/ 11 October 2010

Shooting the messenger won’t help

Shooting The Messenger Won't Help

Blade Nzimande, the Higher Education and Training Minister, is talking out of his hat.

It’s not the assertion that the media has a liberal bias nor the critique of either its ownership patterns or its standards of professionalism that are such errant nonsense. It is the idea that the media represents a threat to democracy and the advancement of the country.

How can the media, with all its limitations of skill and capacity, possibly bear any relation to the real problems besetting the country — jobs, skills, inequality, schools, natural resources and healthcare?

Nzimande and others with axes to grind with the media have not made their case. I agree with their analysis of the weaknesses of the media. The ANC discussion paper tabled at its recent national general council contains a perfectly calm and reasonable, if unoriginal, analysis of the problems — the lack of proper investment in training of journalists or in journalists, period; the “juniorisation” of newsrooms; the weakness of the system of self-regulation; and the oligopolies and lack of diversity in the ownership of the media.

But the paper and the arguments of those in favour of the as yet unfleshed-out idea of a media tribunal trip up when they get to the solution. In the line of logic, there is a vast chasm between the diagnosis and the prescription. It is impossible to understand how the powers and authority of a media tribunal could possibly be devised in a way that would address any of the problems.

Instead, the debate serves to distract, generating unnecessary and harmful bad publicity for the ANC and the government, domestically and internationally. Is this really the best moment to risk South Africa’s brand and, in turn, possible investment in the country’s economy?

I simply fail to understand the danger that this liberal bias presents. It is hardly a raucous rightwing determination to put down the left. Yes, the media tends to jump on any talk about nationalisation and exaggerate the concerns, but, Mr Nzimande, on this issue you agree with them — nationalisation is a red herring raised by those eager to line their own pockets.

Where on earth is the line of logic that links the liberal bias of the media to the development obstacles that we face? Is the media really a greater threat than corruption and lack of accountability in public-service provision? Is it really a more serious danger than the threats to sustainable development caused by climate change — the dark clouds of water scarcity and food insecurity that gather on the horizon? Is people’s security and ability to walk the streets safely at night in working-class areas so imperilled because of the media? Are our schools so inexplicably hopeless because of the inadequacies of the press?

Listen, Mr Nzimande, to the people: in the latest Afrobarometer survey in 2008, South Africans were asked to state the most important problems facing the country. They came up with 18. How prominent was the media in this list? Top five, top 10? Neither. It was not mentioned. Instead, people listed unemployment (36%), the economy (12%), poverty (10%) and housing (5%), plus a host of other related matters. It was as you would expect, in fact. Unless, apparently, you are the secretary general of the South African Communist Party, or a modern Don Quixote, willing to tilt at windmills of complete irrelevance.

It follows that the motive for the attack on the media is either a personal vendetta or an attempt to find an easy scapegoat for any failings of the government to address the things that matter most to people.

Do people want the freedom of expression of the media limited? (Though Nzimande, to be fair to him, made it clear in his comments last week that he was firmly against press censorship.) Again the Afrobarometer is instructive. Across race and class there was only scanty support for limiting press freedom — only 16% of people agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that the government should be able to close down newspapers that ran stories it did not like.

But 80% of people agreed with or strongly agreed with the proposition that newspapers should be able to print any story they wished without fear of being closed down.

It would seem on this evidence — the most credible survey source of public opinion — that on this issue, South Africans have rather liberal instincts.

My advice to Nzimande is — stick to your job, mate. If you want to advance a progressive vision of democracy and development, then raising the standards in universities across the country would be a very good place to start.

Our graduates would then emerge not only better skilled, but also intellectually better prepared to avoid the sort of confused thinking you have recently displayed.

Focusing on the issues that really matter to the people of the country, rather than those that most irk the political elite, is the way to govern strongly. Attacking the media is merely a sign of weakness. And it really isn’t worth it.