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Media Content Diversity in SA: Why is government still asking all the wrong questions?

Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly from @jbjreid and writes about media policy debates and the state of media freedom in South Africa. Julie is the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM), and an active member of the Right2Know campaign. She is involved in various media policy research projects, has published research in the field of media studies and edited a book on South African visual culture.

The following is an amended version of a presentation delivered by the author for the Print Media Transformation Colloquium, 25-26 August 2016, held at Freedom Park, Pretoria and hosted by the Department of Communications (DoC).

It is true that in South Africa we are in a significant dilemma with regard to media content diversity. The Minister of Communications proposes the deracialisation of the print sector, and transformation of the newspaper industry, which would see more black owners of more titles. Unfortunately, even if this comes to pass, it will do very little to solve our content diversity problem. Here is another case of where challenges present themselves, the solutions proposed by government have utterly no symmetry with the problem.

It is important to take note of the difference between media content diversity, and the diversity of media ownership or the plurality of media markets, which though related is something different. Media content diversity is not about who owns our media companies, but rather about the diversity of content we see on our television screens and read in our newspapers. It is about our experience of the end product, not about the guy who owns the company that produces the product.

Describing things very simply, content diversity can be understood on two levels. The first level involves the obvious things, like language. Here we ask, is the media published/broadcast in a number of languages or do only a few languages dominate? Also on level one is the representation of diversity. In South Africa one of the most important representations of diversity is the fair representation of race, and diverse ethnic identities. Another important consideration is that of gender representivity. All of these aspects on the first level of content diversity are fairly easy to measure for media researchers, and they are all important. But key determinants of content diversity also go deeper than that.

A second level of content diversity involves the publication and dissemination of a diverse range of opinions, ideas, world views, beliefs, voices, and standpoints through the media.

For example, contemplate for a moment a diversity in the representation of economic ideologies. In a mediated space that is often dominated by narratives and mythologies supportive of a dominant capitalist or neo-liberal system, how often do we see media coverage containing the narratives or countermythologies, which would challenge the over-entrenched capitalist status quo, such as those from a post-capitalist perspective? (No, I’m not talking about socialism. Post-capitalism is something else. Google it).

Or consider a media landscape that offered a diversity of class narratives. In most countries the class interests of the economically advantaged and wealthy which dominate the mainstream media, while the interests and stories of the working classes and poor are largely ignored. Jane Duncan exposed this brilliantly in her brief but powerful summary of the media’s behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the Marikana massacre, using the term embedded journalism.

This second level of media diversity, which is ideological in nature, though less tangible than the first level, is arguably more important. Because it is here that media audience not only acquire information about the world around them, but ‘decide’ what to think (read, are encouraged how to think) about it.

So, why is media content diversity important? Theoretical debates on this question are contested, but have had two main thrusts. The first is the neoliberal ‘marketplace of ideas’ model, wherein emphasis rests on providing individual media users with a wide range of choice, and while this choice is considered mostly with respect to the market, restrictions and standards are determined by factors such as consumer choice and free competition. Being critical of such a market-orientated view, the second major position is the Habermasian public sphere approach, which places emphasis instead on unifying the public discourse, and where the importance of a plurality of political ideas and social views means such content becomes part of a ‘democratic public deliberation’.

There is no time here to debate the validity of each approach, and each comes with its own pitfalls. But to simplify things, this may be helpful: at the Media Policy and Democracy Project we assessed a wide array of foreign-developed media diversity measurement metrics while preparing to develop our own model appropriate for South African conditions. What we found, without exception, was that all of these tools were based on one basic normative premise: namely that the diversity of content in the media is important to society and democracy, and should reflect the widest range of cultural and political ideas possible, because the media are integral to the individual’s formulation of opinions and ideas. In other words, the media help us to formulate our own ideas about the world around us. So, it’s a good thing to hear a lot of differing opinions and viewpoints before deciding on your own.

Why is this important in a democratic context and more specifically a developmental context? Because if we follow this logic then we can all agree that it is important for everyone to have access to a wide array of opinions and ideas, so that they can be enabled to become active, informed and political participants in their world. This is how democracy is grown, nurtured and deepened. So, media content diversity is a really good thing, yes?

Sure, but it becomes even more important within a developmental context, and in Global South countries, where many of these countries are still manoeuvring their way through the sensitive process of re-establishing collective identities and new socio-political frameworks in the postcolonial age.

A number of media types, critics and governments have at regular intervals the world over proclaimed that development media theory delivers the answer. It is fair to say that this perspective recognises global inequalities and the economic difficulties for the media in Global South countries while transitioning from colonial era oppression toward democracy. However, development theory fails to recognise that this transition does not always arrive at democracy, but rather at new forms of economic and political oppression. As such, it also puts too much faith in the goodwill of the state and political elites, and in effect disallows media criticism for those centres of power, at a time when such scrutiny is arguably more important than ever (during a country’s period of transition). We have seen this happen, over and over again, in too many countries north of our borders in the sub-Saharan region.

It always amazes me how in many African countries, governments have instituted media policies and interventions under the guise of promoting diversity and thereby fostering democracy, when the real outcome of these actions is to close down media spaces and opportunities to express alternative voice. This type of thing is not about media diversity at all. True media diversity is about promoting all voices, even those which are critical of the status quo and the centres of both corporate and political power. Sadly, what too many governments do is create environments in which the only voices permitted are those which speak to the interests of the centres of power. But that has nothing to do with diversity and nothing to do with democracy.

So we have to think about this contextually with regard to the Global South, and honestly take stock of the sadly low number of mature democracies within it. If we are honest, and not arrogant, we must admit that South Africa is itself not yet a mature democracy. We are still getting there. But to help us along we need to open more spaces, not less, for the representation of alternative and critical voices in our media. And when I say ‘alternative’ voices, I am not necessarily talking about the voices of opposition parties, civil society groups or academia, although these are important. I mean ground-up and grassroots voices, the voices of marginalised and poor people, which are too often routinely under-represented in our media.

So, if we can all agree to accept this premise for media content diversity, then what it means is that we need to re-shape the current trajectory of the media diversity debate as it has unfolded within our country. For years now, and especially since 2010, both the ANC party and government officials have vilified the ‘media’ for being untransformed. It must transform, they say, in order to bring about media diversity. When they say ‘media’ what they actually mean is the print sector, which is really only a very small part of the media. Who owns and runs our country’s broadcasters is never mentioned.

But given the normative role of media diversity, coupled with the phenomenon of convergence, it makes no logical sense to contemplate print media diversity in isolation from the rest of the media space. Media diversity studies, as a scientific field of research, has long since abandoned the approach of seeing media types, like print, broadcasting or digital media, in isolation from one another because to do so is simply methodologically invalid. It no longer makes sense.

Instead, we now focus on media genres. Instead of separating the media for analysis according to media types, such as print, broadcasting, digital and so on, we now think of media genres, such as entertainment, sport, documentary, etcetera. At the Media Policy & Democracy Project, we have focused our efforts predominantly on the media genre of news and current affairs content.

The sense in doing this is simple, if you see things from the media audience’s perspective. In a converged environment a person will attain information about their world, and become informed about how to be an active participant in that world, from a variety of different media sources. The value of the information which the person receives from the media is not determined by the format in which it was received. An idea or collection of diverse ideas can reach an audience member through a newspaper, a radio station, a television news channel, digitally published online website or a social media platform. What is more important is whether an individual has access to a wide range of ideas within a particular media genre, and not according to a particular media type.

In light of this, I note that the Department of Communication’s colloquium on 25-26 August has taken a particular stance to hone its lens in on the print media sector only. I think that this approach is incorrect, for reasons I have just explained but also for the following reasons.

First, if we focus on the print media only, we risk ignoring the acute problems with media content diversity in all the other media sectors, and there are many. Second, such an approach entirely ignores how media is actually consumed in today’s converged world. Third, the DoC’s approach ignores the normative ideal of why media content diversity is important in the first place. Fourth, other media sectors, such as broadcasting, have far higher levels of market concentration than the print media sector, and far lower levels of content diversity. Broadcasting also has far larger audience numbers than the print sector. If we want to solve the most immediate crisis of media content diversity in South Africa, then that crisis does not stem from the print sector – it stems from broadcasting. If we focus all of our scrutiny on the print media sector only, we expend a great deal of energy on the sector with the lowest audience numbers. And, as research has shown us, relative to the other media sectors in South Africa, the print sector actually has the lowest degree of market concentration of ownership, and the highest degree of plurality.

In terms of making a material impact on deepening our democracy by increasing levels of media content diversity it is a really bad idea to focus only on the print sector. Even if we are successful in this obsessive compulsion to transform the print sector, and we do increase levels of media content diversity within our newspapers to an acceptable degree (whatever we may determine that to be), it will make very little difference with regard to deepening our democracy. Because the largest majority of our people do not learn what they know about the world from newspapers. We know that fewer and fewer of them read newspapers all the time. The largest majority of our people learn what they know about the world from our broadcasters. If we want to utilise the media to deepen democracy, then it makes far more sense to start with broadcasting.

An additional factor which needs consideration the question of diversity ‘benchmarks’. Simply put, before strategies for transformation can be developed, before media policies, regulations or a charter can be drafted, it is necessary for stakeholders involved in such processes to engage in a multi-stakeholder forum where such ‘benchmarks’ can be contested and scrutinised. In other words, role-players must discuss how much diversity is enough diversity. It is one thing to acknowledge a lack content diversity within the media, but it is a different matter to determine the end goal of the process of attempts to address the problem. So, how much diversity is enough diversity? How do we know when we have gotten there? This can only be answered through a thorough process of continual engagement.

That said, who do we engage with? Do we put this question of how much diversity is enough diversity to media regulators, to media institutions of the state like the DoC, to parliamentarians, to civil society, to media academics and experts, or to media actors and companies? I say no. At least not at first.

The starting point of this engagement needs to begin on the ground, at grassroots level, with the persons whose opinions, ideas, world-views, beliefs and lives are shaped and informed by the media, if we are going to follow the course of our normative ideal of why media diversity is so important to us, and to democracy.

Since 2012 the Media Policy and Democracy Project has worked to develop what we call an audience centred approach to media policy making. This approach has been primarily tested thus far within the MPDP’s efforts to reliably measure the media diversity of content and plurality of media ownership within the South African media landscape. That said, the audience centred approach can be adopted not only in media content diversity studies, but across a spectrum of policy-making efforts, since it adopts as it main tenant, a primary concern for the media end-user/reader/citizen/audience member.

In metaphorical terms, the audience centred approach inverts the traditional mass media communications chain as an approach to policy making. While the latter usually considers the process as a traditional and linear (i) sender (producer), (ii) message/medium (the media) and (iii) receiver (the audience) equation, media policy making has undoubtedly followed a similar formula. The interests and concerns of media stakeholders, institutions of government or the state, regulatory bodies, and media outlets or owners, are usually considered first and then determine the trajectory of media policy making processes often at the expense of audience/public inclusion in the process. Thereafter the media complies with regulatory demands, and whatever implications or repercussions stem from this with regard to media behaviour are either directly or inadvertently experienced by the audience.

The audience-centred approach puts things backwards, in a sense. It asks, first, what are the media and communications needs of the audience, and the different segments of the audience? Second, it asks, how can the media accommodate these needs? And third, what policy measures can media producers, media outlets, media owners (whether state or corporate), regulatory bodies and relevant stakeholders be asked to adhere to, in order to result in audience needs being met? The audience centred approach is, literally, a ground-up tactic to media policy making, where the audience becomes the point of departure instead of the end-point of the process.

While our research on content diversity is still ongoing, let me give you a foretaste of what we have learned thus far by adopting the audience centred approach. The diversity of media content available to the majority of the South African audience is really low, abysmal in fact, but not because of what you may think. By far the biggest determinant is the cost of accessing the media.

In a simple exercise, you can add up the financial cost of having what could be regarded as meaningful and full access to the variety of media content available in South Africa. For a hypothetical individual audience member, who enjoys full media access, the financial expenses in this regard are quite astounding.

First, you would need to consider the ‘start-up’ costs to gaining access to the full media spectrum. This involves purchasing a number of expensive things, like a television set, a smartphone (if not on contract), a personal computer, a wi-fi router or ADSL line, a television licence, a satellite dish and set-top box, and then paying for the installation and set-up of all this stuff. A really rough estimate would put these start-up costs, conservatively, in the region of R25,000. Then you need to consider the monthly expenses of full and meaningful media access. You would need to pay a monthly subscription fee to a satellite television provider, Internet and data costs, the cost of purchasing about four weekly newspapers and the purchase of a daily newspaper (let’s say you buy one every second day), and the cost of paying a hefty fee for your cellular phone contract. Yes, I am thinking about a cellular phone contract instead of pre-paid: no one buying pre-paid data for their cellphone is going to use up all their precious data on downloading lengthy news articles from websites like this one. So, full and meaningful access to the news media genre in this country includes having a cellular phone contract. A rough and again conservative estimation of monthly media communications costs to the individual in South Africa lands at about R3,950.

It goes without saying that the largest segment of the South African media audience do not have this kind of money. According to StatsSA’s 2015 figures, in South Africa, those who live in moderate and extreme poverty, which is defined as a household of five living on less than R22 (moderate) or R 11 (extreme) per day respectively, encompass 60% of the population. Take for example, in the core industrial and manufacturing sectors, the median minimum wage for workers is approximately R2,700 per month. So, for example, even if a South African mine worker were to spend his/her entire salary only on media access, he/she would still not have full and meaningful access to the media in this country.

So, you can’t think of the media audience, but rather you have to recognise various different audiences. The first and smallest audience is comprised mostly of the wealthy and economically privileged, has access to everything currently available within the entire media landscape, and therefore enjoys a significant degree of content diversity (in relative terms).

At the opposite end of the audience spectrum we find the largest audience: the audience of the poor, and economically disadvantaged. This audience primarily experiences low levels of content diversity because the amount of media which it can access is so small, and the degree of diversity contained within that limited media repertoire is very low. The equation is simple: the more media you have access to, the more content diversity you will have access to. The inverse is also true.

The fundamental point I am making is this: if we truly believe that media content diversity is important, because access to a wide array of opinions, ideas, and world-views informs the citizenry in ways that they can become an active participants in democracy, which in turn deepens democracy, then there are a number of things that we have to accept, and also change in our current national conversation.

One: we have to think about all of this from a ground-up instead of a top-down perspective, and consider the majority audience needs before anything else. Two: we have to lower the costs of accessing the media. Three: we have to stop thinking about the print media sector only – people don’t only get their ideas about the world from the newspapers. Four: we need to strengthen the regulatory institutions which should be regulating the costs to media access. For example, reducing the exorbitant cost of data in this country would go a long way. Why isn’t Icasa doing anything to stem the tide of unbridled and unethical profiteering of our telecommunications giants (which by the way, is another highly concentrated and duopolised market)?

Five: we need to make sure that where one media outlet forms a de facto monopoly over the largest majority of the audience, and here I mean the SABC, that this institution is well-run, free from maladministration and corruption, has a functioning leadership/board, has editorial policies that are in line with our democratic constitution and the principles therein. And also, that it broadcasts appropriate levels of diversity, regarding both the first and second levels of content diversity. In other words, the SABC must be expected to broadcast more voices, and all voices, including voices of criticism, opposition and the voices of the marginalised and poor.

Six: the print media sector is by no means innocent. Sure, it’s not transformed enough. But rather than only asking who owns the newspapers, we should be asking, why are newspapers so expensive? Why aren’t they distributed equitably and in more languages? Why aren’t the alternative voices of the marginalised and grassroots poor more routinely represented? Here we need to take cognisance though, that this particular media sector is under severe strain, and before we can expect it to do more, we need to find a way for it to survive in this media market, where it struggles to sustain itself even when doing only the little that it does now. It won’t help anybody to institute media regulations, such as a transformation charter, that over-stretch an already over-stretched sector which eventually results in nothing more than the collapse of the print news industry. At which point, undoubtedly, media monopolies will take advantage, step in to fill the void, and we will be worse off than before with regard to content diversity.

And this brings me to my last point: how to avoid the ruinous media market. Sure, government can intervene to create more content diversity. It could support more start-ups and new entrants of new media titles. But without the audience numbers, these will eventually fail. If such large segments of the audience remain excluded from the media sphere, then our country simply cannot support a more diverse or pluralistic media economy.

A media product should be thought of, in very simple terms, as any other product. If a product is not bought by enough customers it will eventually go off the market. If a media product is not consumed by enough audience members it will eventually fail and disappear. Which would be the antithesis to the goal of fostering media content diversity.

We could enthusiastically set about starting up a whole slew of new newspapers, for example, but if no one buys them then you run the risk of these types of interventions resulting in a ruinous media market. Many other countries, both in the Global North and South, have faced a similar conundrum before us.

So, what needs to be done to increase media content diversity without collapsing the media market? You have to ensure audience buy-in and audience capacity. You have to capacitate audience members to take part in the media. But, how to do that? Part of the answer is that market-driven system needs to change. Because, what is the good of having thousands of media titles available in the country, if no one has enough money to access them?

This is precisely why I say that we are not currently asking the right questions. On Tuesday the Minister of Communications released a statement, which has since been deleted from the DoC’s website. In it, apart from taking a misinformed swipe at the Right2Know Campaign, she said that the 25-26 August colloquium would explore the de-racialisation of the print sector by increasing black ownership and control. But putting black owners in boardrooms and black editors in newsrooms, while there is little wrong with that, is not going to necessarily change the economic conditions that keep the majority of South Africans, most of whom are black, from accessing the media at all. Here, the proposed solution is out of symmetry with the problem.

Rather, we should be asking, how to make the media more accessible to more people. We should therefore be exploring ways for the establishment of more public-funded media, and determining how to fund new media entrants which can be accessed by our people for free, or at a low cost. We should be asking whether it is appropriate to regulate the cost of accessing private media products.

We should be making certain that the public media that we currently do have, is doing well, as I mentioned before. And by the way Hlaudi dear, asking probing questions about the state of our public service broadcaster is about having a legitimate concern for one of our key enablers of democracy and media content diversity. It is not an indicator that those doing the asking are aligned to some sinister oppositional force in need of probing or investigations themselves. Fact is, if you were doing a good job, you would welcome criticism instead of being allergic to it, you wouldn’t have a problem acting transparently, and openly answering such questions. And you wouldn’t need to expend so much of your energy on your incessant and overly defensive tough-guy routine, which I admit you’ve managed to keep up for a remarkably long time now. Shame man. That’s got to be exhausting for you.

But last, in a post-digital era, we simply have to, have to, bring down the cost of data as well as the costs of having meaningful and full access to the Internet. In 2015 the LINK Centre conducted a study on the lived cost of communication in South Africa. The study includes some truly horrifying testimony gathered from participants, and shows how for too many poor households the cost of high telecommunications can have a crippling effect, forcing many to choose between buying food for their families or purchasing airtime and data. In today’s world airtime and data are a necessity, not a luxury, utilised by the poor to both seek employment, and communicate with employers and loved ones. Apart from this, the internet is humanity’s biggest information product. Full access to it should be regarded as nothing less than a human right, and human rights should not be for sale. DM


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