Defend Truth

Opinionista

We need to adopt a survival and revival strategy to save South Africa’s independent news media

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Mcebisi Jonas is MTN group chairman and former deputy Finance Minister of South Africa.

We know from the news that South Africans have a lot to worry about, but it’s time we started worrying about the state of the news media as well.

Without a vibrant and diverse media holding government and public figures accountable, our democracy cannot function, and without a free flow of information, our economy will not prosper. As one editor put it, “If South Africa loses the media, we lose South Africa.”

For too long we have allowed our media to fall into neglect, leaving it to market forces or fate to serve up an ever less nourishing diet of news at a time when we are supposed to be living in the information age.

In order to understand how we came to this point, we need to be reminded of our history. Before 1994, South Africa’s media was, like the rest of society, divided on racial and cultural lines.

The Afrikaans press was effectively owned by the governing National Party. The SABC, with its monopoly of the airwaves, was a mouthpiece for the state, which the party controlled.

The tradition of a “free press”, limited as it was under apartheid, could be found in sections of the English-language print media that was largely owned by mining barons.

Mass black readership was consigned to the margins of township editions loaded with crime and soccer.

The proprietors of the English press valued the bottom line more than the social good of the media that they owned. They proved this in 1985, when they closed the Rand Daily Mail, one of the few mass media voices that reached across the racial divide, just as white rule was being challenged as never before.

A big debt in those final years of apartheid, as the government declared states of emergency and became ever more repressive and violent, was owed to the scrappy alternative and progressive press that identified with those who were voiceless and struggling to change the system.

The tradition of bold investigative journalism that they developed and sustained was still alive decades later when the media played a critical role in uncovering the State Capture scandal that contaminated the governing party and nearly bankrupted our democratic state.

But the achievements of a handful of journalists and their publications should not paper over the cracks of our broken media, where circulations of virtually all print titles are in alarming decline.

Independent Media, once the leading English-language newspaper group, is on life support, its sales numbers so embarrassing that it has withdrawn from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The Sunday Times, which in its heyday sold 1.3 million copies on a weekend, is now hovering slightly above 100,000. City Press sells little more than 27,000 and the Mail & Guardian around 10,000.

Naspers, the leader in digital, has reinvented itself with some well-timed investments in Chinese and European tech, and is now the most valuable publicly traded business in Africa. But its South African newspapers and digital operations have become a quaint sideline to its real business.

If we add to this the bloodbath in the local magazine media, with many titles having disappeared since the beginning of Covid-19, the picture looks bleak.

It is a double crisis because commercial media is failing alongside the public broadcaster, which was sucked dry by the State Capture artists and whose journalism became a rerun of the state propaganda of the bad old days. The SABC now resembles other parastatals that have become beggars at the table, whose appetites are unsustainable but whose demise is almost unthinkable.

The collapse of the traditional journalistic business model is being experienced across the world. The internet and especially Facebook have become instruments of technological destruction by sucking up the advertising that once sustained the industry.

The toxic and fragmented discourse of social media is moving into the vacuum that real news has retreated from, representing a completely new threat to democracy and civil peace.

Since 1994, transformation has occurred in one area – the transfer from almost exclusive white ownership to a greater black ownership of the media.

This was necessary but ultimately cosmetic. The deeper problem is that we have devoted no real effort to the transformation of output – ensuring that high-grade information is available and reaching every home in our country.

The press is not the enemy of a democratic society, only of populists and the likes of Donald Trump, who do not believe in an open society.

In the absence of reporters doing the hard work of solid and frank exposure of the very real challenges and crises that our country faces, political reporting is often reduced to underhand leaks by malign actors who want to cover up their criminality by smearing good public servants.

The analytical weakness means journalists lack the self-confidence to call out bogus political messages that use the language of radicalism, race or the struggle to hide corruption or other wrongdoing. Political actors further dodge accountability by bullying or threatening reporters who lack the seniority or support from their newsrooms to stand their ground.

Furthermore, after the calamity of State Capture, there has been a reluctance to probe too hard for fear that the government and the party are too brittle. But many of the weaknesses in our system that require exposure existed before State Capture and still require exposure and fixing.

Some would argue that the circulation declines of our newspapers are signs of rejection by readers, and we should leave it to the market to sort them out. But news consumers are responding to a decline in quality. It is a classic vicious cycle in which economic straits lead to cutbacks and retrenchments, which lead to a less interesting product, which in turn leads to more red ink.

In South Africa, we cannot entirely blame the global crisis. There has also been incredible mismanagement and lack of foresight by media executives whose remuneration far outstripped that of the professionals in the engine room.

When times were better for the media industry, parts of which were producing good revenues, why did they not invest more back into journalism through training, improved salaries or reshaping their operations for a changing technological world?

The big loser, apart from a poorly served public, is the profession of journalism. Many journalists have been driven out because of poor pay or lack of training. Not only has there been an exodus to better-paid professions, leading to juniorisation in newsrooms, but the temptations of brown bag journalism and the blurring of lines with public relations have led to a decline in something less tangible but more precious than numbers – credibility.

One editor I spoke to believes there are no more than 50 properly qualified journalists working in the entire country. Perhaps the number is less.

We are thus presented with the absurdity that one of our most critical constitutional rights is defended by a thin line of mostly underpaid reporters, many of whom could not afford to buy a house or support a family.

For the press to thrive, we need to attract the best talent to the profession. So many young South Africans would love to become journalists but are lured into other professions where money is better and where their futures are more secure.

The market alone is no more likely to save us than state-imposed propaganda. In many of the social democracies of Europe, there has long been an understanding that the media needs to be subsidised because while it has a commercial component there is a social good attached to it. That is the difference between a newspaper and a bar of soap.

How do we ensure not only the survival of high-quality news content but that such information reaches into the poorest villages and shack communities of our country? Clearly, we need to adopt a survival and revival strategy, both for the top-end print sector and sectors such as radio that many poorer people rely on for their information.

There is an urgent need for a broader dialogue on these issues to create a new model that can protect independent media.

One solution could be to look at creating a superfund, with input from government, corporations and individuals to support independent journalism.

Such a fund could support not just legacy print newspapers, whose survival is essential, but spur new media innovation and potential businesses that see opportunities in the new frontiers of technology, consumerism and people’s hunger for news content.

Of course, there are many in the private and public sector who would view it as anathema to support news media that they see, at best, as an irritation. And professional media has long fought against regulation by the state or the establishment of oversight panels to put the press in a straitjacket.

To deal with these conflicting interests, any such initiative should be guided by a set of rules and criteria, the most important of which is a guarantee of editorial independence. It should be overseen by an independent panel drawn from the ranks of journalists as well as government, business, representatives of the community and non-governmental organisations.

Some might ask why spend money on a luxury like journalism when people are hungry and many schools do not have proper toilets? To which we could respond: How would we ever know that many schools do not have proper toilets without the media around to tell us? DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • RICHARD Worthington says:

    While the case for intervention is well-made, the suggestion of a fund seems highly aspirational.
    If rules and criteria can be applied to “guarantee editorial independence” under an inclusive and independent panel, then surely this should – as first priority – be applied to our public broadcaster, already the recipient of super-scale funds? (Without dismissing the idea of funding for printed news and outfits such as Parliamentary Monitoring Group)

  • Peter Doble says:

    There is no such animal as an unbiased media. Each is owned by a business mogul or the state. Perhaps the gradual and inevitable delusion combined with a public lack of accountability by governments at all levels and a total disregard by slick big business has led to a natural global demise which now responds fleetingly to diets of fake spewed through social media.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    “The press is not the enemy of a democratic society” …. DM – Look into a mirror. Ask this question…. does the DM support DEMOCRACY? Does it give coverage to both the governing party and the opposition parties? In fact look for the last time that the DM gave positive coverage to any opposition party, let alone the Official Opposistion? The people of South Africa really do need a change of government or even a stronger democratic opposition so The Press should give them fair support. Right now it does not give support to the opposition and even worse, it does not say why not! Grab your ºº in both hands and SUPPORT THE DEMOCRATIC OPPOSITION!

  • alan Beadle says:

    If you want to learn more about a person, consider what where when they are getting their information. Ask what media – be it electronic, printed, newspaper, copied, wireless, TV, overheard in a taxi, at work or in the family – as this makes all the difference. In my view it all comes down to independent journalists.

  • Peter Mansfield says:

    In the 21st Century, the best way to serve the people – urban and rural – is via the internet. Almost half of South Africans use smartphones and the number of is rising every year. Surely it is time for the government to ensure that all homes have at least some data. For example 5 gigabytes a month.

    I am uncomfortable with the suggestion of a fund.. The trouble is that the government is addicted to appointing unsuitable and often corrupt people everywhere,

  • Lee Richardson says:

    Great article Mr Jonas! Unfortunately, the biggest benefactor from poor journalism is the ANC. I’m sure they would prefer to have no pesky media at all, prying into their ever-corrupt and sordid affairs. Gifting Independent to a disgustingly unqualified cretin like Iqbal was a masterstroke. Quite counter to your sentiment, I’m sure the ANC is in no hurry whatsoever to arm the population with information, propaganda aside of course…

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    All been said before but I worry about putting any new funding in the hands of our Gov’t of any description Mr Jonas and you only need to know recent history to understand why.

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