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A question of write vs wrong

BMW’s South African workforce produces better cars than its German counterparts. That’s a good story. A very good one, in fact. BMWs roll off the assembly line in South Africa with fewer faults than in Germany itself. So why do very few people know about this? Why did the South African media not run with the story?

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by Richard Calland

At the Goedegacht Forum last weekend, assembled to discuss the topic of the role of the media in building the national interest, this interesting nugget was a symbolic rallying point for those participants who maintain that the South African media are incompetent or lazy or negligent or genetically disinclined to present anything other than the doomsday scenario. Or all four.

Younger journalists complained: why hadn’t the government made more of this fact; why hadn’t BMW SA for that matter?

Older journalists took a different view: our job is to find stories, to dig them up, not wait to have them presented on a silver platter.

The government’s sole represent-ative at the thinkathon session in the Malmesbury hillside retreat was Government Communication and Information System chief Joel Netshitenzhe. He did not say so, but I am pretty sure that he concurs with the second view.

The government is perpetually frustrated at the media’s failure to see the good news as well as the bad. This leads it to believe that the media are compliant accomplices in what Netshitenzhe calls the “apocalypse delayed” approach to life: that 1994 was a moment of inevitable apocalypse, but the fact that it hasn’t actually arrived is simply a question of time. This is what the discussant last Saturday, Xolela Mangcu, means, I think, when he talks of “white journalism”.

Take another recent example that was not discussed. Two weeks ago the well-established Lehman Brothers-Eurasia Group Stability Index of emerging markets was published with South Africa in the league table for the first time. South Africa came in fifth, out of about 25.

Only four emerging market countries such as Hungary and Poland are better destinations for foreign direct investment according to this report.

I happen to know about it because the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, where I work, is contracted to compile monthly reports on governance and politics for Eurasia. I happen to think it’s a rather interesting story that would interest quite a few South Africans. The Financial Times agreed, and reported extensively on the announcement.

Yet the South African media, as far as I am aware, missed the story completely. South Africa’s high entry in the list is good for investment and therefore good for the national interest essentially.

Should the media be searching for such stories precisely because they serve the national interest? No. Consider this: South Africa may be selling weapons to Israel. It used to. We don’t actually know the position at the moment, because the national conventional arms control committee that advises Cabinet on arms sales has failed to produce its parliamentary report for the past two years (Netshitenzhe told the gathering the reports are imminent and that South Africa has stopped selling arms to Israel).

South Africa has considerable expertise in arms development and production, which is presumably why British Aerospace is busy acquiring 30% of Denel, the state arms-production entity. Selling arms brings in valuable income. That is in the national interest; extra revenue can be used to expand the social expenditure envelope. But is it in the public interest — a far more slippery notion?

If the weapons sold to Israel are to be used to oppress or murder innocent Palestinians, is that in the public interest? Does the formerly oppressed South African public surely not have more common interest and a sense of solidarity with the Palestinians than with the needs of the Israeli government?

Netshitenzhe, who led the discussion, was thought-provoking on the subject of the national interest. He distinguishes it from “state interest”, which is how traditionally national interest has been defined, typically in com-parative jurisprudence, and argues that state interest plus public interest equals national interest.

All of this is a digression from the main point, which is to assess the role and quality of the media, but, I think, a worthwhile one because it illustrates the difficulty of grappling with notions of national interest and proves why they should be left well alone by the media.

For me, the question of the national interest is irrelevant. It’s simply a question of good journalism. Or, as the SABC’s Mathata Tsedu said in reply to Netshitenzhe, the principal job of the media is to enable the public to tell what is real and what is unreal and to thus help them distinguish the one from the other.

This is easier to say than to do, I recognise. Especially when media owners are intent on asset-stripping. You’d be astonished to discover how few actual journalists are employed by Independent group newspapers in South Africa. It helps explain their superficiality and why there is no realistic prospect of them presenting the complex reality of contemporary South Africa, as Tsedu would have them do. Not that his public broadcaster is in any better position.

The private sector must serve the interests of its shareholders, some-thing that is seldom remembered by people who put “freedom of the media” in some special category. This is not to say that the media should be com-pared with, say, a shoe factory. People need shoes. But strong, independent media are more useful for democracy; to participate meaningfully, citizens need information and the media are a vital vehicle for its dissemination. In any case, as Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen said, good democracies have plenty of shoes.

Tsedu, who is also the chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum, informed us that 17% of the SABC’s budget is from licence fees, 70% from advertising and just 3% from the state. He doesn’t want more from the government, but the reliance on advertising revenue means that the SABC is in the same boat as the commercial media: having to serve the interests of the market, rather than the public.

This is an international trend. The privatisation of public broadcasting is a part of the overall shift away from state ownership.

Mangcu told us of his already public dispute with the editors of the Sunday Independent, where he a writes a column.

He wants to occasionally write in his home language, Xhosa. They say no, on the basis that it is an English-language newspaper. Mangcu complains about cultural and racial imperialism, whereas, in fact, it is surely about protecting the interests of a commercial class. Advertisers are not going to place ads in a newspaper written in a language that most of their potential market can’t understand.

The real question is whether advertisers will place ads in a newspaper that shows us the world as it really is, irrespective of the language used, and whether the media can develop the skill to do just that.

Archive: Previous columns by Richard Calland

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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