I recently resigned as monthly columnist at Media24′s daily newspapers after one of my columns was censored. The offence that led to the censorship? As a proponent of the position that the media’s allergic reaction to self-criticism is to its own detriment, I had dared to do exactly that: employ critical examination of the media.
Some background: I had been writing columns for the Media24 daily newspaper supplement By as regular monthly columnist for the past two and a half years. My agreement with the By editor was to write frank think pieces that would challenge dominant assumptions. Edits were limited to grammatical style changes. Lastly, the decision to pull the column was made by Beeld’s editor.
Here is reproduced what Media24 readers were denied: “The ANC’s criticism in its discussion document proposing a media appeals tribunal is overly familiar to journalists and media owners. Journalists have long been concerned about and have resisted the cutting back of resources and the effect thereof on effective and accurate news collection and reporting.
“The effect of the continuous personnel cutbacks in newsrooms is obviously that there are not enough people to do the work properly, which leads to errors.
“Due to pathetic salaries most senior journalists do not stay on, which means that junior people with limited experience have to take on important stories, the details of which they sometimes do not completely grasp.
“Moreover, media owners in general believe that sales are more important than quality journalism. Rather than balancing the two in the selection of publications on offer, the emphasis is on circulation figures, with the resultant ‘dumbing down’ of content.
“I can fill a book with all the instances that I have heard editors declare what ‘the reader’ really wants. But the question remains: does this supposed reader read about ‘Joost and Amor’ or crime because they are really interested in such stories, or because these are the topics that dominate newspaper content? […] [The irony is that the dumbing down trend fits with some ANC leaders' overall objective to stymie the flow of the kind of information that is required for active and engaged citizenship in a democracy.]
“[The exception is investigative journalism by some newspapers.] Unfortunately a situation has arisen in which the media make important revelations that are seldom, if ever, followed up with action by civil society and the citizenry.
“One reason is that civil society has weakened substantially since 1994. The other is that most people in this country are busy with the time-consuming task of keeping head above water, which has caused millions to withdraw from even the electoral process — not to speak of actions based on media revelations.
“The third reason is that media people are frequently arrogant and do not understand that the media is one among a number of players that have to ensure the functioning of our democracy. Therefore there exist almost no ties with progressive civil society. Newspapers emphasise that they are only accountable to their readers. But, in a society where we are involved in a turf war over the very meaning of ‘democracy’, none of the parts of this democracy can act in an island-like manner.
“Some in the media regard their role as merely to make profits for shareholders. Those that hold this shortsighted viewpoint are generally not that interested in the democratic function of the media. We are now at a point where such differences become more relevant for the future of the media. In this regard, the statement by the 37 newspaper editors on the ANC onslaught is a significant, positive sign. [...]
“The question is whether civil society and the citizenry grasp that the bill and the tribunal threaten their functioning as organisations or the exercise of their rights as citizens. Apart from the media being muzzled and therefore hampered in its ability to provide relevant information to civil society organisations (while still being able to say whether Joost and Amor are back together), the bill will undermine citizens and organisations’ own interactions with the state.”
In conclusion, a few comments: while newsrooms frequently reverberate with self-examining exclamations, the publication of analyses critical of the media is a rarity. One can only surmise that some editors do not want to encourage their readers to expect higher journalistic standards. After all, self-criticism will have to be followed by improvement.
We have seen some respite from this lamentable state of affairs in selected media due to the ANC onslaught on the free flow of information and, by extension, on the media.
With the political knives being out for the media, some journalists have argued that we should embrace this as a moment to properly debate the state of the media and think through and implement improvements. Debates over the Protection of Information Bill and the media appeals tribunal have been encouraged in the pages of most newspapers in which the views of those that are critical of the media or even downright antagonistic to freedom of speech have been given ample space.
However, it remains rare to find journalists themselves adopting a self-critical position in print. I am aware of only one editorial in this regard. And, in some media, the existing opposition to self-critical analysis has been reinforced with even more defensive postures.
When lack of self-reflectivity is compounded by defensiveness to produce internal censorship in the media, it can only but feed the authoritarian tendencies that are resurgent in contemporary South Africa. We have to resist the continued indulgence by some media in the uncritical regurgitation of dominant discourses that seek to reproduce power relations inherited from apartheid and colonialism.
Lastly, this episode does prove that the media is not homogeneous. I have since published a similar critique in the Independent Newspaper Group’s daily newspapers. While the South African media is by no means diversified, some do allow more space for the contestation of ideas — an essential prerequisite for a functioning democracy.