Friday, 7 September 2007

Discussion of media quality needed, not further regulation

It is very difficult to properly debate the media in South Africa because we use the media itself as a platform. Who we are and what we say is already mediated by the media, and thus our discussions may already be defined by certain parameters.

But it is precisely why discussion of the media’s role is vitally important. Those of us who use print media extensively constitute a rather small group – a group which includes key opinion makers, decisionmakers and movers and shakers in institutions. But the discourses in the print media are intrinsically linked to the electronic news media. In terms of analysis and intellectual framing, the print media constitutes, as it were, the first economy while the electronic media forms the second economy. In terms of cultural influence, however, (and potential for social dialogue with all South Africans) the electronic media is by far the more powerful force.

There are other reasons why it is tricky reviewing and reflecting critically on the role of media.

As a democrat, I am wary of inciting interference with something that works – albeit with room for improvement; the concern is that - because we aren’t sure about what needs improving and how to set about making improvements – we could end up causing more damage to this important institution. It’s like the lay mechanic who pulls apart an engine, hoping to soup it up, but ends up with just a disastrous pile of engine parts on the floor.

In addition, some voices/interests in the media can be ultra sensitive to criticism. A critical comment is branded as an attack on freedom of speech, just like critical discussion of Zionism often leads to allegations of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, fools rush in …

The media is doing a great deal of good work. Like many institutions in civil society, it was not fully prepared for life (and role-shift) beyond democracy. It had not thoroughly interrogated, before 1994, what it would mean to be the media in a transitional society and in a fragile democracy.

The media suddenly found itself having to help usher in and bed down the new democracy. Squarely in the deep end, it had to provide relevant information for voters, monitor electoral processes, introduce exiled leaders to the public, try to build bridges between alienated communities, comment on processes to deal with the past, disseminate the new Constitution’s core principals, track alliances within and between parties, be a watchdog without promoting stereotypes about black rule, hold leaders accountable and - most difficult of all - tell the development story. It had the gargantuan task of managing the ambiguity of holding leadership accountable while recognizing that this new leadership had done infinitely more to address the needs of the black majority than any government before. There are gaps, but a great deal of good work has been done.

The question is how to improve the media. Rather than stagnate and rest on laurels, the question is how to move to a new level of performance. Forget for a moment the bitter complaints by certain powerful politicians and the ruling ANC about the media; impelling us to make improvements are (a) the information needs of the people and (b) the challenge of building a collective belonging and shared goals among the widest group of South Africans.

The media needs to be prepared to undertake a deeper reflection. It needs to be prepared to navigate itself through a second loop of learning. The first level of learning is how to do better (more accuracy, retain journalistic experience longer through better pay, channels for complaint-handling, etc.) within accepted notions, the conventional and long-held traditions. A second level of rigorous reflection would go back to a review of the paradigm itself, to guiding values and the core mission of media work. Here the basic framing ideas may be adjusted, but may also be confirmed.

These days there is, frighteningly so, much talk of media regulation; (I understand the ANC has a policy proposal in this regard for discussion at its national conference later this year). It is said that being the fourth estate, the media needs checks and balances comparable to regulation governing the other 3 key spheres of democracy. Then there is the usual complaint that, in newspapers, major front page errors are followed by a barely visible retraction on a more obscure inside page. It is further argued that current self-regulation, such as the Press Ombudsman facility, is insufficient and that defamation payouts from the courts have generally been low.

But regulation would be the completely wrong way to go. Apart from the dangers of doing damage, and constricting the democratic oxygen in society, quality in the media cannot be brought about by regulation. By and large, the starting point for those supporting tougher regulation is either the need to protect the dignity and privacy of public figures or has to do with specific grievances among key politicians about coverage of their portfolios. In my book, a much broader perspective is required – including society’s needs, how to deepen our democracy and nationbulding. Also, better newspapers and better electronic news (including better quality and more depth) cannot be regulated into being.

A social dialogue process on the media and its role would need to examine:

a. Depth and quality in the media
For those who argue that quality is in place, this would represent an opportunity to confirm that. For others, identifying gaps and barriers to excellence would be important in strengthening the role of media in promoting democracy.

b. Diversity to meet the needs of the population and differentiation
A diverse mass media that comprehensively meets the information, awareness and entertainment needs of all South African is needed. Here we need to ask: what are the gaps and silences, and what can be done about these? At the same time, there must be an appreciation of the fact that a newspaper or a station needs to create a particular profile and standpoint. In some ways, it would be preferable if media vehicles were more open about their particular agenda and positioning; we could then read their editorials and their story choices in context.

c. Certain culture issues
This is a specific reference to forms of address in the media. How – given a fractious society - should, for example, the President be addressed. President Thabo Mbeki won the last elections by a sweeping majority and now occupies highest office as head of the country. That requires some acknowledgement and respect. In SA, we won’t accept groveling terms such as His Excellency to refer to Cabinet Ministers, but many of us also squirm when columnists refer to the President Mbeki simply as “Thabo”. For sure, the gloves do come off when top media voices clash with politicians; but surely it is possible to be incisive, strident and even devastating in criticism by focusing on content and without being rude or boorish.

d. How development is covered
The commercial media relies on an oppositional approach, since conflict and contestation works best for selling newspapers and drawing listeners. But mass media also has a service to perform (each media outlet must, of course, decide to what extent it does so), and communication of development information should be one of the benefits of a good media system. The media in Mzansi does well in terms of broad coverage of education - of innovations, changes and new initiatives. But many other developmental topics, e.g. housing, water, social grants, etc. are usually covered only in relation to "scandals". NGOs and community organisations constantly complain about the dearth in thorough coverage and critical analysis of development - of policy implementation, choice of instruments, policy outcomes and impacts on communities. It needs to be asked: despite the bottom-line pressures on the commercial media, what improvements in coverage are possible so that a free media contributes to better development planning, decisionmaking and implementation?

I now turn to suggestions for the way forward. One of the problems is that debate on the role of the media is often confined to/dominated by media practitioners and editors on the one side and aggrieved politicians on the other. This is far too limiting – in any case suspicions on either side about vested interests and concealed agendas mean these two sides never really dialogue. In effect, the discussion is often frozen. We need to bring the third part of the triangle into the picture – us, the public, the community and the consumers of the news media. What is needed instead is a social dialogue between the public and the media.

I propose the following:

1. There should be a major commission into the quality and depth of the mass media in South Africa. Such a commission should include leaders and practitioners in the media locally, some academics as well as experts from other countries. It should issue a “Depth and Quality” report, bearing in mind the needs of a transitional society, and draw conclusions that can guide broader engagement and dialogue.

2. Newspapers and stations should have a regular dialogue with their constituencies. For example, an Eastern Cape newspaper could hold an annual “imbizo” with people representing its constituency, including local church leaders, local trade unionists, NGOs and professionals working at community level. This would allow for a vibrant and edifying exchange on the role of media, and may provide interesting inputs into discussions about quality and effectiveness.

3. Forums and conferences for editors and journalists should include input from thinkers and analysts outside the media. It seems to me that, on the media’s role, there is a great deal of consensus (the latest outburst by the SABC aside) prevailing in the liberal/mainstream media. There seems to be a general sense of comfort that all is going well, while conceding that some tweaking and minor improvements are needed such as more training and measures to retain experienced journalists as well as better strategic responses to opportunities presented by technology and new media. The discussions at these conferences could be enriched if they were addressed by people, not necessarily politicians, who - while embracinng media freedom - could be more heretical and provocative about the role media media can play in consolidating a new democratic society.

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