The South African Media and Human Rights

4 Jul 2013

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“Does the media have a human rights agenda?” SACSIS’ Fazila Farouk put the question to William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa, an organisation that tries to hold the media accountable to human rights principles.

Bird argues that editorially there is a very clear bias in favour of the Constitution in South Africa, but in trying to see if that translates into overall trends in reporting, and specifically a human rights bias, then the answer is very clearly no. Across a range of different parameters, one finds that the South African media just don’t have a very clear human rights agenda, he contends.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

The media is a very important institution in South Africa. They are our society’s watchdogs.

What the media reports on, how it reports on things, the questions it poses, these are all incredibly important for informing and shaping public opinion.

At the same time, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. It is an issue that we as a nation, ought to be ashamed of. It is an issue that we as a nation, ought to be organizing around to stand up against.

Yet, when we look at the court of public opinion, which is controlled by the media, we do not see inequality being discussed as a burning issue in the court of public opinion. What is being discussed is crime and corruption -- but inequality is as important if not more.

If one takes as a point of departure, as we do here at SACSIS, that poverty is a denial of human rights then one has to ask the question: does the media have a human rights agenda, as we do not see any demonstrable effort to put the issue of inequality on the media agenda?

Now, our guest today has been working for an organization that’s been tracking what the media has been reporting on for the last 20 years and specifically they’re interested in looking at how the media reports on human rights issues.

We’re talking, today, to William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa.

Welcome to SACSIS William.

WILLIAM BIRD: Thanks for having me.

FAZILA FAROUK: William your organization has been trying to hold the media accountable fro many years for its reporting and particularly focusing on the issues related to human rights. And I would argue linked to that we need to look at poverty and inequality very, very closely.

Is the media reporting adequately on it? Is it informing the public and educating the public on the issue of poverty and inequality?

I’d like you to start off by talking to us a little bit about how Media Monitoring Africa monitors the issue of human rights, in general, in the South African media.

WILLIAM BIRD: We look at it from a range of different perspectives because our bias, and clearly stated, is to see…and to try and build a culture of human rights and a culture of human rights reporting. So we aim to try and hold the powered…the powerful to account, which includes the media, but also then indirectly the ones that the media themselves are seeking to hold accountable.

And we do that in a number of ways and we look at a number of different issues. So some of the key things that make up poverty and inequality are issues relating to gender, for example. We have…in as much as we have one of the most unequal societies in the world; we also…our levels of gender inequality are also staggeringly high, if you can make that kind of comparison.

We also look at issues around race, racism, xenophobia, which again because of our history’s makeup are issues that continue to plague us and to, I think, engender and promote inequality actually.

We also look at basic issues of democracy and governance, especially around election…election time when, of course, the media’s role really then, around elections, is to inform people so that they can make informed choices, is one of the basic cornerstones of any kind of democratic state.

And we also look at the issues around youth and we look at issues around labour and how all of these kinds of areas and peoples and voices are reported. And in essence what we find is this…Is that the media have a very clear - and I’m talking now mainstream media and by that I mean your mainstream print media houses - so your big four as well as your other member of that, that makes up the little five or the smaller five of the big five which would be like the Mail & Guardian because of it’s influence over opinion and stakeholders. And then some of your major free to air broadcasters, your SABC and your E-TV. So if you look at that you’ll see that you have a very deliberate and clear bias in favour of our Constitution, which is to say there’s numerous instances where editorially and in some of their pieces they take a clear position on the Constitution and that they say it’s a great document. So there’s a clear, positive bias I think in terms of that. But then when you try and see if that translates into their overall trends of reporting and specifically their human rights bias or agenda, then your answer is very clearly no. And that’s across a range of different parameters that you’ll find they just don’t have a very clear human rights agenda.

FAZILA FAROUK: In talking about a human rights agenda, you’ve generally said that it doesn’t appear that they do have one. But let’s unpack one issue specifically that you’ve highlighted. Let’s talk about labour -- how does the media report on labour issues?

WILLIAM BIRD: So if you say, “Do they have a human rights agenda?” One of the ways that you can almost prove that there isn’t human rights agenda is by looking at what there is. And if you look at what there is, there is a very deliberate and very clear agenda in favour of business and a very pro-business agenda in a lot of our mainstream media and this is evidenced on a very simple level by the fact that you’ve got overtly and very deliberately media focused and media aligned mainstream media. Niche media and very, overt mainstream business focused media.

So then what you start to see there is that any kind of issues around labour are framed in that very business agenda. And that usually means that those labour issues are framed generally quite negatively, Strikes, for example, are seen as things that are very hazardous to our society, they’re something that undermine national confidence. They do all sorts of bad things and that people should therefore seek to avoid strikes because of the harm they cause to business.

So that kind of the rights and issues that are contained and that are being focused on in those strikes, the causes of those strikes are very, very rarely unpacked.

So, if you look at Marikana, for example, it was days after the people were killed there that you started to get a sense of how much were these people actually earning - and how much - what were the issues they were striking about?

Because what you get a sense of is, is that - and what it tends to do is, it tends to class people into types. So that if you’re a businessperson, you’re not just a businessperson, you become an embodiment of a human being. You have a personality and you’ll be interviewed on various business programmes and you’ll have your own individual personality. If you’re a worker, you’re just a worker. You don’t often have your own sense of personality. So if you go on strike, you’re just going on strike. It’s almost as though you’re a mindless being that just says, the union representative is going to tell you to strike, therefore you will strike. The actual issues that you’re striking for or about are very, very rarely unpacked and, sort of, looked into to terms of saying this is what this person’s lived conditions are actually like.

So the fact that you have a business dedicated section in most of your common news bulletins, that you have niche business media, always seeks to give higher credibility to businesses, as opposed to labour. And one of the complaints, and I think a perfectly legitimate one that the labour unions have had for years around our public broadcaster, is that they haven’t been given sufficient air time.

And we know that one of the reasons for that, in fact, is that in the early 2000s the mining companies had a very clear, although not an open agreement, with some of our public broadcaster channels to make sure that they had on-going and regular segments around mining from, again, from a mining perspective, from a business perspective to show just how wonderful they are and all the wonderful things that they’re doing.

Which isn’t to say some of those things may not be true, but it is to say that what you getting is a very, very biased picture that starts to frame the issues.

In your introduction you said, the media tells us, you know, frames the questions that we think about in society, and I think that’s true. They don’t tell us what to think, but they certainly frame what to think about. So, they start to frame that world. So the moment your world vision looks from a business lens, anything that’s outside of that is going to seem to be ordinary or extraordinary.

It’s something that doesn’t quite fit. It’s something that isn’t in our worldview. And that’s a very dangerous thing because what that does of course is it reinforces those high levels of inequality.

FAZILA FAROUK: So I’m glad you touched on this question of inequality. How are our media reporting on inequality in South Africa?

WILLIAM BIRD: So again it’s a bit like poverty and labour. It’s there all the time but it’s very, very rarely unpacked. So they’ll talk about inequality and there will be a clear kind of editorial line that you can pick up that inequality is bad and we must do something about it. But it’s - it’s almost as though its one of these intractable problems. It’s there, we’ve got to do something and…and then it gets kind of diverted into this kind of government versus business discourse. That the government has one idea and they don’t know what they’re doing and business does, and if only business could do what they needed to do everything would be great.

You know, so it sort of seems the way you’re going to address inequality is to let business do what it needs to do and to get about. Which is fix labour, labour laws etc. etc. So the issue of inequality are then very rarely again addressed.

FAZILA FAROUK: So our media justifies its position in society as our watchdogs. They are the fourth estate. I would say that they then have a responsibility towards nation building. What’s your take on that? Do you think our media is contributing towards nation building?

WILLIAM BIRD: I think that they do and they don’t in similar ways to the fact that they kind of raise poverty and inequality.

To the extent that they do, they like to see themselves - and again it serves their commercial interests often - if they push something that tries to build some sense of nationhood or something around nationalism, you know, where it’s…So it’s like the World Cup, for example. Those things they like to try and get behind and promote because it means that often people associate with that. They can sell more copies if they’ve got a very pro South Africa agenda.

But, if you sort of go a little bit beyond that sort of skin-deep perspective of it and you say, “What does it mean to be doing nation building?” Does it mean to be realizing the values that are enshrined in our Constitution and do they have a deliberate and very clear agenda to do that?

While some of them some of the editors might think that they do have that and I think that there are some, it’s very hard to kind of change that when the overwhelming majority of news values kind of mitigates almost against that sense of what it is. So it’s very rare that you get ideas about what does it mean to be South African today? What is, South Africa and what’s our South African identity?

FAZILA FAROUK: Now your organization obviously was established to monitor human rights because you want to push the media in that direction. So what would you say our media needs to be doing to become more sensitive to human rights reporting?

WILLIAM BIRD: Some of them need to listen to their audiences a little bit more. And we haven’t quite started to learn that lesson. They’re starting to because they’re being forced to, not necessarily because they want to.

FAZILA FAROUK: And how are they being forced to?

WILLIAM BIRD: They’re being forced to because of the changes in technology. So people are…and because their economic models are just falling apart - particularly for print media. So they’re forcing those kinds of changes because, if audiences aren’t getting the kind of stuff that they want, then they’re going - then they theoretically are able to, once they start to get access to technology, find it elsewhere, particularly middle class audiences.

So, if you look at the readership, it’s not that middle class audiences that are no longer interested in news and what’s happening, but they’re able to find it now from a thousand different sources instead of only finding it from one or two.

So one of the things that they need to start doing is to start to listen to what the issues are that their audiences are thinking about and talking about it.

The other thing is that we need greater diversity of media. So a focus group we did with some people in Alex; we asked them what newspapers they read. They read the Daily Sun. You say, “That’s great, do you like it?” They say, “No, we don’t.” One of the things they don’t like about it is that even though it tells their stories, they don’t like the way that they’re represented.

So why don’t they read something else? Because there isn’t something else of equivalent kind of scale for them to read.

FAZILA FAROUK: Is it an affordability question that they’re unable to buy other newspapers or unable to access the Internet for alternative information?

WILLIAM BIRD: I think it’s just about, you don’t know what you don’t know.

So there’s kind of this capitalist myth that says that if people don’t like it they can always choose not to buy it. But if, in very real, kind of practical terms there isn’t really much of an…an alternative. What are you going to do? You’re going to buy the Daily Sun because it’s there in a taxi or because economically it’s the one that’s the most widely read newspaper and people…and when you get into a taxi it’s there, there’s a copy that someone’s left that gets handed back and forth. So you’re getting 15, 20 readers of the same addition. You’re not going to then go and seek out something and pay something else for something that might be equivalent if you’re getting it for free there.

So I think there’s an economic argument to it, but it’s also about just shifting that perspective and starting to really embrace, and I think reframe what we mean when we say we are South African media and these are the challenges that we face and how we’re actually going to fundamentally try and address them.

As I said, there’s a business imperative that if they don’t, they’ll lose their audience, but there’s also a rights-based kind of argument there, which is, their right to freedom of expression is enshrined and guaranteed in the Constitution. But that right - the moment you undermine one right, you undermine all of those rights. So, by not covering those things they are undermining their own ability to do their job -- fundamentally of being able to report on freedom of…report on all issues. Because if they don’t report on inequality, if they don’t report on and fundamentally shift the way they talk about poverty, in a few years’ time, their lives are going to be very different.

The niche media will survive, as they do, because there’s a media for the powerful, but if they don’t start to address those things, the way that technology is shaping, up despite our minister’s best efforts to hamper and delay our shift towards access to cheap, fast broadband, people will get access to it and then they’ll be able to make up their own minds and do their own media, and they won’t even need to think about those mainstream media because they just will have written themselves into irrelevance.

FAZILA FAROUK: William Bird thank you very much for joining us here at SACSIS. And to our listeners and viewers thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS, and remember if you’re looking for more social justice analysis you can find that on our website at

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