Media’s bias

2013-07-11 00:00

OPEN your newspaper or switch on your radio or television, and in a prominent space you will find or hear the business news.

It is dominated by stock exchange prices, interest rates, sales figures and, of course, profit announcements. Why not an index showing trends in real wage purchasing power and a monitor of the Gini co-efficient, the measure of economic inequality? Or would these be too embarrassing?

The main-line media are in thrall to business, but look back at newspapers from the seventies and you will find frequent reports from economic research units at several universities on the latest poverty datum line findings.

Even in a police state, there was recognition that the issue of wages in relation to the cost of basic necessities was a matter of public concern. And the press knew this: perhaps newspapers then employed not just business editors, but labour editors, too.

Now the business community’s point of view is taken as the default position and implied common sense. Worker issues have been reduced to reports on wage negotiations and strikes. The predictable tendency of political trade unions is to shoot themselves in the foot by apparently condoning violence and destruction during industrial disputes.

The voice of economic orthodoxy is everywhere; for example, labour law favours workers and it should be easier to hire and fire. But go down to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and witness the number of victims of arbitrary and unlawful dismissal, especially from small firms. When rulings favour workers, they are often ignored and there is little effective follow-up.

At the macro-economic scale, a weak rand is welcomed as a stimulus to exports on the assumption that this will create jobs. There is little or no evidence of this, but, as we are currently well-aware, a weak rand imports inflation.

In spite of the grumbling, this is absorbed by the wealthy and most acutely felt by the poor, who spend a much higher proportion of their limited income on survival purchases. The desirability of a strong rand and a thriving local market for South African goods, driven by better wages that would benefit everyone, is barely mentioned.

The assumption that low interest rates are desirable ignores the plight of the elderly dependent on income from their life savings. And, of course, they discourage saving and the locally generated funding that would provide a less fickle foundation for the economy than foreign investment.

The imperative is consumption, growth and profit. This is the message that dominates the media.

Unsurprisingly, history is disregarded. The appalling socioeconomic consequences of structural poverty, the level of unemployment and the legacy of the migrant labour system are ignored.

When the annual round of wage negotiations takes place, it is not contextualised in terms of the lives of ordinary people. Workers are treated en masse as a subversive tide of the greedy who should be fired if they do not toe the line of orthodox business economics.

Nowhere is there a hint that there might be alternative ways of ordering societies and economies that seek to avoid conflict situations such as wage negotiations, and respond more sensitively to human needs and aspirations.

Yet the first co-operative in South Africa was established in Pietermaritzburg in 1892, and this mode of operation flourished in the agricultural and trading sectors in the forties and fifties. It is based on principles of democratic, participative and collective action, not the relationship of authority and subordination that is the norm in our work places.

As the International Co-operative Alliance puts it: “Capital is a servant of the enterprise rather than the master”, which is answerable to member needs, not the interests of rich investors. The fruits of labour are returned to the labourers, not commandeered by the already rich and powerful. The ethical dimensions are unmistakeable in the recognition of human worth and in the potential for a reduction in poverty.

The organisation of present-day workplaces illustrates the lack of democracy in the lives of ordinary South Africans, despite the right to vote, the protection offered by a Bill of Rights and some improvement in service provision to the majority of the people.

It is surprising that co-operatives have not been more widely adopted as a preferable way of organising productive life. This would not only enhance individual rights, but also contribute to and strengthen communities through mutual self-help.

The concept of employer and employee is a fundamentally undemocratic one, and the idea of workers taking ownership of parts of the economy is liberating.

But it is certainly out of tune with the spirit of the age. The electronic media is replete with programmes that emphasise individuality and celebrate ruthlessness as an acceptable route to success.

Co-operation, it seems, is not in fashion. How long the stress placed on the Earth’s resources and on human social structures will permit this situation to endure remains to be seen.

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