We are getting more media, but are we getting better media?

Recent weeks have brought the birth of new radio stations and television channels and the sale of one of the country’s largest newspaper groups. In Gauteng, Power FM was launched, and a little earlier Cape Town got Smile FM and Durban got Vuma FM. On pay-TV we now have the oddly named African News Network 7 and SABC News, which are just one element of what seems to be an ever-expanding Multichoice offering. Other satellite and pay-TV options are also imminent, as eTV plans to breakaway with a free-to-air satellite offering, and TopTV makes a comeback under Chinese ownership. Independent News and Media returned to South Africa hands, with the backing of the Chinese government, who have also launched their own English-language weekly newspaper here.

All of this has been welcomed on the grounds that media diversity is a good thing and we can’t have enough of it.

But, one has to ask after such a flurry of activity, does diversity just mean more and more media clutter? What do we actually want when we push for diversity? Does having two more decidedly amateurish 24-hour live news channels a good thing, or is it dragging down the quality of information and debate? Do these – and especially the channel that hired models to do the work of journalists – actually add to the range and quality of available news and opinion?

Each new media outlet means the advertising pie is sliced a little thinner, with the effect that we may be building quantity at the expense of quality. We might have more and more media, with less and less to say.

Joburgers already wake up to a choice of nine daily newspapers in three languages from five different owners. Capetonians can choose between nine papers in two languages from four owners. Durbanites have eight dailies in two languages from four owners. On Sunday, there is a choice between six nationals and five regional papers. Then there are weeklies, such as the Mail & Guardian and the Financial Mail.

The picture is different, of course, as one moves to smaller towns and rural areas. All of the new ventures above add mostly to media choices for upper-income urban dwellers Nevertheless, the Association of Independent Publishers registers 250 community newspapers with a much greater diversity in language and ownership. And that excludes what they call the corporate community papers – the suburban free-sheets – which come from the larger media groups.

The ANC, of course, has been complaining not so much about the lack of diversity, but of the concentration of ownership. Pity then that they have gone silent on the opportunity presented by the sale of the Independent group to sell off some titles. Of course, concentration doesn’t look so bad when it is in the hands of your friends.

The ANC has also complained over the years that there is so little media which supports them. This has long been a dubious proposition, but now it is clearly no longer the case. The most notable aspect of recent media moves is the rise of owners close to the ANC.

The real diversity issue in this country is the absence of many voices from our public debate, the fact that our media still caters largely for an elite who sit in the centre of our politics. In the last years of apartheid, we had a rightwing and a leftwing press. Nowadays, our media are congregated in the middle of the political spectrum.

Absent are the voices of Marikana, except as victims. Hard to find are the views of those who are taking to the streets in service delivery protests daily. In the fight over Cosatu leadership, it is the membership whose voices seem most muted. You have to look hard to find the daily lives of those who live in the informal settlements in all our cities.

These are the sources of instability in our society, but they are largely excluded from our public debate. We talk about them, not with them. We have solutions for them, not from them.
We have a busy public sphere, but not nearly as diverse as it seems. With all this new media, it might get so noisy that we can’t hear each other speak.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, August 29, 2013.

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