TO Molefe
TO Molefe

Commercial news media, like the SABC, also answer to his master’s voice

Everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the SABC, has done it again. Unspoken commands from the outside have barged in and, at the last minute, dictated an editorial policy. Either both the Metro FM show’s producer and host neglected to acquaint themselves with the said policy, or the policy did not exist until five minutes before the show was to go on air. In any case, unlike his 16th century forebear, this whipping boy is being publicly flayed for his own misdeed, not the prince’s. Yet strangely the prince, commercial news media, appears the most pious throughout the debacle, when he, too, commits an as egregious an offence.

On Wednesday City Press editor Ferial Haffajee tweeted: “Are the news values of public broadcasting different to commercial news values? If so, how?”

The short answer is no. There should be little difference. Values in public and commercial news should flow from the mission underlying why news is gathered and disseminated in the first place, which is to provide citizens with timely and accurate information to allow them to make informed decisions on the issues of the day. The more intricate and precise answer is that, as with the SABC, voices from the outside also intrude into commercial news rooms and affect decisions on the quality and nature of information provided to the public. Often the decisions swayed by these outside voices results in a compromise of commercial news values.

I’ve had the privilege of being on both the financial and reporting side of news. And my, what perspective that provides. I recall an interview with the financial director of a major news stable who let me in on an open secret about his publications. “We don’t sell news here,” he said, proudly. “We sell advertising.”

There may be a theoretical Chinese wall separating this chap from the lofty editorial ideals of news as a public good, which publishers, editors and journalists cite when press freedom comes under attack. But in practice, at the end of the month, it’s that financial director (and others like him) who approves the payroll. If revenues are down, as they’ve been for years now, he says to the editor: “Make the editorial content boost the readership we sell to advertisers, or I’m letting journalists go and cutting down on training and other editorial costs.”

Under this kind of pressure, reporting news changes purpose. It becomes more about appeasing advertisers and entertaining readers as opposed to informing them. These aren’t mutually exclusive goals, but whether the balance is being struck in these trying times should be a matter for public debate. However, it is barely afforded a mention, especially by commercial news houses, which frequently initiate and stoke public debate around other issues.

Twenty five million rand between now and June 2013. That’s how much BDFM, the publisher of Business Day and Financial Mail, reportedly has to cut from its expenses. Today, December 7, is the last day by which the company’s staff can opt for voluntary severance packages. “Financial newspapers in South Africa are in for a tough ride as advertising revenue generated from JSE-listed companies is expected to decline come January next year,” BDLive reported.

Business Day, the country’s leading financial publication and, according to its publisher “by far the preferred choice for financial advertising” will switch to a tabloid size in the second quarter of 2013. “It will be easier to read,” wrote Peter Bruce. Tellingly, he added, “and offers advertisers more creative and financial flexibility.

“Next year, too, we will begin to charge for access to the digital content of both the Financial Mail and Business Day, much as the Financial Times and other market-leading newspapers have done around the world. If the financial crisis has taught us anything it is that, in the final analysis, our product is the content.”

According to Bruce, making this content available for free has been a mistake.

So it’s clear that the changes to be made to the publisher’s titles are primarily to appease the financial director. Secondary, if at all, are the information needs of citizens. This leaves the citizen, when it comes to financial news, either further out of pocket for a supposed public good or uninformed.

Either the content of these publications is not the public good it’s said to be and the publications are luxury indulgences for the well-heeled, or this scramble to make up for falling advertising revenues runs contrary to the press code. Press freedom runs the full ambit, from the source of the news to the news room and from there to the end user, the citizen. Erecting a sentry between the newsroom and the citizen inhibits the free flow of information and infringes on press freedom.

In whichever case, the press code is under threat, either from cleverly disguised luxury products who summon it when it suits them (and ignore it when it does not), or from publications willing to sacrifice the greater goal for their own survival.

I hear the howls of protests already. Editorial costs don’t just vanish into thin air, of course, and I, a lowly hack writer, offer no solutions. But BDFM does not face this predicament alone. The compromise of commercial news values amid shrinking revenues is the big media debate for our times. Seldom, however, do those in news and publishing business debate it, let alone publicly. If they do they deal only with the shrinking revenue.

“We speak truth to power,” commercial news editors like to say. Seldom, however, do they turn their voices inward, which is why they can look upon the SABC’s failings and simper with no sense of irony.

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  • 16 Responses to “Commercial news media, like the SABC, also answer to his master’s voice”

    1. Chris #

      It looks like Mr Molefe is trying to bite the hand that has so generously fed him (seeing that he is with a “private” organisation!)

      All newspapers/broadcasters in the world have shareholders, editors and policies. But the SABC has an amazingly inconsistent application thereof.

      I wonder if Mr Molefe, for instance, will suggest to us that the SABC has achieved any higher moral/editorial high-ground than he is alluring to? In my view, the ANC SABC is now ten times worse that the Apartheid SABC – then there was only political meddling, not the wide-spread corruption and associated poor management that we now see.

      No, perhaps Mr Molefe is just sensitive because of an eminent retrenchment or something – but surely he should know better than to realise that tough economic times befall almost all industries at some time. The print press is there now. Nothing personal.

      So don’t try to rationalise the SABC’s (and its political cronies) scandalous behaviour – there is a HUGE difference between commercial pressures and blatant political meddling and incompetence (which is then covered-up by some half-baked excuses afterwards)!

      December 7, 2012 at 2:10 pm
    2. wow, business day is going behind a paywall?

      they do realise that most people who actually care about what business day actually says can get their financial news from summit or cnbc africa, right? they don’t have the monopoly on information.

      December 7, 2012 at 5:59 pm
    3. ntozakhona #

      A refreshing analytical input, Chris is clearly used to the ingratiating types that write on this forum playing to the rightwing gallery – the hand that feeds them so to speak.

      I have always wondered to myself how newspapers in countries like Botswana and Lesotho survive. Is not about time the government bit the bullet and took giant practical steps to diversify the media, The unprecented slanderous attacks on the head of state surely calls for a review of the ownership of the means of jnformation dissemination?

      December 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm
    4. Peter L #

      Ntozakhona

      President Zuma has shown a great willingness – eagerness, even – to litigate (using taxpayer’s money. not his own) against anyone and everyone that he believes may have committed acts of slander or libel against him.

      Most of these cases never see the light of day, but are withdrawn or settled before the matter comes to court (with the defendant’s costs being paid by the state in the Zapiro rape of Lady Justice cartoon case).

      If indeed Zuma is subject to slander and / or libel, there are very good legal remedies available to him.
      To suggest an alternative remedy of reviewing media ownership is to suggest implementing policies that were adopted by the likes of Hitler’s Germany, and modern day Zimbabwe.

      The ANC Government has indeed indirectly taken steps to “diversify the (print) media”, by supporting the Gupta’s New Age newspaper.
      Guess what – no-one reads it.

      December 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm
    5. jandr0 #

      @notazakona: You say: “A refreshing analytical input, Chris is clearly used to the ingratiating types that write on this forum playing to the rightwing gallery – the hand that feeds them so to speak.”

      Why did you have to make it a “shoot the messenger” thing? If, in your opinion, Chris or TO’s facts are right or wrong – why not take issue with the facts?

      “I have always wondered to myself how newspapers in countries like Botswana and Lesotho survive.”

      Well, maybe – and this is just a theory – they are not yet as exposed to increasingly ubiquitous communication (Internet etc.), and their time will also come?

      “Is not about time the government bit the bullet and took giant practical steps to diversify the media…?”

      Why? As TO rightly pointed out, the media is very aware of the demands of their audience. So, please don’t social engineer. I wish to personally EXPRESS MY PREFERENCE by buying what I want to read (and I do still buy, although less). Your suggestion is a nice first step towards totalitarianism.

      “The unprecedented slanderous attacks on the head of state…”

      There are libel laws (I assume you actually mean libel). If a head of state has been libelled, all of the avenues of redress are their for him/her to pursue. Have you considered that – what you subjectively think is libel – is not actually libel?

      Really, you always seem to be pushing for that scourge called totalitarianism. That is so anti-democracy.

      December 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm
    6. ntozakhona #

      Jandro it is Chris who sought to stifle debate by threatening Molefe not to bite the hands that allegedly feeds him. There is no doubt the means of information dissemination in South Africa are owned by the former colonialists and those resistant to the idea of the wealth of the country being shared by all. This bias is reflected in the news that are churned out daily.

      I qouted Lesotho and Botswana to indicate that to run a self-sustaining newspaper one might not need the colonial advertisers after all. It seems New Age is breaking the mould. The democratic state has in terms of our constitution the duty to ensure that there is a redress of the imbalances of the past. Media ownership and control exhibits acutely such imbalances.

      You are clearly not familiar with life in Lesotho and Botswana, the citizens of those countries have higher access to internet than Africans in South Africa. Cellphone rates, for example, are far cheaper than those in South Africa.

      I not engage in a debate that says an insult to one is music to the other. The principle of contra bonas mores should guide all of us that the majority of South African frown upon sexual and pornographic displays let alone insults.

      December 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm
    7. ntozakhona #

      Peter L go to any township news stand and the New Age and at the beginning of the day there are more New Age copies than the Star and the Citizen and by afternoon you will be lucky to find a copy whilst the others remain.

      Prsident Zuma for some strange reason that I do not agree with has decided to adopt a Mandela approach of fighting your enemies with kindness. The reality of South Africa is that colonialists think they are also our liberators and have become more arrogant and blatant. Zapiro has admitted that his cartoon was slanderuos but insists his lawyers would have argued that it was in the public interest. Slander in the public inerest? I suppose it depends which public he is referring to.

      EACH party to the suit has covered its own costs after the President decided to be magnanimous. The redress of skewed media ownership patterns that make Hitler’s system look like a picnic is neccessary to restore the dignity of those deprived by apartheid colonialism. We cannot end the cousin of Nazism and leave its consequences to thrive.

      December 9, 2012 at 7:10 am
    8. ntozakhona #

      Corrigenda The word used by Zapiro is defamatory not slanderous but the essence remains.

      December 9, 2012 at 7:20 am
    9. Jack Sparrow #

      @ntozakhona, you say “There is no doubt the means of information dissemination in South Africa are owned by the former colonialists and those resistant to the idea of the wealth of the country being shared by all”. I assume in this you assume that the SABC is owned or at least controlled by “those resistant to the idea of the wealth of the country being shared by all” (the ANC government cadres??) otherwise you make no sense at all. The SABC is the primary source of “information dissemination” many times over. Technically only the SABC is owned by the citizens of SA. Does this escape you?

      December 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm
    10. jandr0 #

      @ntozakhona: Hayi, where did Chris threaten or stifle debate? I’ve reread his comment, and nowhere did I see a threat or anybody being told to stop debating?

      You say: “I quoted Lesotho and Botswana to indicate that to run a self-sustaining newspaper one might not need the colonial advertisers after all.”

      Unclear to me what point you want to make. A self-sustaining newspaper needs revenue. Primarily it gets it through subscriptions and revenue. Advertisers buy space because they think/know the readership demographic match their product. Whether the advertiser is “colonial,” from Mars or the Andromeda Galaxy is irrelevant.

      You also say: “You are clearly not familiar with life in Lesotho and Botswana, the citizens of those countries have higher access to internet than Africans in South Africa.”

      Hhmm. Latest FACTUAL list I found has South Africa tops in Africa, Botswana fourteenth, and Lesotho doesn’t even feature in the list.

      However, I do notice that you (subtly?) introduce a semantic shift by now limiting the context to “Africans in South Africa.”

      You end: “The principle of contra bonas mores should guide all of us that the majority of South African frown upon sexual and pornographic displays let alone insults.”

      Erm, no? Contra bonos mores is a principle, but it is mostly tied to contract law, and clearly subject to the constitution and Statute Law.

      PS. Enjoying the debate. Have you read about the “Tyranny of the Majority?”

      December 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm
    11. jandr0 #

      @ntozakhona: Late-breaking thought! Another perspective I would also like to raise:

      You stated that “there is no doubt the means of information dissemination in South Africa are owned by the former colonialists…”

      The thing that worries me here: I suspect you are focusing primarily on the print media?

      If that is the case, then I suggest you cannot call the “print media” and “the means of information dissemination” the same thing.

      SABC? Political organisations (gatherings, meetings, etc.)? Social and activist organisations? Churches?

      Those, I suspect, are still incredibly powerful “means of information dissemination” that are controlled by biased stakeholders.

      In fact, if I have to play devil’s advocate here: There is a STRONG incentive for the ANC to advance those other “means of information dissemination” as the primary means – since it can be controlled so much easier than a free press!

      For example: Political speech at gathering where ANC controls the message: “According to latest corruption index South Africa is rated 69th in the world. That is in the top half of the world – don’t believe the lies of the counter-revolutionary forces! Yadda, yadda, revolution. Yadda, yadda, colonialists…”

      The context CONVENIENTLY left out: We’ve DROPPED 10 or so places, and are on the way DOWN.

      Deliberately creating an incomplete impression by blatantly leaving out facts = lying.

      No. I want free press. No government interference.

      December 9, 2012 at 6:15 pm
    12. The point about the article is that we don’t have a free press, because the press prints what the bosses want them to print. The Murdoch press and Fox TV, for instance, lies and suppresses according to the political goals which Rupert pursues at any given moment. This is an extreme example, but broadly speaking it is true of all media.

      That doesn’t mean that we should be happy about the SABC trying to censor people. However, we at least learned about it. We learn much less about the private press, precisely because it is a private press and therefore opaque to public scrutiny.

      Media people always make a great fuss about the government banning the World in 1977, yet somehow they forget about the decision to close down the Rand Daily Mail, to fire Anthony Heard because he was too liberal, to shut down all the independent newspapers and political magazines in the 1990s, and various similar issues. The private media is as dangerous to press freedom as the public, because it has power without responsibility.

      December 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm
    13. LittleBobPete #

      @ntokozana…….the New Age as you call it, a newspaper primarily owned by Indians from India…….still a colonialist from another part of the World…..

      December 10, 2012 at 5:58 pm
    14. Sterling Ferguson #

      @Ntozakhona, you said most of the media in SA were started or owned by the colonists, almost everything in SA and black Africa were started by colonists. However, there is nothing stopping you from stating your own media and newspapers if you are not happy with the colonists media. In the US the ex-slaves started their newspapers and in Brazil the ex-slaves have their newspapers and magazines.

      December 10, 2012 at 6:24 pm
    15. jandr0 #

      @The Creator: You say: “The point about the article is that we don’t have a free press, because the press prints what the bosses want them to print.”

      I beg your pardon?

      That’s a very strange understanding of freedom of the press.

      ;-)

      Freedom of the press means exactly what you say is NOT freedom of the press.

      Freedom of the press means the press is free to print WHAT THEY WANT. Without YOU, or the government forcing (i.e., the opposite of freedom) them to write specific things.

      Yes, the press should still remain subject to the laws of the country (such as libel). But they should be completely free to select their content and editorial stance.

      By the way, to be successful, if the bosses set the editorial policy, the PEOPLE must still be willing to buy. So, if – to use the “extreme examples” you use – Fox TV keeps on reporting about the same things, it may be because Fox TV have found a rich vein of people who WANT to read that.

      My observation is that the average New York Times reader has apoplectic fits when reading any thing in Rupert’s stable, and vice versa.

      At the moment I am quite OK to let the readers vote with their eyeballs. It is only when I have some “benign, benevolent” government trying to social engineer what they think I should be hearing, that I go and leaf around in my dog-eared (pun intended) copy of Animal Farm again.

      PS. My copy of 1984 is not dog-eared at all, since it is in digital electronic format.

      December 10, 2012 at 10:56 pm

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