By Jane Duncan · 5 Oct 2010
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) did what most people suspected at its recent National General Council (NGC) meeting, and endorsed a Parliamentary investigation into the feasibility of setting up a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT). However the resolution that was passed by the NGC softened many of the more extreme positions taken by some ANC members in the recent past.
The dust had hardly settled on the NGC meeting, when South African Communist Party (SACP) General Secretary and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande waded in with statements accusing the media of being the biggest threat to the social revolution.
He is reported to have said at the national congress of the National Health and Allied Worker's Union (Nehawu) that ‘we have huge offensive against our democracy…The print media is the biggest perpetrator of this liberal thinking’, and that a Tribunal was necessary to protect socialism. He also argued that all political analysts and economists that were quoted by journalists were liberals, who did not understand working class struggles.
While there is a great deal of truth in Nzimande's observations about class biases in much of the media, his advocacy of the Tribunal as a solution to these problems is misplaced, and is an abuse of socialist ideas.
There is no doubt that if a statutory Tribunal is set up and attempts to influence the ideological content of the print media, then it will be unconstitutional. Nzimande himself argued in the City Press in July that the Tribunal ‘must not be a body that seeks to influence or even prohibit what the media reports. To describe it as such is blackmail by capitalist media’, yet when taken together, his statements to the Nehawu meeting makes it clear that this is the intention.
Nzimande's comments border on the dangerous, as they foment hostility towards ordinary working journalists. In this poisoned climate, what if a journalist is injured or even killed in the course of newsgathering?
Nzimande has major blind spots in his thinking about the relationship of liberal to socialist ideas, and the role of democracy in revolutionary transformation. The Marxist theory of freedom draws a distinction between negative and positive freedoms. When applied to the media, it could be argued that freedom from government control (a negative, or bourgeois, freedom) is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for freedom of expression, which should involve positive measures to democratise access to information.
In order to advance positive freedoms, the structural underpinnings of the media need to be addressed. Anti-consolidation laws, coupled with measures to expand public spaces in the media through substantial public funding are important in this regard, as they create an enabling environment for media diversity. Yet in spite of its fine-sounding rhetoric and a very good media policy in places, the ANC has, up to this point, failed dismally to implement measures to create an inclusive public sphere. Nzimande’s silence on the media transformation issues that really matter is deafening.
Socialists should experience no conflict in defending liberal demands for press freedom; in fact they are duty bound to do so. But socialists also have a duty to move beyond these demands.
Elements of what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky have termed the propaganda model (a much maligned concept in media academic circles), have salience for the South African print media. Insidiously, corporate media ownership and control, and the advertising base they rely on, tend to legitimise as ‘commonsense’ the worldviews of those who are most attractive to advertisers, leading to reporting and commentary being sucked to the political centre.
It is rare, for instance, to see a systematic defence of socialism in the media, in spite of the fact that socialist ideas enjoy widespread popularity in South African politics, suggesting a more fundamental mismatch between the ideas that circulate in society and the ideas that circulate in the media.
Furthermore, in the world of cost-cutting telephone journalism, the most used sources tend to be the most trusted, and these are generally those with access to power and resources, who have the organisational capacity to maintain a constant flow of information to the media. In the process, politically radical organisations or individuals, or organisations representing working class viewpoints, which are generally less well resourced, are crowded out of the picture.
But socialists would be shooting themselves in the face to defend the Tribunal to weed out liberalism, and to effect ‘ideological reorientation’. All this will lead to is the state picking and choosing what it wants to hear, effected through a series of judgements that punish ideologically ‘incorrect’ reporting.
Furthermore, as passive complaints-receiving bodies, Press Councils are ill equipped to respond to systemic problems in the media industry. As media accountability theorist Claude-Jean Bertrand has pointed out, Councils do not really deal with what he describes as the ‘real sins of the news media…[these being] sins of omission and long term distortions’. The Tribunal will merely reproduce these problems, as it too seems to be conceptualised as a passive complaints-receiving body.
As a result, the structural conditions in the media that gave rise to inclinations towards elite worldviews in the first place will remain unaddressed. Nzimande’s Tribunal will address symptoms, not causes.
The voices that are most at risk in this scenario are those of the very working class that Nzimande claims to be concerned about, many of whom are at odds with the state on a daily basis on service delivery and public participation questions. Their main problem is not having a voice, or not having an adequate voice, not having a voice, which is then, at times, subjected to unethical journalism. Yet Nzimande's concerns are clearly driven by the priorities of the already represented, not the unrepresented, which speaks volumes about political priorities.
Within the above-mentioned constraints, journalists do exercise relative autonomy, because the very nature of media production makes tight control of the final journalistic product impractical. Many of the most groundbreaking stories of the recent past, such as Oilgate and Travelgate, have been broken by the print media. Journalists make news, and often make it very, very well, but not in conditions of their own making.
Socialists must protect spaces for journalism that exposes elite misconduct, as it benefits society as a whole. But socialists must point out that the stuff of journalism should not be confined to elite misconduct.
Nzimande's insensitivity to the conditions of working journalists is deeply troubling. The average working journalist is generally at the bottom of the food chain of a large and complex corporate machine. Under conditions of globalisation, their working conditions, as well as their agency, have been eroded, and journalists are being forced to do more with less.
Yet, as a report into editorial standards at the Sunday Times pointed out in 2008, editorial management structures have expanded, leading to a top heavy institution where managers manage managers. But the areas where resources are most needed - namely the newsrooms and, more specifically, the fact checking systems - are starved. So it is hardly surprising that nearly all of the complaints referred to the Press Ombudsman’s office are about factual inaccuracies.
All of this has made for an increasingly stressful working environment, and Nzimande's statements, which are edging closer to war talk against journalists, will ratchet up the stress levels even more. It is wrong to blame journalists for a decline in ethical standards, and to threaten them with punishment, if the media environment in which they operate, and over which they have very little control, is to blame.
Internationally, journalists themselves have been at the forefront of struggles to change these practices in their own backyards (their newsrooms). The principle of journalistic self-regulation - which Nzimande sneers at on every available occasion - has become a crucial weapon in this struggle. Nzimande needs to be reminded that, to a large extent, the concept has its origins in the trade union movement, and its most uncompromising defenders are often organised media workers. Many of the problems we see in the media, including ethical lapses, do not flow from the fact that we have too much journalistic self-regulation. They flow from the fact that we have too little of it.
According to its Declaration on the conduct of journalists, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), states that 'Within the general laws of each country, respect for the truth and the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist, to the exclusion of every kind of interference by governments or others’.
True journalism – the type of journalism espoused by Karl Marx in his defence of press freedom – has an ethical basis. Ethical principles and practices cannot be legislated or compelled; they must be driven by a deeper moral purposes, and arise primarily out of journalistic self-organisation and self-activity.
Codes of ethics should involve an assertion of journalistic principles, as well as the primacy of the judgement of their peers. Peer review is an important principle for journalists as they have (or should have) no vested interests other than the protecting the principles of their craft, while the same cannot be said for media owners, big business, governments, Parliaments and others in positions of power (including Nzimande).
Understood in these radical (rather than liberal) terms - as a journalistic attempt to exercise greater control over at least a part of the means of production in the face of growing commercial pressures - self-regulation is a basic democratic demand that Nzimande should have great sympathy for. Journalistic self-regulation, properly understood, cannot simply be equated with neoliberal arguments for letting markets regulate themselves.
Socialists like Nzimande should be supporting the struggles of journalists to return the craft back to its ethical foundation – namely to speak truth to power, and on behalf of the powerless - and defend spaces for journalistic self-activity.
Unfortunately, in South Africa, journalists' organisations and media unions have been weakened, and have not been playing the crucial role of ethical watchdogs, celebrating journalistic excellence while naming and shaming abuses of journalistic freedoms. But the solution is to strengthen these organisations, not destroy them.
At the very least, the self-regulatory mechanisms that are set up should be controlled, in the main, by journalists, and complimented by public participation. As journalism is practiced on behalf of the public, pure self-regulation is strategically unwise given the global decline of public trust in many media products. The representation of organised journalists on the Press Council of South Africa has been practically non-existent, owing in part to the lack of strong journalist's organisations, and this weakness needs to be addressed.
Democratic newsroom practices should also be supported, including systems allowing journalists to influence the appointment of senior editorial staff, or even elect editors, and the conclusion of charters of editorial independence with their respective managers and owners. But socialists like Nzimande must go beyond these participatory mainstream media practices, and promote alternative models of journalism and media making.
There is also a rich and growing body of theory and practice on non-state, democratic media accountability that challenges rather than reinforces monopoly media control, which Nzimande appears oblivious to. By promoting the Tribunal as the only way of ensuring media accountability, Nzimande is undermining these theoretical advances and practical struggles.
To the extent that it is symptomatic of a shift towards authoritarianism, Nzimande's increasingly hysterical statements about the media constitute the real threat to democracy. Everyone knows that he is not a disinterested party in this debate. Everyone who hears or reads his statements, hears or reads them with the knowledge that he himself has been severely criticised for consumerist, anti-socialist behaviour by the evil, neo-liberal print media. As a result, his support for the Tribunal comes across as a thinly disguised attempt to stop the press from saying bad things about his choices in motorcars and hotels. To this extent, it is difficult not to conclude that the Tribunal seeks to protect capitalism, not socialism.
This is a public plea for Nzimande to reflect more deeply on the implications of his statements. Given the importance of his voice in the public space, and his (and the SACP’s) much needed critiques of South Africa's drift towards social conservatism, political stagnation and crony capitalism, he is doing himself and the Party a disservice with this intemperate bluster. It must be made clear that in making arguments in favour of the Tribunal, Nzimande does not speak for socialists: Stalinists maybe, but not socialists.
An Important Perspective
This is an important perspective. The assault on freedom of expression and access to information is critical for our democracy. Politicians who espouse regulation of the media and corporate control of the media are both a threat to democracy.
Media and Democracy?
As a journalist living abroad but knowing SA and the ANC quite well, I enjoy Prof Duncan's articles and wish they would be published on the front page of the main newspapers. I can't agree more on the argument that it is the causes that should be addressed, not (only) the symptoms. Problem is: any appeal is based on symptoms, also self regulatory ombudsmen etc. The only difference between the proposed MAT and current ombudsmen is that MAT is supposed to be more independent because outside the media. So I'd think neither can be more than a watchdog for symptoms. In a comment like this one can't develop, but let me try to make a few points. I'd propose that SA journalists organisations start with:
1. A ban on the scoop culture which is a permanent temptation for sloppy if not unethical journalism;
2. A ban on anonymous sources unless there is strong corroborating evidence.
Up to a point I do agree with Blade Nzimande that current press practice in SA is a threat to democracy (and has been e.g.during the years of internal crisis inside the ANC where they seemed to act as propagandists, if not protagonists, instead of observers in not only an unethical but also undemocratic manner). This because of the very conception of democracy that transpires from media reporting.
Accountability: the press wants the ANC to be accountable to the media and its middle class readership (and owners?), but the ANC is in the last analysis accountable to the majority of two thirds of the voters, i.e. the lower strata of society. And those people seem to have quite different complaints that we hear very little about. (Not only because of phone journalism and lack of interest, but also because of missing their points, as Steven Friedman also recently argued.)
Democratic practice: how are policy decisions arrived at? The media seem to think the leaders decide, the people are 'voting cattle' and have little or nothing to say, not even the grassroots ANC members. The point is that IF in the ANC that is how it goes, the media seem quite happy with itt as is evidenced by their treating all policy issues in terms of individual ministers and other leaders. (They even hardly analyse policy itself and its implementation...)
Democratic debate: opinions of politicians are almost invariably seen not as elements of democratic debate but as signs of conflicts, opposition, power struggle and competition between individuals.
This is neoliberal dogma: power struggle and competition is all that exists; individualism is the engine of all men. Democracy is a matter of excellence in propaganda and marketing. And so on.
I think that is where the media clash head on with ANC traditions and the SACP. Because moreover such a conception of democracy - and hence of an almost exclusive leadership-watchdog role of the media - in practice appears to preclude a constructive role in reporting, informing, analysing etc of policies, problems and progress in the field of transformation and development, i.e. of the priorities of most South Africans. Eg this week the media seemed shocked to discover the ANC wants a 'full social security system'. But wasn't that quite obvious ever since Minister Zola Skweyiya started unfolding ANC social policies?
So my question is: apart from the elements towards change Prof Duncan mentions, how can the media start its ideological transformation and be more in tune with majority interests and thinking in SA??
It is essential that the independent left confront the Satalinism of the SACP head on.