Glenda Daniels considers the ANC’s attitude towards the media and why the party cannot totally relax about media freedom.
The ANC revealed its own insecurities, fears and hysteria in its desire for a media appeals tribunal. But such control cannot sit comfortably in an open democracy. Its proposal showed the need for more hegemonic control over a media it finds lacking in any loyalty and gratitude to it, the liberation party. Alongside this sits another need: the desire for more consensus and unity with the media, also out of sync with a real democracy.
Some of the ruling party’s reasons for a media appeals tribunal included:
- The self-regulation system does not work as decisions of the Press Council are skewed in favour of the media;
- There is insufficient protection given to those whose rights have been violated by the press;
- The Press Council is ‘toothless’ as it cannot levy fines and merely asks for apologies to be made; and when these are made, they are insufficient in size and stature compared to the damaging article; and
- The media is unaccountable.
The last reason bears scrutiny as it begs the question: To whom should the media be accountable? At its national conference five years ago in Polokwane, the ANC passed a resolution that the idea of a media appeals tribunal be investigated. Then, in a discussion paper titled ‘Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity’, delivered at its national general council (NGC) meeting in Durban in September 2010, the ANC reaffirmed this call. There are a few points to be noted about the ANC’s rationale for a media appeals tribunal.
First, the ANC’s ideological social fantasy seems to be that there should be only one outlook in a democracy – its own one. The conception that the ANC has of democracy is of unity and consensus; hence the party finds it difficult to accept the different perspectives present in the media, as well as the criticisms of its performance and exposés of corruption. It views this as “oppositional” and “un-transformational”.
Second, that the press needs to be accountable has never been in dispute – but this must be to certain norms and values of professional conduct and to the public that it serves, not to Parliament – the majority of whose members are ANC. The latter would constitute political control and an unprogressive hegemony.
Third, the fact that apologies for inaccuracies in reporting were not always printed on the front page of newspapers could have been discussed rather than imposing a draconian measure such as a tribunal. By 2012, there did indeed seem to be some détente as the ANC accepted the Press Freedom Commission’s recommendations for “independent co-regulation” with more public involvement in press regulation.
‘You media are just hysterical’
Neurosis takes two forms: hysteria and obsession. Bearing this psychoanalytical assertion in mind, let’s turn to Slavoj Žižek’s seminal work, ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’ (1989). He asked: what if evil resides in the very eyes of those perceiving evil? He mentions how children were portrayed in Charlie Chaplin films: teased and mocked, laughed at for their failures. The question to ask then is from which point or gaze must we look at children so that they appear to us as objects of bullying and teasing, and not as gentle creatures in need of protection? Žižek’s answer: it should be from the point of view of children themselves. The gaze, in this example, is from nasty adults, and it is jaundiced, containing adults’ own prejudices.
In an interview (13 August 2010), ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said: “You media are just hysterical. Why can’t you just listen to what we are saying?”
But one must turn the question around, as in the gaze, to ask whether he is the hysterical one. It was, after all, within his discourse around the media appeals tribunal in the run-up to the NGC that the surplus and excess is contained. “If you have to go to prison let it be. If you have to pay millions for defamation, let it be. If journalists have to be fired because they don’t contribute to the South Africa we want, let it be,” he says (Mail & Guardian: 23-29 July 2010). The ideological fantasy of the party and the role of the media in its creation are evident in this statement.
By November 2012, Mthembu seemed to have softened his stance against the media, if the evidence on the programme ‘Judge for Yourself’, a debate on media freedom (eNCA: 18 November 2012) is anything to go by. He asserted the need for an independent press in the country.
But the ANC does struggle. The party has a conscious fantasy that South Africa should take the form of its own vision, which it appropriated once it obtained hegemonic power. The ANC then developed a conscious fantasy that the whole of ‘the people’ supports the party and therefore the whole of the media should support it as well – as is evident in the words of ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe.
“A media tribunal is required to deal with the so-called ‘dearth of media ethics’ in South Africa. [It would] help to ‘correct’ the anti-ANC bias in the media. The media is driven by a dark conspiracy to discredit the national democratic revolution [NDR],” Mantashe was reported to have said on BizCommunity on 30 July 2010. There is considerable hysteria in Mantashe’s plea. The utterance that the media reflects “dark conspiracy to discredit the NDR” is hysterical – in both senses of being neurotic and obsessive. SACP boss Blade Nzimande took the point further to suggest that the media was simply a reflection of its owners. Writing in Umsebenzi Online in June 2010, Nzimande said: “I can hear some of my comrades saying: ‘It’s the capitalist media bastard! What else do you expect of it!’”
So then, what is the hysterical discourse on the media really about? Is it an attempt to deflect attention from itself? Yes, and more. Interviewed in August 2010, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee said: “This is hegemonic control. Why do we have control over everyone else but not you? We can regulate everything, but not you. This is more about the SACP losing power and the ANC worrying about its own power, rather than the media itself.”
Ideological social fantasy and enemies of the people
If the ideological labelling, such as “capitalist media bastard”, are analysed, the media was “the big other” in the same way that Žižek described the anti-Semitic syndrome in Germany: the Jews were to blame for everything, including unemployment and rape. The media is labelled as hysterical, yet this hysteria was really a projection of a party in crisis, at odds with itself and its own power, its own splits and divisions. The ideological nature of the discourse can be seen in the tricks of displacement and obfuscation, all part of social ideological fantasy.
To explain, here is an analogy Žižek uses, citing Coca Cola (Coke). In the ideological social fantasy, it is not just a can of water and sugar, but it comes with a whole range of connotations around it, symbolising the “freedom” of America and “liberation”, among other floating signifiers. There was something in Coke more than the object itself, more than sugar and water. But in the displaced trick version of the media, the ideological social fantasy, there is a dark conspiracy, an agenda, and a capitalist plot, which was anti-transformation. Underneath this tension there are contests over the meanings of democracy.
But democracy can be saved. One way to do this is to recognise and accept the plurality of public spaces, one of which is noisy and nosey journalism. Journalism is not supposed to be in sync with the ANC, or indeed any political party. President Jacob Zuma has criticised the media for being “ideologically out of sync with the society in which it exists”. What he is really unhappy about is that it is out of sync with him and the ANC. And so it should be. The ANC and ‘society’ is not one and the same. No wonder from time to time there is hysteria, fear and insecurity.
Glenda Daniels is a senior researcher at Wits Journalism, heading the State of the Newsroom Project. This is an adapted extract from her book ‘Fight for Democracy: the ANC and the Media in South Africa’.
This story was first published in the January 2013 issue of The Media magazine.