Opinionista Chris Vick 30 October 2014

Time to talk turkey about newspaper transformation

South African newspapers – a primary source of information for more than 15-million South Africans – are going to stay in the hands of a coterie of rich men for a long time, it seems. The collective body of newspaper owners, Print and Digital Media South Africa, has quietly backed off from enforcing the recommendations of its own transformation task team, which submitted a report more than a year ago. Instead, it’s leaving it up to individual newspaper owners – the very people responsible for the lack of transformation over the past 20 years – to implement the task team’s findings as they see fit.

The Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT) process, undertaken just over a year ago, found that the industry “has failed to transform itself sufficiently in a number of key areas”, including “the direct empowerment areas of ownership and management and control, as well as in the areas of skills development and employment equity with particular reference to women and the disabled”.

Among its findings, submitted to Print and Digital Media South Africa (PDMSA) in September 2013, were:


  • All the presentations made to the PDMTTT, including by the major players, were in agreement that the present ownership scenario definitely does not indicate meaningful progress.”

  • The level of black ownership of print and digital media is below the threshold proposed in the BBBEE guidelines. The black ownership picture painted throughout the hearings is bleak when compared to the generic codes.”

On management control and employment equity

  • It is evident from submissions made by the major players that progress in the areas of increasing the representation of black people, women in particular, has been very disappointing to say the least. This is reflected in the very low scores on their score- cards, with most meeting less than half the target in one or both areas.”

  • Although the recruitment of staff is difficult given the tight financial environment and lack of staff turnover, especially at management level, the major print media companies seem to have failed in prioritising management control and employment equity within their operations.”

On gender

  • In terms of the top and senior posts, from boardrooms to offices to newsrooms, print media businesses were and are mainly the domain of men.”

  • Most editors are men, and while women dot the newsrooms and other business offices, they hardly set foot in the boardrooms and have virtually no presence at ownership and management levels.”

  • The marginalisation of women prevents them from taking their rightful place and making a contribution based on their ability in the print media.”

The task team backed off from a Transformation Charter for the industry, saying it “would not be appropriate”. As an alternative, it called for “the implementation of the Codes that the industry professes to abide by” – in other words, existing cross-sector broad-based black economic empowerment codes.

It also set targets – in some cases, higher than those in cross-sector BBBEE codes – that it “recommended” newspaper owners use.

Crucially, the task team “directed” that the annual targets each company set for itself for compliance should be made public and that PDMSA conducts an annual industry performance audit and makes it publicly available. This, presumably, was to ensure that the transformation not only happened, but that newspaper owners were held publicly accountable for change.

But it’s here – in the area of collective accountability and transparency – that the media omerta has balked.

One year after the PDMTTT report landed on PDMSA’s boardroom table, I asked the organisation’s new president, former government communicator Neo Momodu, how much progress had been made.

Her response: “The PDMSA has taken a decision that this strategic imperative should not be advanced at a collective industry level. This decision is premised on the fact that the PDMSA, as a member organisation, is an administrative body that is not responsible for the execution of the transformation policies of its members.”

Instead, she said, “Each of the media houses, as has been the case over the past few years, takes complete responsibility and accountability for the full implementation of their individual transformation strategies.”

You heard her right: the same newspaper companies that have failed to self-transform in the past have now been entrusted to self-transform in the future.

Effectively, the PDMSA saw the need for a collective inquiry into media transformation, appointed and paid a group of industry experts, and came up with a collective outline of the way forward but because of its role as an “administrative body”, can’t collectively oversee whether anything gets done about it.

This is despite the task team’s own strong recommendation that PDMSA should “announce what the targets are and make a commitment to meeting them”, and that it “should collate the company information on an annual basis and announce the status of the industry towards achieving those targets”.

In the light of this, I asked Momodu whether the PDMTTT had been a waste of time. She declined to answer the question directly, saying only, “The PDMSA is committed to issues of transformation hence PDMTTT process was established (sic).”

I wondered how the PDMTTT’s project director, long-time transformation catalyst Mathatha Tsedu, felt. Had he been conned? Had it been a waste of time? His response: “(Our mandate) ended when we handed the report to PDMSA and it is therefore not possible for me to comment on behalf of the PDMTTT as an ex-project director.”

He did, however, concede that the question of credibility was “a very valid one”. But one which he, too, declined to answer.

At this point, let me declare my historical interest in this matter. I was opposed to the PDMTTT from the outset. In a series of articles written during 2012, I described the PDMSA initiative as being without credibility – essentially, it was akin to letting turkeys vote for Christmas. The industry had had 20 years to get in line with the demographics of the South African society it reported on, and had failed miserably. As an important component of our democracy, with such tremendous impact on public opinion, it shouldn’t be left solely responsible for its own far-from-compliant transformation.

At the time I was writing, the ANC – flush from its national conference in Mangaung – was sharpening its spear in preparation to transform the newspaper industry itself, in the interests of its own “battle for ideas”. The air was thick with threats of a Media Appeals Tribunal and ANC resolutions calling for change of ownership and control.

The PDMSA initiative was clearly an attempt to head off that challenge, borrowing from a similar initiative by the then-Press Council, which appointed its own Press Freedom Commission to head off the ANC’s talk of a Media Appeals Tribunal.

A year and half down the line, we now have to ask whether the newspaper industry has done enough to satisfy the ruling party, which cares deeply about the influence newspapers have on public sentiment. In its 2012 Mangaung resolution, for example, the ANC notes: “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 posit itself as the main determiner of the public agenda and opinion.

The apartheid patterns and behaviour that treat South Africans in an unequal and discriminatory manner sometimes manifests in some of the conduct of the print media in the content, coverage, distribution, management and opinions. Such attitudes and practices need to be confronted

Regrettably, the facts are that the average black ownership in mainstream media to date is 14% and woman participation at board and management levels is at the diminutive 4.44%.”

The numbers haven’t changed much since Mangaung, and the ANC’s media practitioners have been wrapped up in tactical attempts to manage the fallout from a series of public crises: Nkandla, the spy-tapes, the nuclear procurement process and the EFF’s conduct in parliament, among others. So the movement’s eye has been off the ball in terms of the broader “battle of ideas”.

But there are two significant political events in the next 12 months that are likely to refocus the minds of ANC members: the party’s National General Council, an often-impolite affair scheduled for June next year, and the ANC’s policy conference a few months later.

Already, teams of cadres are hard at work putting draft policy documents and resolutions together.

As a starting point, those responsible for reviving the “battle of ideas” should examine whether three key recommendations from 2012 are still valid:

  • Introduction of an empowerment charter to promote BBBEE in the (print media) sector.”

  • An investigation into a Media Appeals Tribunal; and

  • An investigation by the Competition Commission into “anti-competitive practices in the sector”.

In the course of their work, the ANC cadres responsible for the next version of the “battle of ideas” may find it worthwhile looking at the PDMSA, the PDMTTT, and the rather pathetic transformation low road that newspaper owners have chosen to follow. And you can be sure the Media Appeals Tribunal is going to be back on the agenda, given recent comments by government leaders about their perceptions of the quality of journalism.

Because if the turkeys don’t want to vote for Christmas, you can be sure the people with real voting power will be tempted to do it for them. DM


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