Who controls the media?

‘Once again the white-controlled media is wrong,” declared ANC youth leader Julius Malema at the August press conference that greeted Caster Semenya at OR Tambo International Airport. “Those radio commentators, at least we know your views, not only toward Caster, but to all of us. We know your loyalty lies in Australia.”

It wasn’t the first swipe politicians have taken at local media—Thabo Mbeki consistently blasted what he called the racist colonial media—and it won’t be the last.
But Malema hit a soft spot. Because, although most get their news from the SABC, a June 2009 report from the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) found that print and online media are majority-owned by the big four publishing groups: Avusa, Caxton/CTP, Naspers (Media 24) and the Independent Newspaper Group. And not much transformation has been happening there.

But is there an even harder bit of truth somewhere among the colonial conspiracy rantings? Just who is running the news show?
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As the Semenya gender debacle unfolded, Talk Radio 702’s John Robbie, normally confined to the early morning segment, boomed into Primedia’s Sandton newsroom. The afternoon host replayed an interview Robbie had with an expert to find out what the medical definition of intersexed was.

It was likely Robbie was the radio commentator at whom Malema hurled his attack; asked for clarity, the youth league’s response was a curt “you can make a determination on that”. But the race issue is not unfamiliar territory for 702.

Last year news editor Katy Katapodis filed a complaint against the Forum for Black Journalists after reporter Stephen Grootes was barred from an event where then-presidential candidate Jacob Zuma was speaking. With its fair share of lily-white voices—from the presenters to the callers—702 makes for easy target practice.

Station manager Pheladi Gwangwa won’t take any of that. “To say there is a conspiracy, that we have a diary meeting and decide, okay, today we are going to attack the ANC, or today we are going to attack Cope — it just doesn’t happen,” Gwangwa says.

“What we say is shaped by what happens in the news. We seek to provide a platform for everyone to contribute to the discourse. Just because we were started by the Kirshes, the Malemas out there see us as white-owned.”

The thing is, the BEE group, Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC) is its major shareholder, at 49,1% . Perhaps it’s fair to consider these stats next time you hear a whiny middle-class white voice piercing the airwaves: of 702’s 622 000 weekly listeners, 52% are black. “You can hear that on the radio,” says Gwangwa. “The owners are black, the listeners are black. We would be stupid to pander to a white audience.”

In the run-up to the elections there was a popular download on the Avusa-owned Times website. “You are terribly classist,” then-ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte screeched when journalist Philani Nombembe asked about online election strategies.

“If you were not black I would say you are racist — you have a very bad attitude, your newspaper has — and actually we are not so concerned about what the Times thinks — we know where you are coming from and we know where you are going to.”

Duarte has since been shipped off to a quieter place.

ANC spokesperson Brian Sokutu pushed back when asked whether he thought the media were hostile towards the ANC. “There have been instances which have prompted us to take up matters but I wouldn’t call that hostility in general,” Sokutu says. “We encourage robust media in South Africa, which reports without favour, as long it’s factual and there is balance in what’s being reported.”

Housed in Avusa’s slick Rosebank offices are some of the country’s most powerful titles: Sunday Times, Business Day, Sowetan and Financial Mail. Erstwhile enemy of the state Mondli Makhanya takes his position on the second floor in a carpeted corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows.

The faces of gentlemanly white men cling to the walls just outside the editor’s office, beginning with GH Kingswell in 1907 and ending in another era with Mathatha Tsedu in 2000.

“There is a general misconception in the South African discourse that the media is still considered as it was in 1994,” says Makhanya. “I used to sit in newsrooms where I was the only black journalist in the room. But things have changed drastically since then and that hasn’t sunk in. Most large commercial media outlets are black-edited.”

The Sunday Times regularly gets trotted out as another bastion of whiteness, yet Avusa’s majority shareholder is Tokyo Sexwale’s Mvelaphanda. But there’s another misconception, says Makhanya. South Africa doesn’t actually have a tradition of media barons dictating to journalists.

“It doesn’t exist in mainstream media,” he says. “I’ve been an editor here for five-and-a-half years and I’ve never been told do anything by any shareholder.”

The days of Makhanya hiding from imminent arrest may also have faded into the past. “The tone is set by the presidency and the presidency under Mbeki was very hostile,” he says. “There has been a massive sea change with the new administration.”

“Look,” says government spokesperson Themba Maseko, “there is no government position that there is a media problem in this country. From time to time there will be a debate between a minister and a media house but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that government has a problem with media in general.”

Maseko says the government meets editors and journalists to form better relations; Zuma was recently at Avusa’s offices. But that doesn’t mean there is any pull-back on who owns whom. What the government wants is not shrouded in mystery or political jargon. What it wants is clear: more black media ownership.

Which it isn’t going to find at Naspers’s Media24, the epitome of white-owned media; MDDA puts Media24’s historically disadvantaged individual (HDI) shareholding at just 15%. Inside the hulking steel and glass edifice of the group’s Auckland Park empire are the newsrooms of some of the country’s most widely read papers: City Press, Rapport, Beeld and Daily Sun.

This is Themba Khumalo territory. His blue-overalled manikin-of-the-people stands guard outside the editor’s office overseeing grey-haired white subeditors, young white designers, black reporters and black photographers.

“This is my story,” says Khumalo. “This is my people’s story and this is how I tell it.”

And how he tells it is through “home affairs horrors” features and stories of witchdoctors, tokoloshes and potholes. He’s heard his fair share about how he’s part of the white media—despite the predominately black readership of the Daily Sun, founded by Afrikaans publisher Deon du Plessis—but he dismisses it. “A Naspers shareholder is not going to tell me how to cover home affairs or Gugulethu,” Khumalo says.

Still, the smack of racism can sting in other media. “Sometimes the way things are reported, it makes you wonder. Is it failure they are reporting or black failure?”

Upstairs, settling into her new office, is Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press. Her mission: to take the “distinctly African” paper to a wider audience, introducing, as she puts it, “different hues” to the paper with the aim of transcending race in the fashion of Barack Obama and Nkhensani Nkosi. Haffajee says she’s all for transformation. But, she warns, those who are pushing for it need to understand what they’re asking for. “They mustn’t think that black ownership is going to be sycophantic and patriotic — that if you have more black ownership, the media agenda is going to change.”

Down the road her former boss at the Mail & Guardian, Trevor Ncube, would agree. “We have an editorially driven agenda,” says Ncube. “As publishers, we are hostages of our editorial team, just as editors are hostages of their journalists. Slants come out. You can’t run away from that.”

I ask about his latest appointment—white editor Nic Dawes—an against-all-odds move in most media houses these days. “I am comfortable in my skin,” says Ncube. “We have done our bit for BEE. This paper is going to be run by people who are competent.”

But, Ncube says, Malema has given the media some tough bits to chew on.

“I fear the news agenda is still set by white liberal attitudes and as a result there’s a disjuncture between those attitudes and what’s happening in Soweto,” says Ncube. “That’s how the media got Zuma so wrong. They are not engaged with the issues.”

I ask whether he fears this for his newsroom. Ncube doesn’t blink. “I think we have to be very careful.”

Back on our newsroom floor, things are also black and white. One black colleague didn’t hold back when asked who controls the media in South Africa: “White people—and it affects the way we cover news.”

Another was more pointed about how we deal with government when problems arise about coverage. “If the editor is black, the attitude is let’s sit down and talk about it, but if it’s a white person, it’s a civil war.”

Tanya Pampalone is the Mail & Guardian’s special projects editor and the founder of www.xpat.co.za

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