just as the voices of the powerful, the Murdochs, the Mugabes and Malemas, dominate the media, the true voices of the people are not heard. Neither the SABC nor the mainstream media cover the critical issues which give rise to democratic challenges, misrepresented as “service delivery protests” or “ultra leftist outbursts”. There is self-censorship within both corporate and state media. The cosy situation between media and power remains unchallenged, locally and internationally.
The solutions will never lie in media tribunals or secrecy acts, or implanting ideological watchdogs to oversee the media. These days, whatever happens, the truth will eventually get out. Apartheid was responsible for heinous media laws and regulations, many which remain in place today. Yet even then the people’s voices were heard through courageous journalism and publications like South and The Weekly Mail and through the political grapevine.
Today exposure is an SMS, a click or a tweet away. Social networking is in everyone’s hands given the spread of cell phone technology, as shown by the realities of the Arab Spring. The media will never be the same. Our world is increasingly interconnected. Wikileaks looms large. Keeping critical media under the jackboot of political oversight is no longer possible. The genie is out the bottle. Clumsy tribunals and limitations may impede the dissemination of information but they will eventually fail. It is the dictatorial Mugabe mindset and the repression that accompanies it, which must be rejected.
Even with the News of World gone and Murdoch’s News Corporation under investigation, Fox TV and other malign forces continue to intentionally polarise popular opinion – look no further than the US debt crisis. The ultra wealthy Murdoch’s, Koch’s and Berlusconi’s are so used to shaping the opinions of the proletariat that they will not go down without a scrap.
Our entire media and communication model has begun to change. We must enable it to shift away from a polarised model towards one that is open, inclusive and vibrant. Citizens’ control of the media is essential to protect ourselves and our children against an economically and ecologically uncertain future.
Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.
This story is published with the kind permission of The South African Civil Society Information Service (sacsis.org.za)