/ 2 December 2010

Pluralism is a bigger priority than press ownership

There’s renewed focus on newspaper ownership by the ANC, even as the ruling party is becoming less hardline about the Media Appeals Tribunal and the Secrecy Bill.

Ownership was a prickly issue in parliament last week, when the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) presented its annual report for the 2009/10 year.

The new chair of the Portfolio Committee on Communications, Eric Kholwane, didn’t mince his words.

Newspaper ownership, he said, was still dominated by the pre-1994 “Big Four” companies — a description of Avusa, Independent Newspapers, Media24 and Caxton.

Kholwane accused them of throwing the MDDA a few “dry bones” to chew on, while retaining the juicy, meaty bits for themselves.

The four groups have renewed their contributions to the MDDA for another five years, but the amount remains static at a total of R4,8-million per annum, with a drop to R4-million during the last two years.

The MDDA report attributes this “to the financial challenges engulfing the print media industry at present”.

However, Kholwane’s concern was MDDA research that showed little advance in BEE stakes in the major press groups. He criticised the absence of a transformation charter in the industry.

Becoming representative
Echoing the sentiment during the parliamentary session, deputy minister in the Presidency, Dina Pule, said it could become necessary to compel the newspaper groups to make their ownership more representative. The committee agreed to ask the newspaper owners to address them on the issues.

The trouble is, ownership can change, but South Africans could still be without more media to choose from.

In 1997, parliament convened a conference on media ownership, especially foreign ownership.

At the time, I proposed there that possibly more important than who owned media was what they were doing about economic expansion (including job creation and joint ventures) that created opportunities for domestic players.

I also cautioned the politicians that “ownership does not inevitably translate into complete editorial control”.

This was because some of the pressure on proprietorship is driven by a misguided desire for a press that will praise the politicians.

Last week’s discussion in parliament follows the September ANC conference in Durban which called on MPs to inquire into a print media charter, ownership and control, and advertising plus marketing. That conference also resolved that Government should ensure that the MDDA made “real impact into the mainstream media, whilst supporting community media, including legislated contributions by the print media, as broadcast media do”.

It’s now up to the newspapers to respond to these issues while retaining the independence of the press. They could do so by more creatively recognising that they, the public, and the media sector as a whole can benefit materially from both more BEE and a more effective MDDA.

Set up in 2003 as a public-private partnership, the MDDA has been trying hard to stimulate grassroots and especially African language media.

So far, it has helped 284 projects to the tune of R103-million, and complemented this with business advice and training. But there are huge hurdles to growing small media enterprises, which also affect even the big players.

One of the first MDDA recipients was Big News newspaper that targeted small business owners. Having secured a grant of R810 000, it was sold two years later to BDFM, a joint venture between Avusa and Pearson (UK). But three weeks ago, the publication was closed for lack of viability.

A reader commented on the closure: “If a newspaper who is serving the SME market is forced to close down, how on earth are actual SME’s surviving the recession? What makes this more depressing is the fact that this newspaper was backed by a big corporate (as well as advertising from government and other big business) — and if big corporates cannot survive — again — how will SME’s survive?”

As indication of the challenges, many media projects who seek support from MDDA are legally ruled out of funding due to arrears in their tax bills. Many have no proper business plans, and they need feasibility studies before any grants can be considered. Some grants have to be written back due to the collapse of projects before they get off the ground.

These are some of the reasons why in 2009/10 MDDA’s total income was nearly R45m, but the agency could only disburse around R24m – even though there’s much higher demand from entrepreneurs and community media groups.

More money from all stakeholders could enable the MDDA to ramp up its facilities and vastly increase the level of monitoring and support.

Income to the Agency has been static over the years at just under R5-million per annum, but the government’s grant grew to nearly R17m in 2009/10, while broadcasting contributed close to R18-million over the same period.

Involvement of government departments
Previously, the Department of Communications agreed to channel R20-million for community radio programmes through the MDDA. But the full sum has yet to be paid and the prospects for renewal are uncertain — all of which inhibits MDDA from increasing its capacity.

Some potential lies in the agency talking to the Ministry of Trade and Development about a development finance body to provide low interest loans for media, something that could even directly benefit a mainstream that is under pressure.

Yet even an optimally capitalised MDDA needs other changes to succeed. One is research to generate more advertising spend.

The MDDA’s report shows a meagre R18-million from government advertising going into community radio, even though the state, amongst others, should be getting out information to listeners in this sector.

Overall, the challenge of changing the grassroots media landscape is much larger than that of addressing corporate newspaper ownership.

Bee-ing print companies is a big issue, but tackling the matter of small-scale outlets should be first prize for parliament. When we have vibrant media SME’s, we can say hello to a truly pluralistic media landscape.

* Disclosure: The author has been a member of the board of the MDDA, with his term ending this year.

* This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, www.fesmedia.org. The views expressed in it are those of the author.

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