Load of poppycock

2014-05-21 00:00

Studies show that the media have little influence on how people think and the choices they make

IN the glow of its election victory, the ANC had a few choice things to say about the mainstream media.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe called us a “hostile force” and outgoing Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba also put his boot in, describing us as an “oppositional force”.

“There is an agenda set by the media, owned by capital, to come down on the ANC and to project its leadership as corrupt,” crowed ANC Gauteng executive committee member Uhuru Moiloa.

But, wait. There’s more!

“If those media houses that harbour journalists with factional agendas want to protect their own credibility, they will also look at ways to stop their publications from being abused.”

Who came up with this gem? Funnily enough, it was DA leader Helen Zille.

If a week is a long time in politics, it’s an age in a newsroom.

Hardly was the ink dry on the ballot papers and with the whine of ANC leaders’ complaints still ringing in our ears, most of South Africa’s mainstream media were tearing into the Democratic Alliance and Zille over an unanticipated meltdown in opposition ranks ignited by the departure to Harvard of outgoing parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.

It all makes for a refreshing change as opinion writers and editorial cartoonists dip their quills into fresh ink.

Witness cartoonist Stidy and I had a good chuckle about it on Monday as he delivered his offering showing Zille dripping on the washline, being hung out to dry after a weekend in which she featured in unflattering headlines.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in changing the script, and all indications are we are only nibbling on the hors d’oeuvres of promised delights from the DA.

But the past week or so doesn’t do much for the arguments of Mantashe and Gigaba et al. If anything, it shows that the mainstream media here are as fickle as the media anywhere and will bite wherever a story presents a juicy shoot.

I don’t want to be too flippant about the ruling party’s critique of the media because, in some respects, I think it has a point, but the ANC’s result at the polls would suggest that even if its conspiracy theories held true, it doesn’t have much to worry about.

Even if the whole of South Africa’s mainstream media were blindly stacked up against it, as the ANC claims, the party suffered barely a hiccup in the election, so why get so worked up about the supposed anti-ANC media agenda?

Why continue to pursue the reviled Protection of State Information Bill and why keep making noises about a statutory media appeals tribunal?

President Jacob Zuma pointed out before the election that it was only “clever people” who cared about Nkandla’s gargantuan security bill, that never-ending headache for the ruling party.

“It’s an issue with the bright people, [with] very clever people it’s a big issue, and people who have thought using Nkandla would be an important thing for elections. It has not worked,” he said.

And, it turns out he was right, although I’m not sure what he meant to imply about the intelligence of those who voted for the ANC in their millions again two weeks ago.

Basic media sociology argues that people generally don’t consume media that violently challenge views they already hold.

Instead, they are drawn to publications that generally reflect their world view, providing little wriggle room for media to influence anything substantial in the minds of their readers.

Back in 1992, the UK’s Sun tabloid ran a famous headline, announcing: “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”.

The red-top claimed to have delivered the unexpected Tory victory in that year’s general election and its headline has become a seminal reference point in the debate on the power of the press over the electorate.

But the Sun’s claim was a load of poppycock, various academic studies in the years since suggest.

In 1996, John Curtice, of the University of Strathclyde, an author of a major study on the question, concluded: “There is little evidence to suggest that either politicians or journalists should be as preoccupied with the partisan tone of the press as they often appear to be.”

A report in Britain’s Independent newspaper at the time quoted him as saying that “the influence of the press is at most only a marginal one”.

The South Africa experience would validate this. So, am I saying that newspapers don’t matter?

No. Newspapers matter for those who read them, but they have little impact on how people think and the political decisions they make.

Our readers are smarter than our critics believe they are.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench


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