Media have charter choice

The idea of a media charter, proposed by Parliament earlier this year, is gaining ground and the legislature wants media houses to report next year on the progress made in drafting such a document.

The chairman of Parliament’s communications committee, Eric Kholwane, said the charter would set the print media’s objectives, which were still “scattered”, and would contain a broader vision for the industry.

Kholwane said it was an “anomaly” that other sectors had charters to which they subscribed, yet the print media did not.

This week he told the portfolio committee that he hoped there would be clarity on the charter by the time Parliament held its next indaba on media transformation next year.

“We don’t want to push you. I think you are a mature industry; you’re capable of looking after yourselves. But where your wheels come off, we’ll provide legislative wheels, so you’ve got a choice,” he said.

MPs have voiced concern about what they called a lack of clear transformation targets set by print media groups.

Jane Duncan, professor of media and information society studies at Rhodes University, described the print media’s performance in terms of transformation as “quite patchy”.

“There’s controversy about what is considered acceptable performance,” said Duncan. In terms of the definition of transformation that was suggested by the Right2Know campaign in September, “transformation will be achieved when the media reflects in its ownership, staffing and product the society in which it operates — not only in terms of race, but also in terms of socioeconomic status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, region and language”, she said.

“This is only possible if access is opened in ownership, staffing and product, not only to the emerging black elite but also to grassroots communities of all colours.”

Duncan said this definition of transformation strongly suggested that the media needed to move beyond generic measurement tools such as black economic empowerment scorecards.

“They can’t measure transformation in the most important areas of the media’s operations, which are content and audience transformation.”

Duncan said a charter would be useful in setting concrete deadlines and yardsticks. It would help the industry develop a common vision for transformation, which did not currently exist, and serve as an aspirational document.

But she warned that any attempt to set quotas for the coverage of groups not represented equally enough should be resisted at all costs, because quotas would threaten editorial independence.

“A charter should create an enabling environment rather than attempting to legislate content.”

She added that charters were time-consuming exercises that could take as much as six years to conclude.

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