Media has changed but ownership is in a few hands


As I was about to enter the University of the Witwatersrand venue – to be a speaker on a panel for a media transformation round-table debate last week, organised by the school of literature, language and media – a student with a bemused expression on their face stopped me to ask: “But from where to where?”

Disarmed for just a few seconds, I replied: “Brilliant question,” then entered the venue for the round table to discuss whose voices are heard in the media; if the stories reflect truly transformed content; who owns the print media; and whether or not transformation is used as a ruse for the politicisation of the media?

The student’s question tugged at me as the panellists one after another dissed the media for lack of transformation, racism, lack of black and female ownership, concentration of ownership, lack of diversity of voices, content and ideological perspectives, lack of accountability and mainstream media bias in favour of the elite.

Same old. But some of the criticisms rings true, especially concentration of ownership and competition issues. But no transformation in the media at all? Only a stretch of the imagination and a phantasmic gaze can assert that the media is the same as it was during apartheid, when mainstream media carried only white stories, white voices and white photographs.

Lumko Mtimde, author of the ANC resolution on the Media Appeals Tribunal resolution, kicked off his talk by asserting that the panel was “controversial”. I wondered if he was referring to me because I was a member of the South African National Editors’ Forum, which tends to refer to the Constitution when in doubt about media policy matters (even though I was not representing the body at the round table). Or because I have been outspoken that a media appeals tribunal and Protection of State Information Bill (in the form that it stands) has no place in the democratic era.

Another speaker then asked: Can’t the media think of anything positive to say about the country, can’t they love their country one little bit? I thought, surely the same must apply for how you think about the media.

Clearly, one of the big problems is the misconception of “the media” as one homogenous whole; a second is the role of media in a democracy.

There is no nuanced acknowledgment that there are multiple subjectivities and identities among journalists, and in many ways there is a large amount of diversity. In terms of numbers, the racial complexion of editors has changed, but not the gender.

At editor level, the majority are black male (about 70%). Women editors have decreased in number over the past few years. At board level, a grim 4% are women. At ownership level, the majority is white.

Do the numbers matter? Yes and no. Sometimes, but not always, black journalists take on black issues. Sometimes, but not always, female journalists are interested in feminist issues. One cannot essentialise race and gender and make assumptions. There are class issues that come into play and there are pertinent questions about whether or not the mainstream media serves the working and unemployed classes. Take the research on the Marikana killings in 2012 for instance, which found that the majority of reporting used voices of authority, for example the police and politicians rather than the miners.

Should journalists be faithful and loyal to the Constitution, to codes of ethics of the profession as stipulated in the new media code, which is based on the Constitution, or to the ruling party and its desire for a more loyal and patriotic media? We have all these disparate trajectories.

To return to the student’s question of from where to where, let us turn to some history. There was Radio Bantu in 1962 that broadcast in Sesotho and isiZulu. The station was “manned” by 35 white staff members, who could speak these languages and acted as police or censors to the black presenters and newsreaders. In the 1970s, many South Africans listened to Springbok Radio, which ran programmes such as The Mind of Tracy Dark, Squad Cars and the Springbok Top 20.

Today there are 254 radio stations broadcasting in a variety of languages. Is this not an example of how media has grown and diversified?

In the 1800s, one of the first newspapers was the Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser, which was made up of eight pages, four of which were adverts. In the then Transvaal, there was the Government Gazette. The names hint at the kind of news published then.

Today there are 250 community newspapers, 28 weeklies and 22 dailies. Of those community newspapers registered with the Association of Independent Publishers, 97 are printing in black languages.

The publishers’ association has increased its membership from about 100 to more than 200 in the past decade, which is an indicator of the increase in local news. The quantitative analysis from the State of the Newsroom South Africa 2014 research on community papers showed that the majority of voices in these newspapers were local. They were the voices of the local butcher, hairdresser, community worker, churchgoer and housewife rather than the national voices of Gwede Mantashe, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa.

It was found that the overwhelming voice in community newspapers was black and male, at more than 70%, while women were under-represented. In mainstream newspapers, research by Media Tenor showed that women’s voices were under-represented, at 14%, of all voices.

Not enough black-language media? For sure. But progress from the past, when South Africans were forced to read Afrikaans and only have English newspapers? Yes.

Critics are perhaps correct when they accuse the media of not offering alternative ideological economic perspectives. We do need more alternatives à la the days just before the fall of apartheid, when we had the “alternative press” in the form of the Weekly Mail (the precursor to the Mail & Guardian), South, New Nation and Vrye Weekblad, among others.

Nonetheless, from where to where, when we talk about transformation, remains a brilliant question.

Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in the media studies department at Wits University. She chairs the diversity and ethics sub-committee at the South African National Editors’ Forum but writes here in her personal capacity.

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