Opinionista Chris Vick 5 February 2013

Return of the Media Appeals Tribunal (and other media wars)

The ANC finally released its Mangaung conference resolutions on Monday, including those on the media – and it looks like 2013 is going to be as tense as ever when it comes to relations between the ruling party and the people who report on it.

The battle of ideas is back! So if you thought the biggest headache facing South African newspapers was whether The New Age breakfasts give advertisers and sponsors more bang for their bangers, think again.

The battle plan is outlined in the ruling party’s resolutions on “print media transformation, accountability and diversity”, finalised at the Mangaung conference and released on Monday after the party’s national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla.

In short, despite the best efforts of the newspaper industry and its editorial decision-makers, the ANC has committed itself to revisiting and revising its own Media Charter (developed during the heady revolutionary days of 1992) and pushing ahead this year with:

  • Parliamentary hearings on the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), in part because it still believes the real conversation has to happen, and in part because it does not have a definitive view from the print media on its own attempts to develop an alternative.
  • Parliamentary hearings on the lack of transformation in the newspaper industry, in part because it does not regard the industry’s approach of “self-transformation” as being particularly credible or meaningful.
  • A Competition Commission investigation into monopolistic practices in the newspaper industry, in part because it believes the industry connives to keep out alternative/smaller voices.

A Press Council by any other name

The ANC resolutions note that the print media ran its own relatively successful process last year to set up an alternative to the largely-discredited Press Council, and to try to head off the ANC’s push for a MAT.

It also notes that the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) came up with recommendations for regulating the print media that the ANC “largely supported”.

The same cannot be said for the newspaper industry itself, however, nor its editorial leadership. As the ANC states, “there is uncertainty on the extent of the implementation of the entire recommendations of the PFC.”

As a result of this lack of clarity, the ruling party will be summonsing newspaper owners and players (one presumes this includes the SA National Editors’ Forum, Sanef, but excludes social clubs like Pretoria’s National Press Club) to explain to a parliamentary inquiry exactly which PFC recommendations they accept, and which they reject. And, crucially, why the ANC shouldn’t still push ahead with a MAT.

It’s a pretty urgent conversation, particularly as the old Press Council has already gone ahead with metamorphosing into a “new” Press Council – although some of the changes are akin to putting lipstick on a pig. For example, the head of the old Press Council, Joe Tlholoe, was appointed head of the new one last month. And former Press Council deputy ombudsman Johann Retief is now ombudsman of the new one. Plus ça change, as they say in French.

One can’t help wondering whether the MAT Revival Showdown could have been circumvented if the ANC had received a more specific response to the PFC proposals from organisations like Print & Digital Media South Africa (PDMSA) and Sanef, rather than apparent cherry-picking based on “we like this, we don’t like that”. But ostrich tendencies are nothing new in South Africa’s newspaper industry.

The ruling party’s response, therefore, is that “the ANC reaffirms the need for Parliament to conduct an inquiry on the desirability and feasibility of MAT within the framework of the country’s Constitution that is empowered to impose sanctions without the loss of any constitutional rights.”

Do-it-yourself transformation

An equally-politicised site of struggle is the ownership and control of South African newspapers.

For those of you who think newspapers are dying, the ANC is pretty articulate on why they matter: “The print media continues to be a contested terrain that reflects the ideological battles and power relations based on race, class and gender in our society. It continues to position itself as the main determiner of the public agenda and opinion.”

(It fails to recognise that this is because the country’s biggest media organisation, the SABC, is such a flop when it comes to setting and tracking the news agenda. But that’s a story for another day.)

The ANC has two broad issues with ownership and control of the newspaper industry: the fact that it is not representative of society and remains untransformed; and the fact that it engages in monopolistic practices which keep alternative voices out of the market.

As the ANC resolution points out, “the print sector is still dominated by four big players, namely Naspers, Avusa (now called Times Media Group), Caxton and the (at the time of writing) foreign-owned Independent Group.”

Quoting recent reports from the Media Development and Diversity Agency and PDMSA, the ANC says that “average black ownership in South Africa mainstream print media to date is 14% and women participation at board and management levels is at the diminutive 4.44%.”

One of the consequences of this, it says, is that “Apartheid patterns and behaviour that treat South Africans in an unequal and discriminatory manner sometimes manifest in some of the conduct of the print media in the content, coverage, distribution, management and opinions.”

“Despite denials, such attitudes and practices need to be confronted for the media to be a mirror of the present democratic dispensation. The reality arising out of this situation is that the majority of South Africans do not have media that report and project their needs, aspirations and points of views onto the national discourse.” (My previous comment on the SABC refers.)

Late last year, when the ANC ramped up its calls for transformation of the newspaper industry, the people who own them decided they were going to try the D-I-Y approach. In an attempt to rescue themselves, they opted to transform themselves through the establishment of something called the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT).

So far, they haven’t displayed much enthusiasm for their own process. A few hearings have taken place, primarily involving the usual suspects, but it’s as if the custodians – appointed by PDMSA themselves – are merely going through the motions. They have yet to issue a call for public input, for example, or placed a single newspaper advertisement calling for public participation in redefining their future.

It’s barely a box-checking exercise and, coupled with the fact that PDMSA has already stated that a Media Charter is off the table, will get nothing like the positive reception of the PFC process – of which it is, in any case, a cheap and rather insulting version.

Take a look at what the ruling party is looking for, and you’ll understand the gap in thinking: “The departure point of the ANC is that South Africans must enjoy the freedom of expression in the context of a diverse media environment that is reflective of their situations and daily experiences.” To encourage media diversity, it says, South Africa needs “the introduction of an economic empowerment charter to promote Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment in the sector.”

Among others, the ANC says, the Charter should address the availability of print media in the languages South Africans speak and communicate with.

Granted, the ANC doesn’t always get what it wants. But it needs a lot of convincing if it’s to opt for anything less, both in terms of transformatory process and transformed product – and the PDMTTT is already falling hopelessly short when it comes to doing that.

Playing monopoly

Finally, there’s the ANC’s consistent assertion that the newspaper industry is nothing less than a cartel, and that it indulges in serious anti-competitive behaviour.

As it says: “The big four companies dominate the entire value chain of the market especially printing, distribution and advertising. This integration and the very market structure is perhaps the biggest barrier to market entry and potentially shows possible anti-competitive behaviour.”

The ruling party intends to address this, according to its resolutions, through a Competition Commission (CC) focus on “anti-competitive practices within the sector”.

One CC probe is already underway, looking at suspected anti-competitive behaviour by Caxton, Naspers, Times Media Group and the Independent. Among other things, it is looking at possible market and information sharing – and as a result, it seems to be prompting far more concern among newspaper owners than their own “transformation process”.

Caxton, one of the most influential producers and disseminators of community newspapers, has already pulled out of the PMDTTT, and other newspaper owners have said they need until the end of February before they start putting forward their ideas.

The CC has declared the print media “an emerging priority sector”, and one of its less-publicised cases gives some insight into why. The case, outlined in the commission’s 2011-12 annual report, relates to allegations of “predatory pricing” by Media24 – a Naspers subsidiary – in its attempts to squeeze out an independent newspaper called Gold-Net News in the Free State goldfields region.

The commission found that Media24 had charged businesses below-cost advertising rates for its two goldfields titles, Vista and Forum, “making it impossible for Gold-Net to compete for the business of advertisers, and eventually forcing it to exit the market in April 2009.”

The commission found that Media24 had used one of its titles, Forum, as a “fighting brand, offering very low prices to advertisers so as to prevent competition with Media24’s larger and more lucrative title, Vista.”

“Evidence before the commission revealed that Forum had budgeted for and operated at a loss throughout the period, but was only closed down in January 2010 after Gold-Net News had been driven out of the market.”

Once Gold-Net News had been killed off, “Media24’s publications were the only community newspapers circulating in the area and would have a monopoly over advertisers,” the commission found, citing Media24 strategy documents which spelt out how to “protect its existing market share as well as potentially increase its market share, as well as increasing its market power, allowing it to increase prices once the prey has left the market.”

The survival and growth of community newspapers is close to the heart of anyone interested in encouraging diversity through new voices, and the CC’s findings will not go unnoticed by the ruling party.

The Competition Commission probe into the newspaper industry is likely to be the most cold-cut of all the media battles in 2013, and is the ANC’s stealth-bomb.

When it comes to allegations of monopolistic behaviour, you can huff and puff all you like about freedom of expression, self-regulation, the free market and a free press. But if the commission finds that freedom of the press only belongs to those who own them, and that those who own them connive to keep others from expressing themselves, we could finally see the changed print media landscape that the ANC has been looking for. DM

Chris Vick runs Black, a communications consultancy. He worked on several non-monopolistic publications during the 1980s and 1990s, including New Nation, New African, the then-Weekly Mail and Work In Progress magazine, and was a delegate at the 1992 meeting that developed the ANC’s Media Charter.


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