A major failure of the media in South Africa seems to be their reporting on the national budget and the government’s economic policies. The budget process (not just the budget speech) and its attendant policies are critical to a nation’s fortunes. Factual, balanced and analytical reporting would generate open debate and discussion on these vital economic issues.
It’s a real pity that most media have taken a stance that investigative journalism and the watchdog role are only appropriate on national economic concerns when public funds have been pilfered or wasted. This is a reactive stance, which, while it can bring about corrective action, is not proactive enough to influence policy. It’s also a very partial fulfillment of the watchdog role, which implies prevention: a proper watchdog blows the whistle before public funds are stolen and it ensures that conditions for stealing are minimised.
South African media has turned itself into a Trevor Manuel Admiration Club instead of an agency that scrutinises his actions, apportioning praise where it is due and raising critical and hard questions where it matters. Finance Minister Manuel has done well and is highly regarded globally for his skills, but there is a case for saying he has succeeded on only one aspect of his task: competent management of the economy within the dominant global context of capitalism. The media has fallen over itself singing his praises on these accomplishments because the policies have to a very large extent benefited big business.
However (and this is really where the media has failed) the jury is still out on whether Manuel has been a competent economic manager of a developing country, one caught between the demands of global capitalism and delivering to millions beset by poverty, underemployment and unemployment. In short, should Manuel’s success not be judged on how his policies are sensitive to his context? Do his policies not perpetuate what his boss President Mbeki calls the country’s “two nations”? Also, could a Minister of Finance in a developed capitalist country be considered successful if he or she managed the economy in ways in which a large majority of the population could not quite see the benefits?
This takes me to my next point, which is that by focusing on Manuel and attributing his “successful” management of the economy to him as an individual, the media forgets that he operates through processes in the ANC and the government. What the media fails to do is reveal what goes on behind the formulation of the budget and the economic policies. Who really influences Manuel’s decisions, and who ideally should influence his decisions? Do trade unions, ordinary South Africans, experts outside of business and the dominant capitalist wisdom have the same opportunities and access to Manuel as he grapples with decisions on the budget? In what ways, and to what extent, does he consult the appropriate representatives both before and after the budget?
Finally, the media has failed to pursue the point raised by Cosatu and some parliamentarians that parliament should have the right to amend the budget, which should more accurately be referred to as the “Budget Statement”. I have a suspicion that many business and economic journalists are simply not as well versed as the government on matters of the budget and economic policy. They are perhaps particularly weak with regard to the range of alternative processes and policies, and therefore unable to challenge or question the state’s budget machinery.
Consequently, what should be real “reporting” on the budget and economic policies is a mixture of praise for Manuel and questions asked on behalf of big business – which always wants Manuel to go the extra mile and abolish all exchange controls, introduce labour market reform and lower corporate tax.
Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi puts it well when he says that the business of financial media (and I think it seems to be true for all media) is to bat for business.
Professor Tawana Kupe is Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies at Wits University