Media freedom is one of those topics that its easy to raise a consensus around. For those of us that remember that bad days of apartheid, the consequences of a media held back by a government threatened by the truth needs no exposition.
It is thus not surprising that there has been a loud and consistent condemnation of the proposed media tribunal from most quarters. Editors, bloggers, twitterers and many members of the liberal public are united in their concerns. And various websites have adopted little badges proclaiming “Media Freedom” and the like.
That’s all easy enough. I read the predictable tweets with little enthusiasm, peppered as they are with circle jerking and false camaraderie. The arrest of Mzilikazi wa Afrika last week was pounced on as indicative of the problem. And the reliably misguided Julius Malema added his voice to the debate, in effect (and as usual) strengthening only the points made by his critics.
Watching from the sidelines, the first thought that came into my head is: does the ANC have a point? Has the media behaved recklessly or unfairly to such an extent that reining them in would seem to be in the national interest?
I have long watched as the so-called “liberal white press” (a misnomer by anyone’s standard, especially now) has both lit and fanned the flames of anti-government stories. This may seem to be a rash statement, and in fact one of the major arguments against this tribunal has been that there is no evidence that the media has, in fact, taken an anti-government position. My friend William Bird, an executive director of the MMA, argues that the government has failed precisely in this respect. It has presented nothing but unsubstantiated accusations against the print media.
Ultimately, this should be settled on the evidence, so let’s leave that aside for the moment. For the sake of argument let’s assume that at an evidentiary hearing both sides would be able to present some evidence in support of their case.
However, to try and see this from the ruling party’s point of view, and as a relatively unenthusiastic consumer of mainstream media, I see the following clear messages in the style and tone of media coverage of anything related to government:
1. Government is corrupt.
2. Government is failing to deliver on promises.
3. Government manipulates state institutions to its own (nefarious) ends.
4. Even where it is not corrupt or manipulative, government is incompetent.
5. The ANC is riddled with cronyism, nepotism and abuse of power.
Broaden the scope beyond the media itself, and into the “user-generated” content that the media invites and you can re-state the messages as:
1. The ANC is dangerous and dragging the country toward being “another Zimbabwe”.
2. Black people are lazy, corrupt and looking for a “free ride” now that the ANC has power.
3. Government is populated with stupid, selfish and ruthless power mongers.
4. We are in imminent danger of having the mines nationalised, farms stolen and the free press forcibly shut down.
5. The ANC supports crime, or at the very least, does nothing to stop it.
Now, I can’t present conclusive evidence for any of this stuff, and I’m happy to be proven wrong on any or all points. However I would be deeply shocked to see the evidence come out against my position because anecdotally, as a media consumer, these are the messages I am constantly encountering. Take a general look at how the Zuma trial was covered, how the news covers Julius Malema (and how much prominence it gives his every utterance), the messages of woe about South Africa’s preparation for the World Cup in the two year run-up to the event, the predictions of failure on the Gautrain project. And so forth.
Anyone who argues that the media has painted a generally hopeful view of the SA government over the past 10 years is reading very different newspapers and listening to very different radio stations than I have.
Now, there are two obvious reasons why this might be the case. One, the media has painted a fair and accurate picture of a government that is hopeless, failing and corrupt. The other is that the media has taken a particular view of the government which it relishes the chance to confirm.
And why, you may ask, would it do that?
Simple, really. Sales. No-one wants to read a good news story, with rare exception (maybe the soccer World Cup). Good news, any journalist will tell you, is classified by newsrooms as “soft news”. Hard news is, typically, something that has gone sour. “Boy grows up with parents that love him and succeeds at school” is not a story. “Boy is tortured by parents and now lives on the street sniffing glue”, is much better. If the government supplied the glue, then you’ve got a front-page headline.
I’m not trying to condense media studies into one paragraph. But it is worth stopping and noticing the general tendency among the media — supported by a frankly disturbing lingering racism and afro-pessimism in its readership — to emphasise the failures.
The net effect of this is serious. The two most important negatives are:
1. Slow down the country’s progress due to constant refocusing on failures; and
2. Feed the fires of malcontent and mistrust, weakening our national pride and spirit
The World Cup was a stark contrast to both of these points. A common refrain from most South Africans was how nice it was to be in a positive spirit, and see the country pulling together for a change. Was this shift in consciousness a group hallucination? Or, more likely, a recognition that the media took its foot off the pedal of pessimism for a brief time, giving us all a welcome respite.
It didn’t last, of course. We’re now back where we started.
I’m not advocating censorship. Nor am I even arguing that a media tribunal or arresting journalists makes any real sense.
But I am saying that everyone is far too quick to dismiss the role that the media plays in setting the tone of public discourse. In a new democracy with a wildly divergent set of interests, and a lot of problems, the media can play a constructive or destructive role. Unfortunately trying to enforce a constructive one leads us inexorably down a dark alleyway. And so, the argument goes, we must allow the good with the bad.
But what do you do as a ruling party when the bad spirals out of control, when every radio talk show is filled with negative sentiment; when online comments forums (just wait till this article gets some) degrade into racism and vitriol; when the media wields its power not to strengthen but to weaken the institutions of the state?
The simple, liberal reply is: don’t screw up. Keep your noses clean, deliver on your promises and all will be well. But of course, no government can do that. The result is a paralysed state like we see in the US, where no good deed goes unpunished. And where stars like Obama fall before they even have a chance to rise.
Conservative interests like this kind of state, because it is impervious to real change. But is that what we need here?
This is a puzzling problem to solve. The interests of truth are not always aligned with the interests of nation-building. And truth, anyway, is a blunt instrument, because omission is allowed in a free press. Making Malema’s madness front-page headlines day after day is not a transgression, even although you are reporting on few (if any) of the successes in government. Because it’s “hard news”. Because that’s what people want to buy.
The best we can hope for is a media that is aligned with trying to make a great, proud, passionate country. But there really are no incentives toward this goal. The economics of the press pull in a different direction. One of the reasons China is an emerging superpower and South Africa is not is that they can efficiently manufacture consent, and put their efforts behind building rather than tearing down.
I’m not sure which is a better society: one that is “open” or one that is “successful”. To the extent we can have both, we should strive for that. But where there is a choice, which do you pick? And what do you do if you have a strong suspicion that powerful interests in the society are playing a destructive role?