How much diversity do we have? How much do we want?

My remarks this week at the Roundtable on Diversity and Transformation in the Media at Wits: I want to caution against a simplistic version of the diversity we want to achieve in the media. Diversity is a term used with convenient looseness and I think it helpful to be clear about what we mean when we say we want diversity, remind ourselves of why we want it and what kind of diversity is important to us.

We have learnt in the last 20 years that a change of ownership, particularly if we use just the narrowest definition which means it limited to a racial transfer of power, does not necessarily bring much transformation. In fact, it can also set back or hinder transformation when it provides a cover for content as usual. This is particularly true when new owners are hindered by vast debts incurred in taking ownership, which put a premium on paying these back rather than driving transformation.

It is worth bearing in mind that we have today greater diversity in newsroom demographics, management and ownership than we had 20 years ago, though we do notably better on race than on gender, but we do not have as much diversity in the all-important area of content. Before 1994, even under censorship, we had a leftwing alternative media, a rightwing alternative media, active trade union media … today our media is overwhelmingly located in the centre of our politics and economics.

So let us start by going back to the basics. I think we want diversity for three reasons:
– to correct the distortions and imbalances in our media inherited from apartheid
– to be inclusive, ensuring that all elements of our society have a voice and participate as citizens in the national conversation
– for the media to play its role in promoting transparency and accountability, to ensure we have a full range of alternative voices, criticism and investigative reporting.

So we may measure newsroom, management and ownership demographics, but the real test is in the content and its audience: do we reflect the full range of opinion, do we provide rich and informed debate, do all South Africans feel they can participate as active citizens?

I think it is clear that a key reason there has been such a wave of protest across the country is that people feel they are not heard, they are marginalized and excluded from the national debate, and their needs and demands are not being heard. Behind the Marikana tragedy is the fact that we did not really hear those voices or understand what was happening in the build-up to August 2012. That is what happens when media is insufficiently diverse.

But the diversity I am talking about here operates at many levels. When we talk of ownership, we talk importantly of race and class and gender. But I think we also need to talk about forms of ownership, for example. Around the world, there is experimentation with different forms of ownership to deal with the current challenges facing our media: non-profit ownership, philanthropy, crowd-funding, trusts … are just some of the ideas being tried out. It is significant that what I think is now the world’s leading newspaper, certainly the one that has broken the two biggest global stories of the last few years, the Guardian, can do what it does because it is owned by a non-profit trust. We have no such institution in this country as an alternative to private, profit-motivated ownership or public ownership.

And we need to look holistically at all three tiers of our media. Critical to diversity is an effective public broadcaster, as it has a special role in bringing out the voices of those often neglected by the private media; and our research is certainly showing that community media adds significantly to diversity, and has a critical role to play in achieving it.

And we also have to put a high value on independence. In South Africa, we have a growing, increasingly dominant network of ANC-supporting media. This is a historical correction and certainly it is an advance on the situation where only one newspaper in 1994 unequivocally called on voters to vote ANC. But it will certainly not be healthy if the space for independent, critical, accountability journalism continues to shrink. I am not so concerned about whether a publication supports or opposes the ANC; I am more concerned whether the culture of that newsroom is an open one that encourages a diversity of views and opinions. And this is important for one simple reason: journalism is at its best when it is critical, probing, disruptive and discomfiting. Journalists are at their best when they make trouble for those with power and authority. I am concerned that the real issue we are facing around diversity is that the space for this kind of independent, critical journalism is shrinking.

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