The media in our country would have us believe that it is the champion of the public interest at all levels of life, and that those in power are hell bent on stifling their magnanimous efforts. Many editors and journalists claim that without their input and their investigative acumen, the public would be blissfully oblivious to the malaise corrupting those who are supposed to represent the people.
There is no more compelling explanation of what role media should play in society than that advanced by Robert W. McChesney: “Within democratic theory, there are two indispensable functions that journalism must serve in a self-governing society. First, the media system must provide a rigorous accounting of people in power and people who want to be in power, in both the public and private sector. This is known as the watchdog role. Second, the media system must provide reliable information and a wide range of informed opinions on the important social and political issues of the day. No single medium can or should be expected to provide all of this; but the media system as a whole should provide easy access to this for all citizens.” Journalism, Democracy, … and Class Struggle
If we are to accept this definition on the role of the media in society, South Africa’s media would not pass the litmus test on three broad fronts: holding those in power accountable in both the public and private sector, providing reliable information, and offering a dynamic diversity of informed opinion. We could look long and hard at whether or not South Africa’s media presents with informed opinion, but we’ll have to save that for another day.
Endless time, space and money are devoted to condemning public representatives and officials who are assumed practically always to be at fault, either venally or by default. Perhaps in some cases such exposure is justified. But when we look at the gaping lack of criticism and scrutiny of the private sector’s extensive shadowy doings, the bias of the mainstream media becomes all too obvious. Maybe a case can well be made for such bias: the print media in particular is part of the private sector, so maybe it is just acting pout of private sector solidarity. But if one of the most important functions of the media is to hold the powerful to account, no matter what is at stake, its bias in favour of the private sector (i.e. capital) suggests that either our media doesn’t understand the task of holding all the powerful to account, not just those easy targets in public office, or that the media is for the most part a handy tool of capital.
The coverage of the Marikana tragedy is a case in point. Editorials, opinion pieces and news reports never missed an opportunity to castigate the police, the government and public officials generally for the events that led to the killing of over 40 people. We can count on one hand the instances in news reports and analysis where the exploitative nature of mining companies was identified as a key driver of what fuelled the conflict and the subsequent violence leading to the terrible loss of life.
Very few gave coverage to the findings of the report of the Benchmark Foundation (ironically a private sector think-tank), which chronicles the misery of mineworkers and their communities across South Africa’s platinum belt. The report, which is heavily critical of the platinum producers and their non-compliance with health and safety regulations, was virtually ignored on the news pages as well as by the commercial media’s opinion pages and editorials. And the less said about the television coverage of the tragedy the better.
Labour disputes and strikes are a feature of democratic societies the world over but are reported on in South Africa as if they were dire threats to democracy and deterrents to foreign direct investment. The violence of strikes always makes headlines, whereas the nature of the strikers’ grievances comes a distant second. Striking workers are generally dehumanised, referred to as mobs instead of as people with their own very real stories and plights, unless, exceptionally, they are depicted as victims of police or state brutality, and then all of a sudden they acquire the status of sentient beings.
But for the most part the narrative goes the other way. Recently on the SABC’s prime news the strikers in De Doorns were depicted as a nameless mass while AgriSA’s presence was given an individual identity, allowing scope for audience empathy. Even the class biases of different types of workers influences how their grievances are portrayed in the media. Doctors at public hospitals often receive great sympathy from journalists, while the demands of municipal workers for a decent wage are reported so as to appear wildly unrealistic.
Our media fails to expose the super-exploitation faced by workers in the agricultural and manufacturing sector, including mining. Why? If these sectors were not private but public you can bet your last rand that the press would lose no time lambasting their performance and labour practices.
The frequency with which newspapers have to issue apologies for getting their facts wrong (in those cases when they are made to) is a clear indication that for the press the truth often stands in the way of a sensational story or sexed-up headline. There are many examples reported by the Press Freedom Commission that underline this.
Uninvestigated allegations are often presented as hard fact. The media has gone overboard with claims that millions of taxpayer’s rands have been misspent on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home, playing fast and loose with figures that at best are projected or estimated costs. One would have expected the media to be more diligent in double checking the figures, given that the Department of Public Works, who is at the centre of the Nkandla renovations, is itself under scrutiny with many of its key bureaucrats facing charges of misappropriating public funds. The Public Protector and the Auditor General are investigating the matter, which means precisely that: they are looking into whether there is a problem. But this hasn’t stopped the media from tumbling over itself to report that massive public funds have conclusively been misappropriated. And the reason is that there is an ulterior motive, or agenda, at work.
In the wake of mining giant Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) plans to restructure the South African wing of its operations, resulting in 14 000 jobs being axed, and the ANC’s and SACP’s legitimate outrage over this move, most newspapers especially business newspapers, presented Amplats argument as reasonable and legitimate. Business Day ran four different pieces on the same day, all taking the same line. There was no alternative narrative making the case against job losses, as voiced by the government, the ANC and the SACP, who fear that such a move in an already depressed situation would be disastrous. The ANC, SACP, COSATU or NUM could have easily been asked to put the other side of the story, but no way: the standpoint of the private sector and mining capital had to predominate – repeatedly.
The lack of balance, fairness and accuracy in the mainstream media necessitates that the left and other democratic forces develop their own media platforms and outlets. Whilst we know as communists that we do not operate under conditions of our making and therefore must not let up contesting the mainstream media in the battle of ideas, it is equally critical that we engage our people directly and through our own platforms of news, information, analysis, research and comment without being mediated by the mouthpieces of capital. This direct engagement will ensure that our messages are not distorted, trivialised and made irrelevant, and it will ensure that key issues facing society are properly reported on and investigated.
The growth of social media has opened space for the left within the Alliance to reach audiences that could otherwise only be reached through traditional mainstream media. The use of mobile telephony by South Africa’s working class provides new and fresh opportunities for direct engagement. This provides the space to consolidate efforts to capture community newspapers, community television and radio. It has become imperative for the left to have its own media platforms.
The SACP has resolved to continue to fight to change media ownership, diversity of content and language in South Africa. To this end it will step up its engagement with the relevant agencies within the state that have been to ensure that South Africa’s media is unbundled and free from monopoly interests. We will urge the democratic government to exercise its power to support a genuinely free, balanced and informative media.
Malesela Maleka is National Committee and National Working Committee member of the YCL and SACP spokesperson.
This story was first published in Umzebenzi Online, the newsletter of the SACP and is republished with their permission.