Our master's voice

2010-07-15 00:00

NEWS that the African National Congress or those sympathetic to it are starting a newspaper has been met with the predictable opprobrium by those who call themselves defenders of free speech.

At the heart of their displeasure is the fear that the ANC will use the paper as a propaganda tool or even divert the huge government advertising spend to this newspaper, thus strangling rival newspapers.

Both fears are not unfounded. The state is a big revenue spinner for the media as it is for virtually every industry. It banks, buys cars, uses computers and builds houses.

Doing business with the state is good for the bottom line and has been so since long before the concept of tenderpreneurs became fashionable.

Still, I think having a newspaper openly aligned to the ANC is a great idea for our democracy, the media industry and for the general populace.

More importantly, it is a mark of our commitment to the right of freedom of expression. The ANC cannot lose its right to express itself simply because it is government or because it might use this right to promote itself unfairly.

It needs to be remembered that by the most objective measurement tool —the ballot box — the ANC enjoys the support of the vast majority of South Africans. Yes, there are charlatans within its ranks, but it is disingenuous to pretend that it is a Zanu-PF.

While it is the media’s duty to keep the ANC under close scrutiny, this should be because it is the government of the day rather than because it is an illegitimate organisation or government. To treat the ANC as if it were some junta is to disrespect the will of the many millions of adult South Africans who for four elections in a row have entrusted the rule of this country to the ANC.

With an ANC-aligned newspaper, readers will at least know what they are getting themselves into.

One of the positives of such a move would be that we will take a step closer to debunking the myth of ideological neutrality of our newspapers. The media space is highly contested and we as journalists do not enter the terrain without our own ideological baggage.

The example of Cape Argus journalist Ashley Smith is a reminder of what can happen if instead of managing ideological leanings, we pretend they do not exist.

It was not ideologically neutral for mainstream South African media to choose to ridicule attempts to probe racism in the media when the rest of South Africa was emerging from institutionalised racism. The probe never materialised because those with influence mocked the very thought of the media being racist and it became impossible to engage with the issue further without appearing like the village idiot.

When we at The Witness say that we abide by the values of the Constitution, we are taking an ideological position. Not everyone approves of our Constitution or holds it in the same high esteem as we do.

There are some who find fault with our Constitution because they believe that it interferes with their tribal customs, especially insofar as it regulates gender relations such as whether women can inherit titles or property.

Some people argue that its provisions for homosexuals offend their moral and religious sensibilities, while others say that its property rights clauses perpetuate historical inequalities.

Knowing all that, we still say that we will be guided by the Constitution of the republic. If you don’t like that, you are free not to read this paper.

The same must apply to an ANC (or an ANC-sympathetic) newspaper. You are free not to read it and advertisers are at liberty to place their ads where they see their potential market.

Unlike radio which for many, especially in the far-flung areas, is the only way of keeping in touch with the world, buying a newspaper in South Africa remains a personal choice. So, if this paper were to be an obvious propaganda tool, as some fear, it would be a waste of money because it would only be read by those who are already converted to the party line.

Unlike the SABC which is kept afloat by the public purse, it should not be our business if the newspaper is used by one ANC faction to undermine the other.

If the ANC tries to use it as another Chancellor House meant to divert inordinate government spend on an entity that has no proven readership, then it can rest assured that the South African media will be ready to pounce and expose it for being no better than the National Party when it founded the Citizen.

But whatever happens, the rigours of running a commercial newspaper might finally send the message that the party should abandon the fantasy that it will rule forever unless its offering appeals to the targeted audiences.

Readers might realise that in the same way that they are not beholden to a bad ANC newspaper, they are equally free to jettison a bad ANC government in their town, province or national assembly. And that could be the best thing to have happened since South Africa became a democracy.

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