A new 24 hour news channel has been added to the menu for South Africans to feast on. First it was eNCA with their over the top Deborah Patta and then SABC decided we wanted to watch parliamentarians speak all day.
Why the sudden interest in all things media in South Africa? Why did an investment company pay bucket loads of money to buy Avusa and rename it Times Media Group? Why did Iqbal Survé buy Independent News and Media SA from those faceless Irish billionaires?
Media is not exactly a gold mine. Magazines are dying. Newspapers are apparently dying. The internet advertising model is still not perfected. Entertainment viewing ratings are high, news viewing ratings are stagnant but we now have three channels to choose from.
From where I am sitting, it looks like a battle of ideas is at the centre of the shopping spree. Last week I was reading Business Day’s Peter Bruce’s take on the recently launched ANN7 channel. The latest addition to the DStv bouquet, cousin to The New Age newspaper, was not well received by mainstream media. It was no surprise then to hear Mr Bruce criticise the new entrant.
Previously he had dished out the same vitriol to another new entrant, Survé, who bought his second biggest rival, Independent Newspapers. He criticised the Cape Town businessman for not revealing the shareholders of the buying consortium. I didn’t know British company Pearson was until recently a 50% shareholder in BDFM before Blackstar bought the shares to form Times Media, but that’s another matter.
If like me, you studied media at university, you would have debated the principle of objectivity. This principle dictates that all media practitioners should refrain from becoming part of the story; instead they should try and remain in the middle and play referee. Admittedly, when debating this principle we also agreed that sitting on the bench and missing out on the action is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea.
I am no doctor but this is my diagnosis of the situation. Old media – or those who have been around longest – are threatened by new entrants. This is an obvious human reaction. Beyond the obvious it is that they are threatened by the new way of thought, of doing things and saying things. No longer will their apparently objective views be the centre of the stage. We will now have media stating, implicitly, that they are not anti-government. They will say they want to cover news that is pro South Africa. They will say they want to cover news that is pro-poor and majoritarian.
The not-so-independent media will jump up in arms (singing Khumbaya) and shouting in unison; “unfair play, ref”. But they will have forgotten that they are supposed to be the ref.
The argument that ownership of media has no role in the content the media delivers has fallen flat.
Politicians looking to shape voter’s thoughts have gone to bed with businessmen looking for favours. The relationship is incestuous and will probably yield no positive results.
However, it is also clear that a media in bed with ruthless capitalism is also not an independent media. In fact, in another chapter, I would argue that the media wish they were independent; they are just pipers playing to someone’s tune. The only question we need to ask is whose tune are they playing?
Siyavuya Madikane is a former journalist at Forbes Africa magazine. Follow him on Twitter @siyamadikane.