Ferial Haffajee

Looking into the media mirror

2010-09-01 11:50

You have to ask yourself what SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande and his deputy Jeremy Cronin as well as the ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu have been reading for the past 14 years.

In their current attacks on the media, the common theme which comes through is that all journalists are unreconstructed neoliberals, marching in time to a free market drum-beat and blind to the blight of poverty and unemployment. This is nonsense as some of my best media friends are Marxists and often unreconstructed ones too. Others are a mostly socially-conscious bunch, near obsessed with where the country is at and where it is headed to.

Almost none pay heed to the bottom line (though we should be doing a bit more of that) and all of us would rather have more space for journalism than advertising on our pages.

Take the best business publications: Business Day, Business Report, Financial Mail and Finweek. At Business Day, editor Peter Bruce runs a ship that all of us read for many reasons, but of late it has been because we wanted to understand the left of the Polokwane front that propelled President Jacob Zuma into office. Nzimande has had acres of space in that publication, as does his deputy Cronin who is a media darling.

Cronin, we must remember, managed to swing the entire media fraternity behind his anti-Gautrain track. I think we should say sorry to Jack van der Merwe, the engineer who built the train that has done so much for South Africa’s reputation in infrastructure in the past two months. On this and other issues, generally when Jeremy says “jump”, we say “how high”.

Cynical politicians

Do a Google search on employment, the left, the Youth League, public transport, Alliance politics and a lot else besides in the past decade and a half and you will find that the media has been an obedient Pravda to the comrades of the SACP.

The speed with which these same communists have turned on the media has certainly wised this journalist up to the cynical ways of politicians. It’s clear that the SACP, under siege from a hyper-confident Youth League and unprotected by a weak president, needs a whipping boy and we are it. It has been a consummate lesson in how politics works and has made me realise that no matter how loud the call is for the ANC to burnish its constitutional commitment to media freedom, it needs the media tribunal (or at least the noise about one) to create a single point of political cohesion at its national general council this month.

Business Day’s economic vision is hardly even the eloquent free market dogma of the Economist, but is instead for a much more complex form of stakeholder capitalism which includes regular calls by the editor for the state to give parcels of land to the poor.

At Business Report, a key voice is that of labour analyst Terry Bell, a writer for whom a worker-led economy still holds much sway. That publication has won awards for its path-breaking work exposing the bulging pockets of bloated executives, while neither the Financial Mail and Finweek reflect the kind of business-centric, market magnet journalism that are the watch-words of Fortune or Business Week.  Each is deeply engaged in socio-economic challenges and an eloquent contributor to the state of governance.

For the rest, our political coverage swings firmly behind an ANC agenda where the politics of the governing party and the official opposition party set our agenda every week. Coverage is determined by the governing party’s slate of conferences, executive meetings, briefings, its online newspaper and the parallel set-up at the Democratic Alliance. As an editor, I rail against this almost every week in our conferences and would rather my colleagues be out reporting the state of public health, education and transport. Any rudimentary study of political coverage will show how the ANC sets its own agenda.

What is the issue?

If the media is ideologically hide-bound, it is to a form of social democracy and the innately charitable instincts of most South Africans.  Lead-SA, the excellent campaign by Primedia and Independent Newspapers, extends this with its call for an active citizenry that does good.

Until the public sector strikers went crazy, the public, influenced by the media, was largely sympathetic to the cause of teachers, underpaid nurses, doctors, nurses’ aides and other public servants. We hardly ask the hard questions about our labour markets or trade policy; nor do we challenge the Tripartite Alliance when it continues to speak in most economic documents about arcane ideologies that have long stopped working in most parts of the world.

So, if the media does not wear the ideological straitjacket the ANC and SACP accuse us of, what is the issue?

What the ANC and SACP do not like is that the media’s attention to its detail means that we reflect every faction, every fight, every instance of creeping dishevelment and disarray. It’s not a pretty mirror and the emperors want to be told how beautiful their costumes are.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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