South Africa’s mainstream print media is once again at the receiving end of severe criticism. In the June-August 2015 period alone, some African National Congress (ANC)-aligned senior politicians and other few ‘independent’ senior newspaper editors and media practitioners have sharply disparaged it [i] mainly for ‘bias’. Media academic Dr Musawenkosi W Ndlovu analyses what’s happening in political journalism, and why it is happening.
The nub of the criticism, in short and in my view, rests on seven (journalistic) areas: news agenda (types and priority of stories they cover); framing (too much negative content); ethics (stories = shallow, sensational, inaccurate, bias and of poor journalistic standards); transformation (they are largely male- and white-controlled); liberal ideology as a cover for subliminal racism (anti-ANC/tripartite alliance and broader black leadership in the political economy; unpatriotic (unsympathetic to the country’s image domestically and abroad); being too market-oriented (more preoccupied with the bottom-line and hardly contributing to the idea/practice of a developmental state and producing stories of irrelevance to the country’s poor majority); agents of hidden agenda (parade middle/upper class white minority opinion as if it were a collective SA opinion and frame American and West Europe perspective as if it were collective international opinion); ownership structure (monopolistic/lacking ownership diversity).
To this degree, Moegsien Williams, a seasoned editor of The New Age and ANN7 penned an op-ed [ii] in the weekly CityPress spelling out various deficiencies of local mainstream news media. In the subsequent live TV/public debate co-hosted by his paper and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), he then supported the regulation of the print media. In the same debate, the Citizen’s editor, Steve Motale, who had days before written a public apology to President Jacob Zuma about how the media had negatively and inaccurately framed him over time, supported print media regulation [iii]. Equally, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, SABC’s chief operations officer (COO), called for independent regulation of print. For a long time, he has been advocating for more patriotic stories about South Africa. Lumko Mtimde [iv], a media regulation expert, wrote in the Daily Maverick mostly in support of Williams and in response to Steven Grootes (Radio 702), who had taken a differing view to Williams and others.
Editors’ and media practitioners’ recent condemnations of mainstream print followed SACP leader Blade Nzimande’s call for the independent regulation of print media. Nzimande’s views were echoed by his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, in an interview with eNCA’s primetime news-anchor, Jeremy Maggs. Cronin described some of the stories produced by South African journalists as shallow. Other prominent leaders of the tripartite alliance (ANC, SACP and Cosatu), including ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, his deputy Jessie Duarte and ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize, though they did not necessarily call for independent regulation of print media per se, they questioned the general fairness of the South African media.
This normative debate about what should be the role of South African media post-apartheid and in the new democracy is really not new. There are certain aspects of it I wish to respond to as I go along.
First, the nature of issues summarised in seven points above, respectfully, cannot be satisfactory, if at all, be remedied by (narrow) administrative regulation. Regulation for broadcast media, for example, exists in SA but it has not altered e.tv/eNCA’s news agenda, framing and ideology, which are very much similar to the mainstream print media, hence the attempt to compromise the independence of e.tv by some in government [v].
The proposed independent media regulation is most likely, as it is the case with broadcast regulatory framework, to be corrective of unethical (shallow, inaccurate, sensational) stories, post-publication. If so desired, it could institutionally improve the current print self-regulation framework; and it could pressure competing training institutes to produce high calibre journalists, if the other concern is the correlation between newsroom juniorisation and dropping journalism standards.
Second, the proposed independent regulation will however have no capacity, as it must not, to regulate matters of ‘thought’ and how journalists feel: ideological outlook, news agenda, framing, patriotism, etc. To the degree that these end up being practiced in the news production processes, they are social imports; they are products of broader political and cultural socialisation, from which journalists draw their perspectives in life. It is difficult to imagine how they can be regulated without any direct resorting to dictatorial and undemocratic forms of media controls, where political news agenda and framing would either need to be approved from Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), Union Buildings or Luthuli House.
There are at least two ways of dealing with these issues of ‘thought’: First, we must debate as we do to influence each other in the public sphere. Second, The New Age, The Citizen’s editor, ANN7, and SABC must provide different news agendas and forms of framing that better advance the welfare of our new democracy. I see no reason why media of various ideological descriptions should co-exist in an open democracy. Both sides seem to suggest that only and only they are good for the SA public. Should this not be left to the news-consuming public to decide?
The tragedy for our democracy though will mainly only happen if government- SABC/ANN7/The New Age nexus were to use taxes, of a multi-ideological public(s), to exclude mainstream news media because it is ideologically-irksome.
“A bad free press is preferable to a technically good, subservient one…None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced” (Nelson Mandela, 2009:115) [vi].
Third, in the media world, legislation and theory are always outpaced by social and technological transformations. The proposed independent regulation may have a serious problem defining ‘print’ media in these days of multimedia journalism. It will have problems delimiting where journalism actually start and end where opinion and news blend. It may work harder separating the journalist- the person and journalist – the professional – as far as the intersection between social, online and traditional media are concerned. For example, even journalists that belong to so-called pro-government media articulate views on social media so divergent to their conventional news output to the point that they seem rather ‘schizophrenic’. The proposed independent regulation, if approved, may need to be so prescriptive then as to cover any form of perceived journalistic bias on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, etc. I am at a loss how this can be achieved without trampling on the Bill of Rights.
Fourth, apart from the emotional and mistaken presupposition that introducing independent print regulation will mitigate bias, there is another danger in the debate: linking racial identity to possible ideological output. That is, the presumption by increasing the number of black journalists’ alone mainstream newsrooms may end up with more ‘acceptable’ coverage of the ANC, government and broader black leadership. This view, apart from ignoring the number of mainstream media linked to SA working class-based trade unions, makes three mistakes: a) that all black journalists are by nature ideologically and historically sympathetic to the ANC; b) that all black journalists are critical of mainstream news media; c) and, internalises racist constructs that all black people think the same; or, those that hold differing views are just not black enough.
Empirically, this view is rather tenuous. My study on comparing media systems in Brics countries, as does Wits’ Journalism Department’s State of Newsroom report (2013/2014), point to the increase in the number of mainstream black journalists and editors. However, in this context, despite this transformation, attacks on mainstream media’s news agenda and framing of the ANC-led government and broader black leadership have not decreased.
Part of the reason independent regulation and race-based only transformation have not and will not yield results satisfactory to the aforementioned is that they are dealing with symptoms, not causes of ‘bias’; and, bias itself is inadequately diagnosed, as there are various strands of biases.
I contend that there are at least three main factors that determine news agenda and framing of South African mainstream political journalism that are a cause of misunderstandings on mainstream media, ANC, black leadership. These factors determine news output irrespective of whether a journalist is black or white, woman or man, young or old, rural or urban, junior or senior.
Some of these factors are external to the institution of journalism and some are internal to it. These are:
- Narrow application of the watchdog function in the public sphere.
- Race-based structure of the SA society and private/public institutions.
- News values: news selection criteria by journalists: Familiarity (to do with people or places close to home); Negativity (bad news is more newsworthy than good news); Reference to elite persons (Stories about the rich, powerful and famous get covered more), etc.
(A): SA’s mainstream news media holds those who hold public office/power to much closer public scrutiny than it does those who hold corporate SA power. If, for example, one of the largest law firms in Africa, Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, recently pointed to corporate SA’s failure to deal with corruption, SA journalism to has failed on two fronts: a) to expose corporate SA’s corruption and b) corporate SA’s failure to expose it. By exposing corruption only in one set of institutions and not in others, SA mainstream journalism becomes guilty of institutional bias. This is not a form of bias produced by the coverage of this story or that one, but the one produced by a broader representation of which institutions in SA are – and conceived to be corrupt – and, equally which ones are or conceived be NOT.
My point is not about whether or not government corruption exists. It CERTAINLY does. My argument is that government and other public institutions are the only ones that get exposed disproportionately as corrupt, not the private sector. The function of good and objective journalism is to expose corruption in all sectors/institutions of the society. There is a general reluctance from mainstream media to investigate corporate SA with the same vigour, regularity and intensity as it does the public sector. It is true that the ‘role of media is not to suck up to government’. Equally, the ‘role of media is not to suck up to big business’ either!
Be the above as it may, it is rather problematic to argue that journalists who regularly expose public sector malfeasance have set themselves up as an ‘opposition’. Equally, however the remnants of serious racism we suffer in newsrooms, it is reductionists, if not insulting, to argue that all white journalists expose corruption because they yearn for the apartheid past.
What we are dealing with here is institutional bias, an unfortunate universal kind of partiality. We are dealing with a problematic attribute typical of the field of political journalism vision in SA. It is informed by the treatment of big corporates as private citizens and public institutions, as such, as public. Following this logic, which SA consumer journalists do not follow, mainstream journalism, in its execution of the proverbial liberal watchdog function, subject those who function in the public institutions to much closer scrutiny than those who function in the private institutions/spheres.
In the SA journalism context, the manner in which this separation of the public and private (excluding privacy of persons and home) gets done exposes commercial media naiveté (and how Steven Grootes [vii] is somehow missing the point) and misunderstanding why they are being attacked. This separation of ‘private’ and ‘public’ may be innocent and innocuous in any other society. Against the backdrop of SA history and in the current forms of journalistic output, this separation is flawed. This is because of (b) above: race-based structure of the SA society and private/public institutions.
Colonialism/apartheid, incontrovertibly, bequeathed post-apartheid SA with a perverse institutional social arrangement in which, on the one hand, white people dominate liberal-market-oriented big business/private capital in particular, with exception being, at least recently, political developments in the Western Cape Province and in some of the publicly-financed scientific research/academic/institutes. On the other hand, black people in particular, largely dominate public formal political (economic) institutions driven via a left-leaning and social democratic philosophy, which seems to say:
The defence of democracy is virtually equivalent to the struggle to win control over bureaucratic state institutions; to utilise their directive capacity in economic, social and foreign policy matters; and thereby to weaken or negate the power of private capital and the inequalities and unfreedoms for which it is responsible” (John Keane, 1984:1).
Although organised private capital, ANC-lead tripartite alliance and public institutions equally configure the fabric of the SA public life and lived experience, mainstream political journalism disproportionately focuses on those various strata of our public life that are largely negatively affected by activities of public institutions and personnel.
Then once the broader decision to cover the ‘public’ to exclusion of the ‘private’ is taken, ritualistic journalistic methods of covering stories are followed. One of these methods is (c) above: news values. If you then apply the above a, b, and c in South Africa you can make these following predictions. You can apply this retrospectively make by analysing past news reports too.
This following weekend, for example, news media such as CityPress, Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times and Sunday Independent will carry a negative story of a familiar and prominent black person. The black person, central subject of the story, is most likely to be a public servant working either in one of the broader structures constitutive of our government; in one of the chapter nine institutions; in the parastatals such as Telkom, Eskom, Denel or Transnet/PRASA; or, in any of the other (quasi)-public institutions such SABC, Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), or Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA), South African Airways (SAA), etc.
If not, the story subject is most likely to be a black person associated with the broader tripartite alliance. The story subject’s association with tripartite alliance will be established via their history, business activity, or direct membership.
The story will either be about their administrative/procedural/conceptual (in) competence (Why did Zuma take so long to… or will this policy proposed by this cabinet minister work?); their public ethical conduct (e.g. did they influence the tender/arms deal process?); their ideological factional position in the inter/intra-group relations within the broader tripartite alliance (e.g. will Zwelinzima Vavi survive Sdumo Dlamini?); their personal (chaotic) moral conduct (Jacob Zuma vs. Sonono Khoza/his wives, Fikile Mbalula vs. Joyce Omphemetse Molamu, Flyod Shibambu vs. Andile Masuku) etc.); or, their relationship with an ‘allegedly’ dubiously-acquired material asset: (e.g. Tony Yengeni’s discounted Mercedez-Benz, the size of Fana Hlongwane’s house, Sbu Ndbele’s BMW gift, Zuma’s Nkandla house, etc.).
Because local political journalism’s content and themes – specifically the representation of public institutions, personnel and spaces – tend to coincide, in the final analysis, with the historical racist textual construction of ‘blackness’ as corrupt and morally deficient, they invite accusation that mainstream media is still racist. Respectfully, this perception is itself is inadequate in this context.
SA editors hardly consciously hold newsroom agenda meetings with an express purpose of undermining government, tripartite alliance and the broad black leadership in business, politics and labour. Hardly any evidence exists that editors, black or white, would hold back should white males such as, for example, Derek Hanekom (ANC), Jeremy Cronin (SACP) or Patrick Craven (formerly Cosatu) be found in corrupt activities. The affairs of these white males, however, and because of their association with SA government/public institutions and the ruling tripartite alliance, are most likely to be subjected to much closer scrutiny in our mainstream political media than the affairs of other white and black males in big business. The evidence is media’s reportage on Carl Niehaus [viii], Alec Erwin, Willem Heath and Willie Hofmeyr. If you examine these white males’ proximity to SA politics/public institutions, you get my point about institutional bias.
It is an accident of our tragic and unique history that people who have come to dominate or who are more visible in public institutions are largely black as it is the same with whites and the private sector. ‘Unwittingly’ then, and refusing to admit when it is pointed out, media’s liberal watchdog function that subjects public institutions to much closer scrutiny than big business, in essence, disproportionately investigates black people. There is nothing wrong with investigating corrupt black people; but there is everything wrong with investigating only them in exclusion of any other racial group in acts of corruption.
Black people are legitimately aggrieved. The paid-for advert on the 6 May 2001 (Sunday Times) says it all: “There is a very perceptible and increasingly strident campaign against Black people in powerful positions whether in government, business or in the labour movement. There are constant efforts in the media to portray the country and its leaders in the most negative manner possible”.
Ten years later, Lumko Mtimde, chief executive of the MDDA, was to write: on questions of morality, there is a simple dividing line: black incompetence vs white excellence, black sleaze vs white honesty, black illiteracy vs white literacy, black guilt vs white innocence”. After the author Eric Myeni’s racist attack on Ferrial Hafejee (now City Press editor)….
“Who the devil is she anyway if not a black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks? She was groomed by The Mail & Guardian, the same newspaper that produces the Jacob Dlaminis of this world, black people who say it was nice to live in the townships under apartheid” (Sowetan, 1 August, 2011)
…it took Khaya Dlanga to say “one can understand where Eric Miyeni’s anger is coming from. It comes from something that many people feel (my emphasis). When black people and those in government feel selectively attacked, certain ambivalence about mainstream journalism develops.
In this regard, there have been overtime relentless attempts to compromise the independence of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) news editorial in favour of some factions of the ANC or tripartite alliance. Of late, attempts to get into the SABC’s newsroom have been done through political and ideological protection of Motsoeneng himself, SABC’s chief operations officer. Various politically-networked lobby groups see him as capable of being counter-hegemonic to the liberal/commercial news media agenda. Hlaudi himself has, on several occasions, questioned the negative stories that get carried by SA media, to the degree that he has called for 70% percent happy news at the SABC.
Integral to challenging mainstream commercial media’s news agenda and demonstrating mistrust of it, are tactics aimed at maximising visibility and publicity of public officials. Speaking to this is the continuing relationship between William’s The New Age newspaper, SABC’s Morning Live and government. This partnership between The New Age, Morning Live and government or parastatals gives ministers/public officials a platform where they can speak ‘directly’ to the public. Needless to say, were commercial liberal media believed to be executing this role efficiently, or, if at all, this partnership, paid for by SA taxpayers, would not exist. (Williams and Motsoeneng, like mainstream media itself, speak of others’ bias and not of theirs).
Poor, poor SA public being lied to from all sides!
Acts of giving public officials and their work more publicity/ visibility in the battle of shaping news agenda are also exemplified by the launch government’s newspaper- Vuk’zenzele, Public Sector Magazine [ix], and the recently-mooted state TV; the increase in public officials’ and government departments’ self-advertisement and branding, still far more visible in indigenous-language media (which, in general, the Finance Minister has called for the reduction of); the decision to deliver the State of the Nation Address in the evenings; the use of community radio stations to carry State of Provinces live; Izimbizo and other forms of public engagements, where public official can interact directly with the ‘public’.
The alliance’s concern and mistrust is also at the level of media ownership as noted above. By all accounts, the Sekunjalo Media Consortium that finally bought Irish-owned Independent News & Media South Africa was formed with an ideological view that print media needed to be transformed to have more black people representation, locally-owned and set a new agenda. The systematic dismissals of the journalists and commentators at Sekunjalo Group have to do with reimagining the news agenda being set by Independent Media.
The mistrust of liberal/commercial media has also been demonstrated at the level of what Noam Chomsky calls flak [x]. In the SA case, this is/was demonstrated by, for example, endless and racial-ised questioning of bona fides of national commercial news media content and Jimmy Manyi’s belligerence towards media (when he was government spokesperson). The punishment of mainstream media is also done by not responding to its publication deadlines, constantly throwing lawyers at it, and by giving exclusive crucial information to media that is of approved ideologies.
Closer to flak are continuous calls for Media Appeals Tribunal and Protection of State Information Bill by the ANC and SACP. These have so far failed to see the light of day. It is difficult to control SA media, given the whole protections under the SA Constitution. What is happening, however, is the creation of and support for media types that challenge the news agenda of liberal/commercial media. Some examples are given above.
The perception of bias is easily manipulated by populist political actors. The examples are attacks on the City Press for Brett Murray’s painting on Zacob Zuma and renting of the crowd to the Cape Times in protest against “all racist journalists”.
Also, in this ambivalence, politicians with their own agendas exploit the legitimate language of and need for transformation to strategically insert the likes of Motsoeneng in institutions such SABC. But we would not be here if SA political journalism was a true reflection of SA.
It is easy to critic political journalism for what it is and difficult to explain what it should be. That said: why did it take political journalism so long to uncover the corruption-exposing “13-year paper trail” in the Auction Alliance kickback scandal? Truly, where was SA journalism in the thirteen years of the money trail? Would it have taken thirteen years for SA journalism to uncover government corruption? How is it possible that an under-resourced magazine like Noseweek leads with the following headlines and the whole range of better-resourced mainstream journalists cannot?
“83 Advocates face fraud inquiry”
“Randgold shareholders sue Investec for Billions”
“BMW’s big squeeze”
“Nedbank’s word isn’t bond”
“Coke Lawyers get up the Trucker’s Nose”
“Woolies Exploit Rhinos”
“Dischem sells Snake oil”
“Sasfin gives with one hand”
“Deloitte’s unusual deal”
At the same time, the above headlines show the empirical incorrectness of speaking in absolute terms that corporate shenanigans are not exposed. It is equally incorrect to speak in absolutes that government and black leadership do not get positive coverage (See, for example, Leadership magazine on Susan Shabangu (Cabinet minister/ANC) and Senzo Mchunu (KZN premier/ANC). See also Drum magazine’s framing of Minister Education, Angie Motshekga (7 Novermber, 2013).
The national Treasury Department, including black leadership in it, is just having a good time. Apart from this, finance minister is the only national cabinet minister whose work is regularly broadcast live and covered almost in its entirety by newspapers. The framing of the Treasury in the mainstream is different to those of other government ministries and departments.
Equally and reflecting the abovementioned institutional bias, black business leaders who are not involved in BEE deals, a sphere closer to mainstream politics, are absent from and not constructed negatively by our political news media.
Importantly also, these leaders are represented largely positively in business-oriented media such as CNBC Africa, Moneyweb, Summit, Leadership magazine, etc. These leaders, unlike their counterparts in politics who are largely represented in their extractive capacity of looting, incompetence and corruption, are constructed in their contributory capacity as experts, prudent and profound. It is common for consumer lifestyle magazines such as Truelove, Destiny, and Destiny Man to positively profile black people and their great achievements. To this degree and contest, collective terms such ‘media’ and ‘biases’ are misleading. It would appear then that political journalism is main source of public debate.
Part of the problem, in closing, is that media platforms that expose big corporate corruption and media platforms that highlight black excellence have certain features in common. They,
- Are not mass (meaning they are not necessarily available to a quantitatively large undifferentiated audience; their audiences are small and specialised);
- Do not get ‘echoed’ as much on daily basis on social media and other micro-public spheres: symposia, train stations, under the tree, conferences, shops verandas, etc., and, they
- Frame differently (and those that expose corporate corruption tend to focus on brands other than persons;
Furthermore, the difference is that headlines that speak of big business misdeeds- do not always make: front pages of daily newspapers; first items on e.tv and SABC news; part of daily interactions in our social media; make it to Zapiro’s cartoons. They are hardly subject to intense ridicule by our drive time DJs and stand-up comedians. They are not necessarily conversations in the micro-public spheres of trains, taxis, coffee houses and salons. Scholarly articles, lectures and seminars are rarely conceptualised on their bases. Our political (economy) commentators/analysts are hardly called upon to comment on them. Hardly will public surveys be made on them. They won’t be reflected in the works of our theatres, galleries, etc. In short, they hardly make it into the national psyche NEGATIVELY.
[i] Though they sometimes imprecisely apply the collective term media.
[vi] Crwys-Williams, J. ed. 2009. In the words of Nelson Mandela. Cape Town: Penguin Books.
[ix] Some academics like to argue that all print privately-owned. Hilarious.
[x] The fourth filter is ‘flak’, described by Herman and Chomsky as ‘negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and Bills before Congress and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action’. Business organisations regularly come together to form flak machines.
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