New ANC approach to media is crafty, smart and more effective

On a recent morning, I woke up and over a cup of coffee and since my newspaper deliveries were late, I turned to social media. It was a few days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and within a few minutes I was alerted and linked to multiple layers of argument over the issue. Those expressing sympathy, those expressing difficulty with sympathizing with them, those who expressed sympathy with others … it was rich, complex, informative and challenging.

I also found and watched Trevor Noah’s superb performance on the Daily Show in the US, a few interesting local articles and some quirky links to entertaining material I would not otherwise have known about. Since these had been posted or ‘liked’ by my ‘friends’, it was quite likely that they would entertain me.

Then I turned to traditional media. I could flip through the city’s morning newspapers in minutes. Johannesburg has eight of them, from five different owners, so there is no shortage. The important stuff I had already read online, where I found a much richer, more varied selection of interpretations than could possibly fit into the papers. The lesser stuff was barely worth my time. And the interesting opinions and columns I had already read online.
I have known it for some time, but our newspapers are sclerotic. They are failing to rise to the challenge presented by online and social media, still living in an age where they could define and control the news flow. They are dull. They are not telling me much beyond the surface of what is happening in our country today. They are failing us as citizens, and failing our democracy. No wonder my students look at me with amazement when I suggest it is a good idea to read newspapers.

To understand what lies behind this, one has to understand the change in media strategy in the governing party, a change in the way they fight what they have called in policy papers “the war of ideas”, that lies at the core of this.

ANC media policy has gone through three phases since 1990. When they came to power, they had very open media policy: open up broadcasting, transform the SABC into an independent public broadcaster, give support and subsidy to build community media, criticize and engage with the private media – particularly newspapers – but essentially leave them alone. Push the private media to transform, they were saying, but do not interfere with them.

The second phase came a few years ago. Fed up with the criticism and scrutiny they were getting from quite a hostile newspaper sector – and let’s face it, it was quite hostile – they threatened intervention. They called for an inquiry into a Media Tribunal, which would have dismantled the press self-regulatory system and replaced it with a statutory one; and they drew up the Secrecy Bill which was a direct threat to the investigative journalism which was making the lives of key leadership so uncomfortable.

But those measures ran into strong opposition, including within the ANC itself, and it was doubtful whether they would pass constitutional muster. The threat of a Media Tribunal – always a crude and unworkable idea – has been moved to the backburner, a silent background threat; a watered-down but still problematic Secrecy Bill has been on the president’s desk for a year without signature, and without explanation. That strategy had not got very far, mainly because it was crude and pursued in a rough and ham-handed way. It only got the ruling party worse media coverage.

That led, I believe, to a third phase, unannounced, subtle and only discernable now that it has been in place for a while, operating below the radar. The ANC saw how it could use its power, influence and access to state resources to support the emergence of more friendly media and put the squeeze on critical. This happened in a number of different ways:

– Instead of complaining about the influence of advertisers, the government began to realize it was a power they also held, since collectively they were one of the biggest media spenders. But this power was dispersed among scores of different state and parastatal entities, so they moved to centralize control over media buying and began to shift their spending to media they wanted to support and withhold it from those they were angry with. This had to be done discreetly, as it could easily fall into conflict with the Public Finance Management Act if they were seen to be making political decisions about spending public money. The most egregious example of this was the R43-m sponsorship by Eskom of New Age business breakfasts – a massive overpayment from a parastatal that was not flush with cash. It emerged just this week that the government was giving New Age with its 150 000 readers 10% of its spending, about the same as the Daily Sun, which has about R5-m readers.

– The ANC also used its influence in the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) and its allies in China to put public money behind the purchase by an ally of Independent Newspapers, one of the biggest newspaper groups in the country. Again there was gross overpayment and dubious use of public monies. My understanding was that it was key ANC leaders who put this coalition together. It is no coincidence that the structures of ownership in the Sekunjalo Independent Newspapers are murky; this is part of the pattern of back-door influence. Dr Surve moved quickly against independent and critical voices on his newspapers.

– At the same time, there began a much more direct and aggressive move to seize control of the SABC and bring it into line. This involved direct intervention in the SABC board and key and controversial appointments, and these individuals were protected as long as they could deliver suitable content.

– Critical decisions over set-top boxes were held up, putting an embarrassing and costly delay on the migration of broadcasting to digital. Why was this? Was this just dithering? I think it is because it gave a stick to wield over television companies. It emerged that eTV, lobbying hard for regulation in its favour, was pushed into running unannounced editorial puffs on its news to curry favour with government. Its independence had been quietly compromised.

The ANC had put away the big stick, and were now using state resources, patronage and state power to reshape the media to its liking. The party has control of parliament and this gives them considerable influence over key appointments and public funds and they have been using this to exert influence over private media. The result has become dramatic in recent months, with a tangible and visible dimunition of the space for critical, independent, accountability journalism. This new approach was crafty, smart, insidious and more effective.

Of course, some of this is legitimate politicking. Media ownership, control and influence are contested spaces in a democracy and so they should be, whether one is talking of public or private media. The government and the ruling party are entitled to lobby and push for more and better media coverage as much as anyone else. Independent media is always under pressure from every quarter that wants to compromise its independence. Where it is of concern is where government activity crosses the line into the abuse of public money and position – such as when the Minister writes to SABC board members to call them to account, or parastatals waste money on overpriced advertising and sponsorship.

It is important to see that this comes at a time when other institutions of accountability – such as Icasa, the broadcast and telecoms regulator – are either neutered, and ineffectual, or under attack for their critical independence – like the National Prosecutions Authority and the Public Protector. The ruling party has direct influence over most of these institutions and the key positions within them because they control parliament and these institutions answer to parliament. And that is why the private media is so important – it is one of the very few powerful institutions of accountability which stands outside of direct state control. So it has a special role at a time when other institutions are under pressure.

You also have to place this against the background of what is happening in media and journalism globally. This comes at a time when the media is under severe financial pressure anyway, and therefore more vulnerable to political and financial manipulation.

It is well know what financial pressures the industry is under: The rise of digital, interactive and social media has undermined the business model that has driven news media and paid for journalism for about 150 years. Journalists drew audiences, and these were sold to advertisers, who subsidized the cost of the content. But traditional media, particularly newspapers, can no longer draw enough advertising to pay for journalism in the same way.

Globally, the results have been:

– Shrinking newsrooms, particularly the loss of more expensive specialist and investigative reporters

– A breakdown of the barriers that protected journalists from the influence of advertisers. This is best symbolized by the rise of ‘native advertising”.

– A growth in populism, tabloid journalism and its digital equivalent – clickbaiting – as outlets seek to minimize cost and maximize audience in an increasingly competitive market.
We are left asking how we will pay for journalism, particularly the more expensive and risky investigative, accountability and independent journalism that is the lifeblood of our work and our citizenship.

South Africa had something of a respite for some years, along with countries like China and India, where there was still space for traditional mass media to grow. What happened in this country is that the rise of a new generation of tabloids from about 2002, led by the Daily Sun, revived the newspaper market and hid the fact that the older titles were stagnating or shrinking. But this all changed 2-3 years ago, when all the newspapers started to show dramatic loss of readership. This has accelerated in the last year; even the papers which appeared to be relatively immune, such as the weeklies and the isiZulu newspapers, are now seeing serious readership decline. To illustrate how serious this is: the Star, which peaked in the early 1990s at about 210 000, is now 84 000; the Daily Sun, which was at 500 000, is done to about 265 000; the Sunday Times, which was also around 500 000, is well below 400 000; the Mail & Guardian, which had seemed relatively immune, has shrunk from around 50 000 to under 40 000.

This would not be a problem if readers and advertisers were moving to the internet, but the internet is too fragmented, and too much information is free to make the old model work.
Globally, we can see that some newspapers are finding various ways forward in developing new and different sources of online revenue. We can contrast the approaches of the New York Times and The Guardian, both of which have invested hugely in building large global online audiences. The New York Times’ revenue is now based on subscriptions and they are earning significantly from this. The Guardian is free, and earning money from a whole range of services around the website. The Guardian earned a not insignificant £60-m from their website in the last financial year, so their losses are dropping. But their open website has made them a leading, if not the leading, global newspaper and they are expanding aggressively. With the wikileaks and Snowden stories, they have thrust themselves to the forefront of what Sheila Coronel at Columbia University has called ‘a golden age of investigative journalism’, propelled by the power of the internet.

These papers – and others who are scoring some success online – like the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail – have very different approaches, but they one overriding factor in common: bold and aggressive investment in experimenting with different approaches to winning audience and revenue. The difficult we have in this country is that our owners are failing us: where they need to invest for a long-term turnaround, they are cutting costs to maintain short-term profits and putting us in a downward spiral. The Guardian is fortunate to be owned by a Trust, which is backing the editorial strategy and throwing everything at it; the Time is fortunate to be backed by a family which cares about the future of journalism. One of the key issues in South Africa is that we have few owners with this kind of long-term vision. By and large, we are being failed by our owners who have preferred to harvest quick profits and then exit. One of the issues we need to be discussing is forms of ownership, as our current forms are failing us and there are others – such as Trusts, Non-Profits – which need to be more fully considered.

The only South African company which has put long-term and serious investment into the internet is Media24, and this has made it the dominant local online player – and they should get credit for being first and being prepared to throw a good deal of resources at new media. As a result, News24 is by a long way the biggest news site in the country and quite often it is their Afrikaans newspapers which are the best at covering daily news. But Media24 led the retrenchment brigade last year, getting rid of some 440 people, ramping down, for example, their investigations unit. Their investment now is focused on e-commerce as the primary source of revenue. They have recently tasked editor Andrew Trench to build an online newsroom of 20 people, so there is some hope there of some significant investment in online original content.

Where there is investment in the internet media, very little of it is in original content. Our mainstream news websites carry largely agency copy, they are homogenous, they are dull, they are unchallenging. There is very little investment in experimenting with new ways of storytelling, in exploring the power and range and potential of the web. There are those websites that do not grow out of legacy media, which are stand-alone – notably Daily Maverick, which is more spunky and plays an important role in our national conversation – but this is largely in the real of opinion and analysis. The lack of finance and investments in fresh content means that the big gap is reportage, the big gap is having reporters out there, on the ground, telling us what is happening in this country. In a world which is seeing a resurgence in long-form narrative, we have no outlets here for anything more than 1 000 words, or any new forms of investigation and storytelling. We have no shortage of opinion, but we have huge gaps in our reporting of everyday life.

And let me say that cannot look at the South African media without raising the issue of diversity. While our newrooms, management and ownership have changed significantly in the last 25 years – we can debate whether they have changed enough, but then they have never changed enough – but content is more homogenous, more constrained, more limited than ever. Under apartheid, we had a leftwing, a rightwing and an active trade union media. Now our media speaks by and large with one voice, bang in the middle of the political spectrum. Vast swathes of our people barely appear in our media except as victims of poverty, as violent protestors and as perpetrators and – less frequently – as victims of crime. Their voices are only heard when they take to the streets to protest or, tragically, to loot the stores of foreigners.

I would like to add an historical perspective: there have been a few periods of SA history when the media has fallen quite out of step with accelerated political events, and alternative voices have risen to fill the space. I would identify three periods of heightened political activity, which left the mainstream media behind and led to the emergence of new voices:

– the late 19th and early 20th century, with the emergence of new black independent voices in the form of John Dube, Sol Plaatje, Jabavu and others. Most of these characters went on to play a key role in the formation of the ANC.

– In the 1950s, with the radicalization of the ANC and the emergence of the new generation of Youth League leaders, such as Mandela and Sisulu, we saw the emergence of the Leftwing Guardian as well as Drum magazine

– In the 1980s, the township uprising saw the birth of a new set of alternative newspapers across the country, ranging from the Weekly Mail to Grassroots newspaper in the Cape.

All of these publications in all three eras were small and marginal, but carried a weight and historical importance that outweighed their numbers. They punched above their weights. All emerged because of technological breakthroughs which made them possible: in the late 19th century, the setting up of printing presses in mission stations around the country; in the 1950s, the emergence of cheaper, faster web presses; in the 1980s, desktop publishing. All were driven by small groups of highly motivated and committed individuals. None were motivated by money.

Do the same conditions exist now? I am not sure, but I do think there are lessons to be drawn from those experiences.

And let me end by saying that we have three really important assets in dealing with this situation.

– We have our freedom, the protection of our constitution and our constitutional court. So it may be getting to find outlets to publish challenging material, but if we do, we at least now have the law on our side.

– We have a long and rich traditional of investigative reporting, and this has been true in recent times, when we had 3-4 powerful investigative teams doing important work. A golden era might now be under pressure, and might be coming to an end, but we have role-models, we have a tradition of feisty independence in at least some quarters to draw on, and this is very important.

– We have always and still have a number of dedicated, committed journalists, many of them frustrated, many of them hiding in the corners of our mainstream media, many battling to make a living – but determined and skilled and eager to join battle.

*This is the text of a talk given to an Open Society Foundation workshop held in Johannesburg, January 30, 2015.

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