Guptas, tick. Zuma, tick. Now keep going. This pretty much sums up the mission for the South African media now that the #GuptaLeaks have been dealt with. A panel of senior editors and media specialists reflected on the state of journalism and the what-next factor during a panel discussion at 10xDM Media Gathering in Cape Town on Wednesday.
It may not always feel like it but South Africa is in a better place than it was this time in 2017 – and the media played a critical role in getting the country to this point.
Credible journalism and collaborations between media houses have shown the power of fact vs fiction in what was probably one of the biggest stories since 1994.
The#GuptaLeaks saga has shown that as with the scandal around former President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead, the Gupta factor was horrifyingly real and costly to the country.
And it was solid factual journalism that aided in the shift in perception among a larger segment of the public – along with the efforts of civil society constantly hammering away in a bid to expose wrongdoing – when it finally proved that the media was right all along, some in the ANC not.
Journalism, very much like South Africa, is tough, resilient and necessary, said SAfm radio host, Stephen Grootes, who moderated a panel discussion at the 10xDM Media Gathering in Cape Town on where to next for the media, whose efforts have largely been concentrated on the #GuptaLeaks up to now.
“Of course, we do have to credit a certain man from Mpumalanga for switching sides in December,” joked City Press editor, Mondli Makhanya, in reference to the David Mabuza faction that helped elect Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of the ANC in December 2017.
On a serious note, Makhanya added:
“But the national mood is changing. Things inside the ANC did change. And the media was critical in us achieving that turnaround.”
But quality and factual journalism takes time and requires money. Amid dwindling revenue, the media has no choice but to come up with innovative ways to keep the ship sailing.
Stefaans Brümmer, managing partner of the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, explained the centre’s funding model – one that allows the unit to take donations from reputable organisations, but not corporates and, at this stage, not from government.
The unit has grown its reader interaction and crowd funding model to nearly 30%, thereby seeking to place ownership of amaBhungane journalism in the hands of the public.
The unit has a budget of around R8-million to R10-million a year and hopes to grow the public-funded portion thereof significantly in the future.
News24 editor, Adriaan Basson, said it was encouraging that readers, or the public, were becoming invested in journalism.
“At the same time, journalism is in crisis. We assumed our credibility for a long time. That time is gone. We have to explain what we do and how we do the stories.”
Achieving credibility entails trusting readers with information about what informs our journalism and what we do to achieve it, Basson said.
Quoting international research, Basson said trust in journalism is on the increase globally.
“People are starting to realise that Facebook and Google is not journalism and are turning to credible news instead.”
But how does one achieve the level of trust required in a world where people are constantly told not to trust the media?
“Quality journalism is not something you can get away from, because readers are drawn to platforms that have credibility,” said Dr Kate Skinner, executive director of the SA National Editor’s Forum.
With an industry fighting for survival amid dwindling revenue, media houses are increasingly exploring alternative income streams.
Said Brümmer: “Journalism is worth supporting. It is a public good.”
But, does external funding via big donors – potentially only invested until a political shift has taken place – make an outfit like amaBhungane vulnerable?
“It is vulnerable, that’s why we want to increase the public portion of our funding. We already try to balance our income from organisations. We recruit new donors with limited funding options to ensure we don’t become overly reliant on any one particular donor.”
He cited an example of a potential donor suddenly going quiet following discussions about a possible R1-million funding application for the unit upon arrival of the “New Dawn”.
It would seem that some donors, like politicians, may only be invested while it suits their agenda.
On this front, threats to mainstream media are not really gone, said Makhanya.
“Yes, censorship is more difficult to achieve but it doesn’t stop them from trying. Especially in SA, a country where we have a one party dominance.”
“Mbeki was much more sophisticated in how he tried. Asking the media for time in order for government to achieve things, for example. The ones after him came with more radical ideas.”
Fortunately, technology has made censorship more difficult, Makhanya said.
But Basson warned of a new level of sophisticated intimidation of journalists.
“As a white journo, if you write something critical… you are trolled. There can be a vile reaction on a platform like Twitter.”
Such responses to journalism can scare off younger journalists, he said.
Grootes said that while insufficient cash was one of the biggest threats to journalism, a splintering of readers with divergent views can also have an impact on the industry.
Said Makhanya: “It is a massive problem. A classic example is that in the US, Trump supporters only want to hear and believe only what they want to hear. Forget the facts. Brexit in the UK, the same. Facts don’t really matter.”
In SA, hardcore Zuma supporters, often chanting the song, What has Zuma done, remain unconvinced about his corrupt troubled tenure.
Similarly, there is a group who believe that there is a deliberate genocide of white Afrikaans farmers, and another who believe that all our problems will disappear when we give the land back.
“So, this shows the splintering is very real. As the media we can try and avoid feeding that splintering by doing what we do – the journalism.
“In the beginning, many people didn’t understand why Nkandla or Zuma were a big deal… same with the Guptas.”
They do now because the media persisted and did not compromise on sectional interests, Makhanya said.
But does journalism still matter if the media cannot shape opinion on issues? Panelists agreed this is possible by expressing a multiplicity of views in stories.
“Let’s not preach to the converted. Let’s try and reach others,” said Brümmer.
Credibility is our currency and we are nothing without it.
“Mainstream media in the US tend to look down on Trump supporters. In SA we may have played into Zuma’s hands, someone who portrayed himself as a man of the people. He had this narrative that he was being opposed because he wanted to do great things. He humbled himself to their level,” said Makhanya.
“I’m not admitting to it but it may have been a failing of ours (the media)to fully understand the psyche of the Zuma supporter and why they remain supporters to this day.
“But I would not have sleepless nights about that. What mattered more is that the SA media did justice by consistently investigating JZ. I think we did that.” DM
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