Maverick Citizen

Destroying Democracy Op-Ed Part Seven

Media and democracy: A case for decommodification

The commodification of news is problematic. For the media to play a more important role in democracy, platforms must be created for the re-emergence of alternative media that serve the broader public rather than narrow commercial interests.

As the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, for many journalists like Pham Chi Dung it was a Black Monday. Dung, a freelance journalist who has produced work for the BBC and Voice of America, was languishing in a Vietnamese prison. Accused of producing and disseminating distorted anti-state information, he was convicted and sentenced to an effective 15-year jail term by the Ho Chi Minh City court. 

He is not the only one. 

Right here in a neighbouring country, Ibraimo Abú Mbaruco, a Mozambican radio reporter and human rights advocate, has been missing for more than a year. His family, friends and colleagues have no clue to his whereabouts since he sent a distressed text saying he was “surrounded by soldiers”.

These are the dangers faced by journalists daily. Here at home the South African National Editors’ Forum’s secretary-general, Mahlatse Mahlase, says have “seen politicians actively agitating for the assault of journalists”. While journalists have a crucial function in our democracy, they don’t operate in a vacuum but within oligopolies that are commercialised with concentrated ownership.

South Africa has a proud history of journalists like Zwelakhe Sisulu, Percy Qoboza, Joe Thloloe, Mathatha Tsedu and Aggrey Klaaste who used their profession to fight for democracy. However, the post-apartheid media structure has stifled the role of journalists to transcend the impact of commercialisation, populism and even possible manipulation by the elites. Whereas the apartheid edifice was premised on control of information, secrecy and repressive state regulation, the post-apartheid media have reconfigured along liberal lines that emphasise free-market policies. Ultimately, it is the journalists who bear the brunt of harassment, arrest and even death. 

Commercial media’s limitations in democracy

Our media have come a long way since the 1994 democratic breakthrough, which signalled an end to repressive state regulation. Today, media freedom and freedom of expression are among the rights enshrined in the Constitution. However, the current crop of journalists face a different battle compared with their predecessors.

The battle includes appreciating the ideological orientation of the media system itself. Our media landscape, just like in many capitalist-dominated liberal democracies, is dominated by commercial media. This system is owned and controlled by private corporations and is distinguishable by its commodified features that target advertisers and consumers alike. As such, it is bound to the laws and strategies of capital accumulation under which it operates, which reduce citizen audiences to products that must be sold to advertisers.

With the media firmly located in the capitalist system, through ownership patterns, they become tools for reproducing the ideas of the dominant class in society and for diminishing democratic space for the poor and marginalised. With the management structures in newsrooms resembling our class-divided society, this contributes to prioritisation of issues of the elites. What is covered and how it is covered is a function of selection and “description bias” where even the unpacking of underlying causes in neutral stories is avoided. 

While the less powerful in society might still be granted access to news, it is the powerful societal actors that set the tone and have the power to decide what is newsworthy. It is precisely this asymmetry in access that enables the powerful societal forces to set the tone of the national discourse. Often concealed from the naked eye, the economic rationale of the commercialised media is a fundamental limitation to the media’s role in democracy.

Media ownership and concentration   

Almost three decades into our democracy, the commercial media remain concentrated and controlled by a handful of big conglomerates. This alone makes the media vulnerable to being used to advance the values and objectives of competing political interests. Hence, renowned scholars like Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky long argued that the media function on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. 

Of course, many scholars have demonstrated that this is not achieved by crude interventions but rather through subtle business practices that include employing “right-thinking” personnel. Certainly, those who own and control the media have influence over hiring and firing staff, and determining the editorial direction of news organisations.

Another critical structural factor of the media is advertising and market forces. It is an open secret that the commercialised media’s survival lies in their ability to attract an audience to sell to advertisers. This leads to editorial pressures and possible political discrimination which is structured into this process. The current jobs bloodbath in the South African media can be understood and firmly located in this reality as advertising revenue dwindles and migrates to digital platforms with their sophisticated tools such as pay-per-click and click-through rates. Advertising is indeed the life blood of the commercial media.

When this pressure builds it is likely to affect news sources. To this end, the responsibility to define and interpret complex developments falls squarely on the shoulders of the elite. As news production is grounded in “objective” and “authoritative” statements from “accredited” sources, inevitably it is the elites who are privileged and granted access. Often, this leads to omissions and silencing of the marginalised as sources, as well as an overreliance on the views of the elites to decipher complex issues while granting them easy access to the media.

This situation has not been helped by the demise of the alternative press in South Africa. Largely donor-funded, these media played a pivotal role in the struggle for democracy. What set them apart from their mainstream commercial counterparts was the ability to go beyond the surface of political rights to issues of redistribution aimed at redressing centuries of cumulative socioeconomic neglect.

Towards a decommodified alternative media 

Part of the media’s inability to play a democratising role is due to commercial factors. This stifles journalism. Commercialised media are premised on the principles of producing news as a commodity, packaged and sold to citizens – increasingly seen as audiences willing to buy news. These audiences are in turn sold to advertisers, the life blood of commercial media. At the root of commercial media, which include paywalls on digital platforms, is the commodification of news premised on the principle of willingness to buy, effectively denying access to many subalterns.

The media are central for democracy since they contribute to the development of informed citizens. Hence the commodification of news is problematic. If the media are to play a more important role in democracy than is currently the case, then the decommodification of news must be considered. Platforms must be created for the re-emergence of such alternative media that serve the broader public rather than narrow commercial interests.

With South Africa’s escalating socioeconomic crisis, there is no better time for media that will emphasise use-value over exchange-value. A decommodified alternative media with a public character that is easily accessible to all can play a vital role in advancing the general education for the underclasses on the margins. 

Although the post-apartheid commercial media have been vital in safeguarding democracy by surfacing serious issues such as the VBS Mutual Bank looting and Steinhoff corruption, the increased commercialisation and demise of the alternative media threaten to reverse such gains. 

Without interventions that will reimagine an alternative decommodified media to strengthen and entrench democracy, counterrevolutionary elements will gain the upper hand and possibly thrive. DM/MC

Mandla J Radebe is an Associate Professor in the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Strategic Communication, and author of Constructing Hegemony: The SA Commercial Media and the (Mis)Representation of Nationalisation (UKZN Press). This article is based on his chapter “South Africa’s Post-apartheid Media and Democracy” in the book Destroying Democracy: Neoliberal Capitalism and the Rise of Authoritarian Politics, edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. 

This is the seventh in a series of 10 essays by authors of chapters in Destroying Democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian politics, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. 

Part 1: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-08-the-crisis-of-democracy-the-importance-of-reclaiming-democracy-from-neoliberal-capitalism-and-creeping-authoritarianism/ 

Part 2: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-08-populism-and-fascism-lessons-from-the-1920s-ku-klux-klan/

Part Three: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-10-brazil-faces-an-inglorious-end-to-a-democratic-experiment-that-has-marked-two-generations/

Part 4: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-10-how-do-we-explain-indias-descent-into-religious-majoritarianism-and-empty-promises-of-prosperity/

Part 5: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-11-the-dialectic-of-democracy-neoliberal-capitalism-and-its-populist-backlash/

Part 6: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-11-14-the-ancs-failure-to-fully-embrace-the-right-to-know-signals-a-retreat-from-a-peoples-democracy/

Destroying Democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, scholars and students who are interested in understanding the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the global south and global north. It is freely available as open access at https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/50256

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  • Thx Prof, great article. But really do not believe the media is really in a good space right now…especially print media and online media. I have a great empathy for the 2 private TV news channels, Newzroom Africa and ENCA to a lesser degree. But with the exception of two radio stations RSG and SAFM, I have very little time/respect for SABC News. As the public broadcaster, it certainly is to a very large degree still a government mouth piece. The implications are huge, because that is the only medium that millions of South Africans have access to. I believe it is also the only reason why such a high percentage of the governing party’s votes comes from rural areas.
    As far as online media and newspapers are concerned, I personally only value Daily Maverick and amaBhungane, and perhaps EWN, The South African, and M&G to a lesser degree, The largest online medium, News24, really has become a bit of a joke in recent times, especially when it comes to opinion pieces. Through its owners, Naspers, it is clear there is a huge link with the governing party. They have some good reporters, but unfortunately that are also many bad ones, starting with the editor. It is so very sad that DM and amaBhungane both have such a small reach. The role that media plays in forming opinions of readers, viewers and listeners is significant, and bad reporting or opinion pieces really cloud the views of the public at large. The impact that social media has unfortunately worsen the situation even more.