'wayward media'

Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma

When this journal was first published seven years ago, in January 2001, we said it would make an important contribution towards filling a void in South Africa's media landscape - a landscape in which the voices of the majority of our people remain largely unheard.

As we noted at the Polokwane conference in December, this situation has not changed much in the intervening period.

What we said in the launch edition of ANC Today remains true today: "We are faced with the virtually unique situation that, among the democracies, the overwhelmingly dominant tendency in South African politics, represented by the ANC, has no representation whatsoever in the mass media.

"We therefore have to contend with the situation that what masquerades as 'public opinion', as reflected in the bulk of our media, is in fact minority opinion informed by the historic social and political position occupied by this minority."

There are many examples we can cite to illustrate this point. Every day brings fresh instances of a media that, in general terms, is politically and ideologically out of sync with the society in which it exists.

This phenomenon is most starkly illustrated at those moments in our political cycle when the people of South Africa get an opportunity to elect parties and individuals they want to represent them in government.

In both the 2004 national and provincial elections and the 2006 local elections, the views of voters were shown to be sharply at odds with the "views" emanating from most media.

To an uninformed reader, listener or viewer following media coverage in the months and weeks leading up to these elections, it would have appeared patently obvious that the leading party in government, the ANC, was heading for a hiding. Though unlikely to be defeated, most media commentators concurred, the ANC would see its support drop significantly in the face of an electorate that had become disenchanted.

We were told that only the ANC's "struggle credentials" and the lack of a credible opposition would save it from outright defeat at the polls. The election results proved these reports wrong. In both 2004 and 2006, not only did the ANC's share of the vote increase, but also the actual numbers of people who voted for the organisation increased. Voters did not desert the ANC, and instead gave it a stunning 70percent mandate!

The outcome of the 52nd national conference in Polokwane is a most recent example of the media yet again becoming a victim of its own propaganda and manipulation. Some are correctly asking themselves: "How did we get it so wrong?", while others now use every opportunity to "prove" something was seriously wrong with ANC delegates at Polo- kwane.

Granted, there are some journalists who report fairly and leave it to the readers to make their own judgments about issues and individuals, without pushing certain agendas. We must acknowledge and applaud their professionalism.

These are not merely examples of faulty analysis of public opinion surveys, or a simple misreading of the mood. They indicate a general trend within most mainstream media institutions to adopt positions, cloaked as sober and impartial observation, that are antagonistic to the democratic movement and its agenda for fundamental social, political and economic transformation.

To understand why this is the case, we need to consider the role of the media in society in general and the specific circumstances of the media in South Africa, both past and present.

In a discussion document entitled "Transformation of the media", circulated as part of preparations for the ANC national policy conference in June last year, we said: "The reality is that the media - in South Africa as in every other society - is a major arena in the battle of ideas. All social forces are therefore engaged, to varying degrees and with differing success, in efforts to ensure the media advances their ideological, political, social, economic and cultural objectives.

"Throughout its history the ANC has engaged in the battle of ideas, understanding that the achievement of its objectives of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa is dependent on its capacity to convince the people of the correctness of its positions, policies and programmes.

"The media is consequently one of the sites of ideological struggle with which the ANC - like other social actors - has sought to engage."

Contrary to what some may claim, the media is not simply a product of the work of disinterested observers - professionals who are able to detach themselves from their personal views, interests, prejudices and social position and present the world as it objectively is.

It is instead a product of the various political, social, economic and cultural forces within a society. It is a battle of ideas, and, as such, the media is part of the battle for power. Those with power, particularly economic power, are keen that the media serves to reinforce their privileged position, while those who seek a more equitable distribution of resources campaign for a media that serves the cause of a more equitable society.

The media should be as diverse as the society it serves and reflects. This is clearly not the case in South Africa today. At times, the media functions as if they are an opposition party.

In part, this can be explained by the structure, culture and values of the media inherited from apartheid, and by the commercial forces that drive most media institutions.

As we observed in the discussion document cited above: "The freedom of the South African media is today undermined not by the state, but by various tendencies that arise from the commercial imperatives that drive the media.

"The concentration of ownership, particularly in the print sector, has a particularly restrictive effect on the freedom of the media. The process of consolidation and the drive to cut costs through, among other things, rationalisation of news gathering operations, leads to homogenisation of content.

"Despite protestations to the contrary, there are an increasing number of instances where the supposedly-sacred separation between management and the newsroom is breached, where commercial considerations influence editorial content".

It was to answer this deficiency that the 52nd national conference called for the movement to develop its own media platforms.

lThis is an edited version of a letter that was first published on ANC Today on Friday.