On BLF, Hlaudi and the media's elections coverage

2019-05-13 13:15
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 10: Members of variou
Members of various small political parties brief the media at the IEC Results Operations Centre on Thursday, 10 May 2019. (Photo by Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

There is always an obligation to cover all parties that contest the election. But the media has been obsessed with the utterances of charlatans and divisive vigilantes with questionable morals, writes Redi Tlhabi.

Election 2019 is behind us now. We will continue to see and feel its impact on our political landscape and our lives. Hopefully the impact will be positive. We can only hope that the parties that have suffered considerable losses – almost all of them, except the EFF, FF+ and the IFP – have gone into deep and urgent self-reflection.

One can only hope that with every vote lost, a layer of their arrogance and detachment is shed. And for the victors, a modicum of humility and knowing that their euphoria could very well end with the next election.

It is not only politicians who have some work to do. South Africa's media has much to reflect on, much to discard. There is always an obligation to cover all parties that contest the election. However, long before the election season began, long before the election date was announced, the media was obsessed with the utterances of charlatans, caricatures, divisive vigilantes and generally unsavory characters whose morals are always on sale to the highest bidder.

A few months ago, a well resourced 24-hour news channel interrupted programming to cover a long and directionless press conference by the daft Hlaudi Motsoeneng. At that stage, he was no longer at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, having run it to the ground. He had suffered various legal blows at the labour court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court itself. Add to that, the adverse findings by the Public Protector, in a report titled, "When Ethics and Governance Fails". The CCMA had also shown him the door. 

Yet the media kept opening it and it was very clear why. The lines between what is and isn't news has become increasingly blurred as sound editorial principles are jettisoned in favour of absurd entertainment. Real news is boring, I guess.

And then there is the Black Land… or is it Black First or First Last or…? Okay, let's just use the easier acronym, BLF. It pains me to even write about them because they are not worth a second of my time. But they are the perfect case study for my argument that the media often undermines its audience and chooses mindless frivolity over substance.

Of course, this movement is adept at using distortion, manipulation and victimhood to gain public sympathy. They consider themselves victims of some grand conspiracy and attacks by "local and global forces". Talk about delusions of grandeur.

Their favourite pastime is to claim a media blackout. Yet a cursory assessment of media coverage reveals that they do receive a disproportionate amount of coverage. Their every howl and scream, short court appearance, incoherent press statement and tweet are covered. You will often find news cameras, microphones and journalists far outnumber their leadership and supporters at their protests.

I can already hear the hysterical rejoinder, "It is unfair not to cover smaller parties". This is not an argument against smaller parties, it is an argument against the media's relentless coverage of certain smaller parties whose contribution to debate is zero, but whose noise saturates the air, at the expense of important voices and events that must be covered. 

Smaller parties that contribute deserve coverage

Smaller parties that make a useful contribution to our democratic space deserve some coverage. Many of their leaders have played an important role in the various stages of our democracy. Nobody can argue that UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, with his rich and long history in politics, has contributed immensely to the life of our Parliament and has been instrumental in exposing corruption at various state institutions, including the PIC. His party has been small, but efficient. That this has not led to widespread national appeal is indicative of a variety of things, including poor strategy and miscalculation.

Patricia de Lille's GOOD Party has secured two seats in its debut appearance on the ballot. Whilst its ideological offerings and personal brand of its leader are not beyond scrutiny, her illustrious history and formidable role in South Africa's politics justify a reasonable amount of coverage.

There is Mzwanele Manyi's ATM, whose impressive by-election results in the Eastern Cape meant his party was worth watching. It did not perform fantastically, securing only two seats in the national polls.  Whilst a point can be successfully made about Manyi's pliable values and self-serving tactics, some coverage of his party, commensurate with size and actions, is justified.

I am sure by now you get the message that the media should not ignore smaller parties because of their size, but such coverage must have substance and news value. To further illustrate the point about the media's obsession with loud and deranged characters, Agang and the African People's Convention were annihilated in these elections.

While we saw their leaders, Andries Tlouamma and Themba Godi occupying space in Parliament and receiving some coverage of their election campaigns, you hardly saw cameras running after them. I don't recall ever seeing a live conference of Agang or the APC. Yet, Motsoeneng's party – whose name I forget – and BLF were covered considerably. Why? Because Tlouamma and Godi lacked the "shock factor."

They are "normal" people who don't display the same disconnect from reality that Motsoeneng and his BLF counterpart do. They are not entertainers. Newsrooms must now decide whether they are in the business of news or entertainment.

The voters have spoken and have unequivocally rejected the lunacy of these parties and their leaders.  There is no obligation to fixate on them, no matter how loud they howl.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel?

Globally, we are seeing journalists arrested, killed and threatened. In some organisations, they are being laid off as advertising and profits dwindle. It is difficult enough to do the kind of quality investigative journalism and reportage that gets to the core of our ills.  

But, even in an environment of limited resources, it can be done. Besides, what we are seeing is not a paucity of resources but a deliberate adoption of a new identity, where journalism chooses the lowest hanging fruit – or is it scraping the very bottom of the barrel? 

In a country where social justice is denied, where children drown in pit toilets, where corruption denies so many their constitutional right to service delivery, where education outcomes are dismal, where youth unemployment retards the future of so many, where natural disasters strike and affect the poor, where sexual violence is rife, there is much to keep the media busy. We have examples of superb journalism. We must build on that. Running after discredited, divisive clowns is a betrayal of the citizens who count on the media to tell their stories.

- Redi Tlhabi is an award-winning author, journalist and talkshow host.

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