By Jane Duncan · 3 Aug 2010
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has just released a document on the media for its National General Council (NGC) meeting, scheduled for September. The document, entitled 'Media transformation, ownership and diversity', claims to build on a resolution adopted at the ANC's 2007 Polokwane conference, as well as a media policy developed for its 2002 Stellenbosch conference.
The document is bound to be controversial, as it raises once again the possibility of establishing a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), to be accountable to Parliament.
The ANC argues that the press are incapable of regulating themselves, and excessive commercialisation has led to the media pursuing profit at the expense of basic human rights. The party argues further that the intervention of the ANC-led democratic government has led to a more diverse media landscape, and that the print media remain especially resistant to transformation because they are not state-regulated.
Granted, a diverse and representative media are needed to ensure substantive freedom of expression. A purely liberal defence of freedom of expression will reinforce existing power relations, leading to the right being reduced to one enjoyed by those who own the printing presses and the airwaves.
Yet for self-serving reasons, the ANC fails to acknowledge its own agency in frustrating media transformation as a precondition for freedom of expression. In fact, the ANC talks left, but walks right on questions of media transformation. Much of this has to do with the fact that – as a result of its embrace of neoliberal policies in the late 1990's – the ANC pursued a largely market-led approach to media transformation, with a grossly insufficient public service top up for underserved audiences.
As a result, the distributional rewards of post-apartheid media transformation have spread unevenly in society. It is a fact that the print media represent a minority voice in South African society, although the advent of the tabloids has changed this picture somewhat. While print media ownership has de-racialised, ownership remains highly consolidated, and a significant chunk is foreign owned, which frustrates attempts to achieve a diversity of voices.
Yet the ANC's own policies are to blame for this state of affairs. After a golden season of print media diversification in the mid-1990's, the print media reconsolidated when the ANC-led government embraced neo-liberalism. Massive interest rate increases led to the costs of debt ballooning, which forced several black empowerment groups out of the industry, as their stakes were funded largely from debt rather than equity.
The ANC also refused to entertain anti-trust measures implemented by social democratic governments in some other countries to prevent excessive print media concentration, as these measures would have conflicted with its market friendly approach.
When the founding legislation of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) was being considered, the ANC component of the Portfolio Committee on Communications rejected the community media sector's arguments for a legislated levy on the industry to cross-subsidise the Agency. Arguments for the Agency to be given greater powers to investigate and even initiate anti-trust measures were rejected. The Agency lacks power and remains underfunded: a problem the ANC acknowledges in its document. But this did not have to be.
In its document, the ANC has also sexed up the extent of transformation in the legislated areas of the media. While being relatively more accessible in terms of reach, the broadcast media also manifest features of the '50 per cent society'.
The television stations of the South African Broadcasting Corporation identify Living Standards Measurement (LSM) 5 and above as their target audiences, and during economic downturns, even the SABC's public service stations have been known to dump 'uneconomic' audiences in favour of those who attract adspend.
Many community radio stations have also been known to follow the money in local areas, leading to stations morphing into closed corporations for political and economic elites.
In the late 1990's, the ANC-dominated Department of Communications released a White Paper on Broadcasting that reshaped the sector along neoliberal lines. The SABC was corporatized and forced into financial self-sufficiency, which led to massive commercialisation of its public services, and the regulator Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) was brought under the Department's control to facilitate an export-led broadcasting sector.
While there are some indications of attempts by the Department at a policy shift on some issues – notably on public funding for the SABC – the 1998 White Paper remains in force, in spite of its origins in the engine room of the '1996 class project'.
In critiquing what it considers to be excessive media commercialisation, the ANC has accused the print media of manifesting the worst elements of excessive commercialisation, including the adoption of an ideological outlook emphasising neoliberalism, a weak and passive state and market fundamentalism. The party also accuses the print media of unethical practices so serious that they necessitate statutory intervention in the form of the Media Appeals Tribunal.
Apart from a reference to the Ashley Smith affair - where a 'Cape Argus' journalist accepted payment to cover Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool positively – no evidence is given of these practices, so it is difficult to engage with the argument.
Some broader observations may be made about these proposals, though. Historically, the ANC's media policy has located itself in a theoretical tradition called critical political economy of the media, which examines questions of power and control in the media, and concerns itself with the impact of commercial ownership and control on the public interest aspects of the media.
South African media theorists in the critical political economy tradition bear out the ANC's argument about biases towards market-friendly policies in much print media content, but ironically these biases have been towards the ANC's own policies. These theorists have documented how large sections of the print media supported Thabo Mbeki's embrace of neoliberal policies - in spite of the Mbeki's administration's obvious hatred for the print media - and tended to marginalise views to the left of the ANC as being beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse.
To this extent, the media have contributed towards the creation of what 'Sunday Times' editor Ray Hartley has described as a 'one policy state', exposing elite corruption and malfeasance, while shying away from more fundamental questions of political alternatives.
The tendency of advertiser-funded media to bracket out politically radical views, and to reinforce the political centre, is a well-known phenomenon written about extensively by media theorists. Competition for similar audiences forces uniformity on such media, leading to them legitimate the most politically palatable views.
But the solution to the problem is to promote alternative funding models, including the publicly funded media system proposed by the ANC itself in 2002, which the ANC has failed to implement in government.
On closer examination, the ANC's use of critical political economy arguments is highly selective. Critical political economists are strong proponents of anti-trust measures, strong publicly funded media systems and strong journalist, viewer and listener organisations to counter corporate media power, but no critical political economist worth his or her salt argues for content controls, as censorship is considered to be incompatible with emancipatory praxis.
To this extent, the ANC is misusing a politically progressive theory to justify a politically reactionary proposal. Its emphasis on content controls marks a shift to the right in its policymaking. Furthermore, the party's recent policy statements lack complexity, and display a poverty of strategy in proposing solutions to the problem of media commercialisation.
Critical political economists also recognise that in commercial media contexts, journalism cannot be reduced to the interests of owners and managers. This is because journalists can and do exercise relative autonomy from owners. Also, the reflection of the concerns of newspaper-buying mass audiences makes economic sense, even if this means providing limited spaces for dissenting voices. For self-serving reasons, the ANC has chosen a highly reductive reading of the theory.
Within the confines of their elite watchdog role, the South African print media tend to play their role with vigour and - despite the ANC's assertions - there is no evidence that journalistic corruption is widespread. Also, it is possible that the media's much-needed reinvestment in investigative capacity has spurred on the ANC government attempts to exert more control over the media. Another point worth mulling over is that the most groundbreaking investigative stories of recent times have been broken by the naughty, nasty print media, and not the broadcast media which – according to the ANC – are meant to be less corrupted by commercial imperatives.
In spite of the ANC's protestations to the contrary, it is impossible not to arrive at the conclusion that the party has revived the Tribunal idea because some of the party's leaders have been subject to embarrassing exposes recently, that raise questions about their fitness for office, and that lack of transformation is being used as an excuse to effect censorship. Attempts to control media content, dressed up as concerns about media transformation, amount to little more than grubby attempts by politicians to stop journalists saying bad things about them as succession debates gather momentum.
Tellingly, in its document, the ANC also ignores an international debate in progressive media circles about ways of deepening media accountability, which according to media theorist Claude-Jean Bertrand, refers to any non-state means of making the media responsible to the public. Apart from Press Councils, Bertrand has identified over eighty systems for ensuring media accountability, none of which involve state control.
The ANC accuses the South African Press Council of being toothless. There may be some truth in this accusation, but this problem can be addressed in part through strengthening the Council's public accountability aspects. The Council should have the power to levy fines from the media for ethical transgressions, to be invested in journalism training.
In the document, the ANC has likened the proposed Tribunal to the Complaints and Compliance Committee (CCC) of ICASA, set up by statute and accountable to Parliament through ICASA's Council.
The comparison speaks volumes about the ANC's intentions for the media, as a draft Bill released by the Department of Communications recently threatens to turn ICASA into an extension of the Department, ostensibly to improve its effectiveness. The Bill proposes that the Minister in consultation with the National Assembly nominates the CCC’s members, rather than ICASA selecting its members. This move will erode ICASA's institutional independence, by giving the government direct control over broadcasting content through the appointment process.
The MAT will probably start out its life accounting to Parliament. Yet in time it will probably follow the route of all other institutions that also started their lives accounting to Parliament - such as the Film and Publications Board (FPB), ICASA and the SABC - only to be subjected to repeated attempts by the executive arm of government to reclaim control.
In a comparative study of media transitions in post-Communist countries and South Africa published last year, the left-wing media theorist Colin Spark has noted that the extent of political interventions into the media is determined by the degree to which the political elite is divided.
Until recently, he argued, the ANC governed with no serious challenge to its dominance, so control of the media was unnecessary. It was only once serious divisions opened up within the ruling party that state interference in the media became an issue; hence the contestations over the SABC and the MAT proposal just before the 2009 elections.
These attempts to control receded once Zuma attained the prize of the Presidency. But with more questions being raised about his effectiveness, heightened service delivery protests and a new succession battle looming, control of public institutions, including the media, is finding its way back onto the agenda.
Sparks went on to argue, “It is true that over time commercial criteria are becoming more and more dominant, but it is salutary to be reminded that the chances of genuinely inclusive democratization depend upon the extent to which that process is an act of self-liberation rather than a by-product of elite manoeuvring. The desire to radically democratise the media, along with the rest of the social structure, is one that flourishes only in periods of mass agitation.”