Control disguised as transformation

Parliament holds an "Indaba on Diversity and Transformation of Print Media" this week. It is the first of two sessions; the second will deal with the issue of a media appeals tribunal.

The invitation to stakeholders for this first indaba mentions "the continuous shabby journalism, declining of journalism standards, inaccurate, unfair and irresponsible reporting, the inadequate powers of the press ombudsman to deter and discourage this practice, continuous non-compliance and non-adherence to the existing Press Code and a lack of accountability from the media".

There are several issues at play here and they all feed into the ANC's desire, in terms of a resolution it adopted at the Polokwane congress in December 2007, for a tribunal to address the perceived problems listed in the invitation. Parliament was directed to investigate the feasibility of a tribunal because, it was said, self-regulation was not working.

Yet we have an excellent regulation system: the Constitution, the Press Code, our peers. Mistakes are made in the press all over the world, but it does not follow that we need state control, whether or not it is disguised as a need for diversity and transformation.

We already have diverse media: community media, public media and private or commercial media. Yes, we could have more diversity. But the criticism that too many newspaper products are owned by too few companies must be examined.

In the Avusa group, for instance, Business Day and the Sunday Times are not that cosy with each other. The former recently released a report about inadequacies at the latter. Despite different readerships, there is competition between the papers, which is certainly not an evil thing. Newspapers do not operate as a cartel or conspiracy, no matter who their owners are.

As far as transformation goes, most media houses are owned by blacks, not whites. The majority of managers are black, too, and the majority of editors are black.

That we need more women in the media is certain. People from classes other than the middle class need a better voice. That newspapers are too urban-centred is also true. But "transformation" is being used as an excuse to argue for control, not to help develop what diversity exists.

The ANC's belief that self-regulation is not working, lumped together with the call for diversity and transformation, is used to argue that we need a media appeals tribunal.

There is, as yet, no idea of the form such a tribunal would take. The guise of arguments about diversity and transformation are not convincing. It is all about power and control.

Problems such as a lack of diversity and transformation in the media, as well as issues of mistakes and inaccuracies in the press, do not equal the need for a media appeals tribunal. These issues should not be conflated. They must be separated.

Glenda Daniels is advocacy co-ordinator at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) and serves in the Right2Know national working group. The views in this column are her own.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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