Nothing to fear from Manyi’s rag

2011-04-02 10:35

Let us cut to the chase. Jimmy Manyi makes perfect sense when he says government should not leave its responsibility to communicate with citizens to editors of commercial media.

There are a few important principles here.

The first is that the right to freedom of expression should not be a freedom that is exclusive to the media.

The right to start a newspaper must not be withheld because we don’t like how some will possibly use their right.

I am not even sold on the argument that this project is wrong because the state will be using taxpayers’ money.

The state tends to spend a lot of money on projects that do not immediately sell themselves as being in the public interest.

Think of the arms deal or the millions spent on upgrading the houses of the political elite.

I am still to hear a reasonable explanation as to why the president and his small group of political elites deserve their own hospital.

What the government does with citizens’ trust and money is obviously in the public’s interest, and this is why newspapers communicate these things to citizens.

I have heard some people argue that nobody is going to read “Manyi’s newspaper”, as members of my professional tribe have named the project.

Supposing these people’s crystal ball is spot on, whose fault will it be if citizens do not use a facility that they have to engage with their government?

Blaming the state for people not reading the paper provided free of charge is like blaming the lottery company for the poverty of a man who has kept his winning ticket in his pocket.

The role of citizens and the media in this project will be critical and will ensure that the paper provides value for money and is not a party political propaganda machine.

If the public finds that it is, they should punish such a government by removing it from power. If they don’t, they deserve the shameful government they have.

Where I think Manyi gets it wrong is the belief that the media censors government.

We edit government. It is a totally different concept to censoring. We decide what is in the best interest of our audience and it is nothing personal.

For example, even if government were to embark on its biggest roll-out of RDP houses, such a story would not make a paper like Business Day stop the presses. It is simply not their market.

Similarly, an important announcement on government’s macroeconomic policy may find more interest at The New Age than at the Daily Sun.

This is because, unlike government, newspapers serve their readers, not some undefined group called “the nation”.

In other situations, those whom we call readers are customers and in some others, voters. But the principle is the same.

It may surprise all the lefties out there but newspapers are businesses, run with the aim of making a profit.

Businesses, newspapers and political parties succeed or fail relative to how well they meet the desires of their audiences.

It is a harsh fact of life.

Another consequence of Manyi’s paper is that it may very well increase the culture of reading newspapers in our country.

That can never be a bad thing.

I am concerned that those who exert power over the paper will find it hard to resist the temptation to advance their political scores at the expense of their foes.

We have seen that happen at the SABC under each administration and?– as the Constitutional Court recently ruled?– with the Scorpions and their successors, the Hawks.

That is where we need a vigilant rather than a whining populace.

We must have the humility to know that neither the media nor government has all the answers for a complex society like ours.

That is why we must let readers and voters decide on whether we are serving their best interests.

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