Opinionista Bongani Mbindwane 17 August 2015

Media bias: South Africa needs specialist media to end prejudice

Daily, the South African public is inundated with political opinions disguised as news stories. The country has witnessed the demise of a specialist media in which journalists have specialist knowledge of various fields. Even minor issues of day-to-day politics invite high-level commentary by pundits with little knowledge of the topic. This lack of specialists has resulted in a media that doesn't know the subject matter it reports on. In the end, the public is given shoddy analysis or news reports often coloured by bias, innuendo and prejudice.

There’s a private story Limpho Hani tells often about her slain, beloved husband, Chris Hani. She recalls a day when Hani called her into a private room for a serious ‘chat’. He said to her: “My love, for two weeks now, the press has been writing non-negative stories about me, there can only be one reason for this, that I’m no longer doing right by the people or they are about to set me up.”

What Hani said remains a real warning for the mass democratic movement – the media is not to be trusted, ever, the media is not a friend of the oppressed socialist majority and never will be. It’s simple: private media is inherently against socialist ideas as these contain the risk of it being owned by the public, and moved away from private ownership.

The media still write about nationalisation of the minerals sector despite the 2002 Minerals Resources Development Act which effectively nationalised the sector, causing all mineral wealth to belong to the people of South Africa as a whole. Headlines such as ‘Call for nationalisation’ still appear a decade after the law was passed. The question is, where are specialist journalists who have knowledge of the sector and can disseminate accurate information?

Misinformation on these and many other topics can cause such socially and politically significant outcomes as political change or even constitutional changes that could devastate the system under construction.

On Sunday, the City Press issued a slew of tweets directed at poking fun and reducing The Citizen editor Steve Motale’s heartfelt apology to President Jacob Zuma. The crass tweets apologised to poet Mzwakhe Mbuli over his standard of art, Helen Zille’s ability to dance was mentioned and there was body shaming of Khulubuse Zuma. I am still at loss as to what value this form of trolling by a national newspaper has for our knowledge base. This is what our knowledge purveyors have descended to, mere scornful mockers.

Consumers are, however, responding directly in two ways – not buying papers leading to a drop in sales and voting against the media’s political choices repeatedly in political elections nationally and locally. There is an apparent trust deficit between the majority of South Africans and the media no matter what the South African National Editors’ Forum arrogantly argues. The evidence is there and people are voting financially and politically against an unrepresentative, biased and unfair media. A call for introspection is warranted as people see the media as hostile and often sarcastic to the public.

South Africa is truly a young country, not even the white minority that enjoyed freedoms and power prior to universal freedoms for all in 1994 are aware of exactly how the government and the state function. Those who are charged with information dissemination are unfortunately immersed in partisan politics even to the point of indulging in factional politics within those parties. With a highly politicised media, what should ideally serve as objective reports to enable the news-consuming public to make up their minds, is muddied with ideological, race and class politics.

Granted, many countries have similar media issues. However, what distinguishes South Africa from those countries is that our media falsely projects itself as unbiased. This is not only pretentious but fraudulent, considering that the unsuspecting public still believes the media does not hold any prejudice or bias on any matter. Daily, the public is inundated with political opinions disguised as news stories.

As we construct the new South Africa for our future generations, we are risking leaving behind a legacy bedevilled by deep-rooted prejudices, mistrust and racial and class divisions. A society that treats people in an unequal matter. Had this generation been living during the Spanish Inquisition, South Africa would easily fit all the descriptions of an “accusatory society”. As in the Spanish Inquisition, the inquisitors are those society holds in high esteem and questioning their motives and deeds is seen as a sin.

The media is extremely important – it influences society, it sets priorities and shapes people’s thinking. What is said by the media is frequently repeated at dinner tables and at the company canteen the next day. Once repeated, it becomes true. The media shapes society beyond just being the purveyor of news of what those in power are doing. It teaches and informs people who they are and where they are going. It must concern society greatly that the media has such power. Though never elected by society, the media holds power that elected public representatives could only wish for.

Once the media has ordained a personality a hero, nothing can touch them, rarely even the law. The political dictators of the world have known this, hence they maintain a tight grip on the media, with persecution and arrests without trial of journalists a common phenomenon. It is no surprise that dictators see the media as their first frontline enemy.

South Africa has also seen the demise of a specialist media in which journalists have specialist knowledge of various fields. This in turn creates a society in constant dispute, a society so highly polarised that even war zones and famine-struck countries rank above South Africa in the United Nations Global Happiness Index.

Even minor issues of day-to-day politics invite high-level commentary by pundits with little knowledge of the topic, either deriding or amplifying a minor issue into a Mount Kilimanjaro. Often this is due to a lack of specialisation. An example is that we have no journalists who specialise in the president or the Presidency. Here I do not refer to journalists who attend presidential media briefings – that doesn’t create a specialist. I refer to knowledge, an in-depth understanding of how the presidency functions. The same goes for Parliament and other institutions of state. This lack of specialists leads to a media that doesn’t know the subject matter it reports on. In the end, the public is given shoddy analysis or news reports often coloured by bias, innuendo and prejudice.

During his replies to oral questions in Parliament, Zuma, answered two queries with, and I paraphrase: “I am not aware of that.” There was immediate hysteria from media regarding Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s tweet alleging that Zuma did not know anything about government actions.

The argument is that a president must know every minute detail of his cabinet’s collective work, including each public utterance by each of his 60-plus ministers and deputy ministers. With the rise of the ‘national security state’ – the rise of ‘globalised world management’ – and ‘regional management’, if the president’s daily briefing (PDB) had to contain ministers’ day-to-day actions it would take a week or more to read. Every president begins his or her day with a terrifying intelligence (military and security) briefing which either defines his day or the week’s schedule. Tactical withdrawal of a mining licence by a minister, an act under ministerial authority, is not likely to make the cut as compilers decide on key priority areas, including continental and international issues in between global leaders telephone calls and correspondence.

Perhaps the argument is that each minister’s utterances reported by media should be included in the PDP? To what end? What kind of South Africa are we constructing that requires the president to be a micromanager of specialist ministers? When do they do their work when they have to pause to check whether they made it to the PDP? Where do we place a legal authority to withdraw a mining licence with the weighty national, continental and global issues a head of state has to grapple with on daily basis?

The death of a specialist media also saw many hysterical reports about Parliament’s presiding officers’ authority to call security services into the National Assembly. The media, without referring to the law, went all out to claim as a matter of fact that a police state was nigh. Yet a law, passed by all political parties in this democracy under Nelson Mandela, authorises the use of all security services inside the parliamentary precinct provided they are commanded by the presiding officers and not the executive.

Similarly, the now much talked about Hilary Squires judgement on the Schabir Shaik trial was subjected to non-specialist reporting which widely attributed words to the judge, words he says he never said.

The debate on this ensues as the media defends itself from accusations from one of their own that there is open bias and prejudice against Zuma.

No media outlet has made it clear that on the Nkandla prestige project, the state was allegedly looted by the contractor who broke all known rules with the help of senior state officials. Instead, the media label the alleged mastermind and senior state officials as “scapegoats” for the real mastermind they blame. Perhaps there is also another element of scapegoating in which the media is quick to declare loudly and uniformly: ”It’s Zuma!”

The media do not follow the important rule that, no matter the circumstances, no person can ever be found guilty in a trial if he was not charged or was able to offer another alternative explanation. This is fundamental no matter how many extracts of Squires’s Shaik judgement are cited. It doesn’t automatically follow that if a person intended to bribe, there is a reciprocal act by the person at whom the bribe was directed. It is very possible to receive friendly assistance without any illegal thought or act and be unaware of the hidden intentions or dark motives of  the benefactor.

Squires also spends time in his judgment discussing his views about a letter I personally typed during my time as an aide to former African National Congress chief whip Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile. I’m troubled by his judgment of that letter we addressed to Shaik as not adequate.

Is Motale correct that there is deep-seated prejudice against Zuma? Yes, he is. Zuma is generally regarded as an uneducated person who must not rule over the educated blacks. Credit is not given for the level of his self-education and his enormous contribution to the struggle against apartheid is disregarded. Many even argue that Zuma was not on Robben Island for 10 years. In other countries, a person with Zuma’s achievements would be regarded as a hero, an achiever, a great intellect – for he mostly educated himself when most need structured instructions to learn to read and write or understand foreign relations and security.

The fact our media refuses to acknowledge on the Nkandla matter is that the law is very clear on the management of public money – politicians are not to engage in money management. As such, Zuma was correct to make sure he has a somewhat arm’s length approach, had he had direct involvement, he would have fallen foul of the Public Finance Management Act.

Zuma’s private residence is repeatedly reported as having cost the taxpayers different large amounts: R206-million or R216-million or R246-million. So what is the truth?

The security upgrades to Zuma’s house cost R71.2-million or exactly R71,212,621.77, inclusive of professional fees of R20.7-million or exactly R20,688,736.89. This makes the total cost of Zuma’s security upgrades only R50,523 885.00. This compares with Mandela’s security upgrades, said to be around R38-million in 1998, with inflation and the size of the immediate family taken into account. What the army and police decided to do in renting hotels or guesthouses at a cost to taxpayers of more than R100-million is a different matter altogether. Conflating this with Zuma’s security upgrades is not accurate reporting as none of the security personnel costs have been considered in examining the security upgrades of past presidents in comparisons by the public protector.

As we build this country where people are found guilty of crimes on the basis of mere accusations, where one story of 2002 remains relevant in 2015, where old accusations are thrown at one person and regurgitated as new – we build a society that says a citizen is not innocent until proven guilty but guilty until proven innocent. We build a society with a shoddy understanding of how things are – how things should be interpreted by society.

The media has many powers, powers to create doubt, create blind belief, powers of choice, to create national priorities, and to reward and ignore personalities. This monopoly on power is not comparable to state power apart from starting a war. The media must be thanked for the current HIV public policy and other positive influences – just one of the examples of the power of the media.

It’s time we resume using the word “allegedly” and always be circumspect over the state prosecutors, especially in complex cases where no real proof exists just ‘feelings’ of guilt. It is time for us to have specialist, real and truly specialist, media reporting on complex matters. It is time to treat this task of shaping the future seriously. DM

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