Freedom of the press has become a loaded concept. Is the press really free if it is forced to become anti-establishment, just because to be anything else is viewed with constant and pervasive disapproval? Not to mention the steady trickle of criticism regarding “standards dropping” – which, unsurprisingly, usually occurs along racial lines.
Contrary to what many outside of the media have believed, South African newsrooms have always been contested spaces.
One must sympathise with those who will find this hard to believe. That is because in general and in broad terms, the narrative in the mainstream media has remained the same.
In brief, and at the risk of oversimplification, the pre-and post-1994 media share a passion for being anti-establishment. There has been no appreciation that the pre-1994 establishment was illegitimate and that the post-1994 one is legitimate and popular, as evidenced by results of every election that has been held since South Africa became a democracy.
The anti-Apartheid commitment of yesteryear should, however, not be confused with a commitment to black majority rule. That many hated Apartheid does not mean that they were ready for the alternative, which is black political hegemony, stemming from the sheer demographic dominance of blacks in South Africa.
Despite what seems to outsiders as a shared ethos of what matters or does not matter, many newsrooms today have had a few misfits who once in a while go against the grain. We see them on social media acutely going against their own publications’ editorial line.
They are not part of a new development. Jon Qwelane is one example of a journalist who did not accept that the role of black journalists in dominantly white media was to write about sports or the so-called black showbiz scene.
To this day, where journalists, especially but not exclusively black, meet, talk continues about how their newsrooms do not always represent their worldview. They talk about how some stories are pursued with zeal while others are ignored because of the cast involved.
The ownership change at the Independent Media Group represents the first time in South African mainstream media where the so-called contrarian view emanates from the boardroom and not from a few journalists burning with revolutionary zeal. That is what makes IMG the game changer and an irritant to an establishment that is used to getting its way.
Journalists who dared to see the world differently were either tolerated or hounded out of newsrooms by questioning their abilities, placing them in situations where they were most likely to fail or even spreading malicious rumours impugning their professional integrity.
The other, preferred option is to ridicule and cartoon those who do not toe the line.
It is a game that others who have upset whiteness and what it takes as absolute truth have learned is unrelenting.
Ask Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, Judge President John Hlophe, President Thabo Mbeki and even Jimmy Manyi what happened when they dared to challenge whiteness’ self-given right to be the standard by which everyone else must live.
That is why the IMG is now a corporate and political issue for the same people who never cared that the previous owners repatriated all their profits and left the group the least developed and invested in among media groups in the country.
Many of those who today cry about standards were as quiet as church mice when the previous Irish owners reduced the proud Argus group to a shell of its former self.
It is clear by now that this battle for the soul of South African journalism will be a protracted battle to influence South Africans on what to think and to think about.
Do not expect anyone to speak on the record on the matter. The newsrooms are not always the greatest defenders of free speech, as a group of young black journalists learned to their cost when they expressed views that ran counter to those of their editor, and found themselves branded as racists, by their own editor, on social media.
That is why the Democratic Alliance in Cape Town feels emboldened to take the unprecedented and irrational step of complaining to the Press Ombudsman about executives (whose roles do not include making everyday editorial decisions) wearing party T-shirts.
This is in spite of the party having no problem listening to a working journalist, Donwald Pressly, appearing before its forum deciding on who to send to the various legislature houses, and who is writing a biography of one of the party’s leaders, Lindiwe Mazibuko. Having failed in his bid to become a paid public representative of the DA, Pressly thought nothing of continuing as a journalist at a paper his political bosses today have the gall to call politically compromised.
The DA’s next move was to partake in an obvious corporate war between the owners of IMG and of rival companies for the revenue streams that sustain all media businesses.
It is understandable, even if it morally deplorable, why rival media companies would want to taint IMG and others as ethically and professionally suspect. Advertisers and audiences are likely to shun any media organisation that has a stench of being unduly influenced by political or business elites.
Media companies further benefit by increasing the labour costs of rival companies because they make most talented journalists wonder if their continued association with the “discredited” company does not hurt their credibility and those outside of the company feel they can only join if a disproportionately huge carrot is dangled before them. They are thus able to poach IMG staffers on the cheap, or keep their own, who realise they have “nowhere” else to go.
As Zille and others have said, everyone has a right to consume media of their choice. They are entitled to like and dislike, or to spend their advertising money where they wish.
By Zille’s own argument, media organisations should also be free to determine the narrative they want to sell – including whether to be hostile to the views of the undisputed majority (even if you think they are unwashed and unsophisticated) as reflected by the ballot box – or not. In both scenarios it is up to consumers of media to decide whether they like what they are being sold.
The style of the attack on IMG follows a pattern and it is consistent with how the party has sold itself to its constituency – The Barbarians are at the Gate. Everything else follows from that premise.
There is hardly an area of South African life previously controlled by whites but now run by black people where, according to the likes of the DA and their followers, “standards” have not dropped.
Even the national football team’s woes are celebrated as evidence of how “they” cannot get anything right.
There is a reason we still have associations for black professionals such as the Black Management Forum, Black Lawyers Association and a similar organisation for accountants. White racism is unrelenting and will find you no matter how hard you think you have earned your right to be at the table.
These professionals know that their integrity is forever in question regardless of their qualifications or hard work, they are always under scrutiny. It is no coincidence that we know that Cyril Ramaphosa almost bought a buffalo but virtually nothing of the man who actually outbid him and bought the prize animal.
It is no coincidence that the PIC’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr Daniel Matjila, who has to answer to why he owns a R2 million car, even though he earns R9,6 million a year, is black.
It is no coincidence that questions would, correctly, be raised about who pays legal fees for Menzi Simelane or Jackie Selebi, but hardly an eyelid is batted when another public servant, the NPA’s Glynnis Breytenbach, affords the services of Wim Trengove, one of the country’s top and by definition most expensive silks, for what ultimately is a workplace dispute.
The IMG and its titles would have been naïve to think that they would be spared what other black people and black organisations must contend with.
Even the Mail & Guardian’s Trevor Ncube had to prove his commitment to freedom of expression when he took over at the M&G, with staff openly, but without reason, questioning this commitment.
There was a similar clamour about threats to freedom of expression when a consortium led by business personalities Billy Modise, Ronnie Mamoepa, Titus Mafolo and Groovin Nchabeleng made an offer to buy the then Johncom, owners of the Sunday Times and other publications.
As with the IMG, the men’s ANC allegiance, particularly their allegedly being “close to President Thabo Mbeki” was emphasised over their business acumen.
The same was repeated about the The New Age long before the first dummy was done, that the paper would be nothing but an ANC apologist.
Given how being linked to the ANC is a subliminal way of doubting one’s character, you would think that the ANC was still a “terrorist” organisation. Perhaps in the minds of some it is.
Even those whose political homes were not the ANC are routinely brushed with the “close to the ANC” brush. Think of Judge Willie Seriti, who heads the Arms Deal Commission. I do not know his current political views, but I remember him being a member of the Pan Africanist Congress National Executive heading the party’s legal desk.
Individuals like Dumisa Ntsebeza, who have a long history with the New Unity Movement, are given honourary membership of the ANC simply because they hold views that make some uncomfortable.
In brief, even our political discourse is driven by people who cannot differentiate between Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism, and see these as synonyms for “black supremacy”.
As with journalists, the mark of “independence” and “bravery” of public servants has become how one is willing to publicly criticise the ANC and its leadership. Failure to do so makes them spineless lackeys.
The “brave” few are patronisingly encouraged to “run for president”. They best represent what Robert Sobukwe warned against when he said we should be worried when white supremacy and those who benefit from it start describing us as “reasonable” and “pragmatic”.
Coupled with this strategy is for editors to feel guilty for affording space to the ANC or ANC-linked individuals to express obviously partisan views in praise of the government and its record for fear that this might be seen as “proof” that their publications are embedded.
According to some, it is unfathomable that an honest journalist or public servant can find a positive in the ANC government, unless of course they are hoping for a job, a promotion or a tender from the state.
There is a lot that is wrong with South Africa’s governance and the majority party. The party itself talks about how its members and leaders have fallen to the sins of incumbency.
There is the other truth. Of millions of children who for a few days of every month are guaranteed to eat something because of social grants; children who look forward to school because there they are guaranteed what is possibly their only square meal of the day.
This is the South African reality. The divide in the media is not about those who like or hate the ANC. It is between those who only see South Africa’s failures and who see the failures and the potential.
If South Africans are to be considered free from Apartheid bondage, they must have a right to see South Africa through their own eyes and not through those who paternalistically decide how, when and what must matter.
Journalism is not only unfree if it is dictated by the whims and desires of the dominant political party. It is still unfree if it serves to unfairly promote the narrative of the anti-establishment, for whom “standards” have fallen since the days when only they had a point of view worth listening to. DM
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is the Editor of The Mercury. He believes good intentions do not improve bad arguments nor bad intentions contaminate good arguments, so readers are free to make of his employment by the IMG what they will.
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