The wonderful editor and staff of Alexandra, Johannesburg, community newspaper Alex Pioneer who I mentored in streamlining their editorial and production processes in parallel to best serve their township readership.
This is an article I wrote for the Jozi Book Fair in 20011 in my capacities as Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and Administrative Secretary of the Professional Journalists’ Association of South Africa
When Lucien van der Walt and I launched our book Black Flame, I was challenged from the floor by a young revolutionary who accused me of having worked for the bourgeois press. And what could I say, because indeed I had spent 19 years working for the bourgeois press, the last three as group special investigative writer for Independent Newspapers. But her accusation begged two key questions: why, in the million-flower blooming of South Africa’s democracy had our alternative press died; and whether it was at all possible to maintain a pro-poor political stance within the bourgeois press?
As I write this under a poster for the sadly-missed Progress Press of Braamfontein, I can’t think of many ironies as great in this country’s transition but that the alternative press, whose journalists had suffered censure, bannings, buggings and even torture to ensure the dawn of democracy, would go down to extinction as the society they fought for came to life. Part of the answer why this happened is cold capitalist logic: the sole survivor of the alternative newspapers of that era, the Mail&Guardian (formerly the Weekly Mail) was until recently heavily propped up by the British Guardian. And the other reason is that the alternative press, like so many other anti-apartheid formations, struggled to maintain its sense of mission once apartheid collapsed.
But this is not to say that all is entirely lost: the extra-parliamentary left maintains its own journals; and we have seen new initiatives come to the fore, such as the non-sectarian Amandla! Journal, the pan-African progressive analytical site Pambazuka News, and the global phenomenon of indymedia. And certainly not least, we have the dramatic expansion of South Africa’s community media, with today some 150 community radio stations and a handful of community TV stations. This is not to say the sector is all-triumphant: the National Community Radio Forum’s provincial chapters apparently focus almost exclusively on advertising revenue, rather than on quality editorial content; some “community TV stations” are really just small-footprint commercial stations, while some “community newspapers” are owned by the giant Caxton group; and the ICASA Amendment Bill threatens enforcing a relationship between community radio stations and municipalities that smacks of corporativism.
There are huge financial challenges to establishing vernacular-language community media in remote rural parts of the country. I’ve done some feasibility studies in such areas and they are instructive about the pressing social need for such a media – and the enormous hurdles faced. It takes guts and really fancy financial footwork for them to stand a chance. But the key to success is the need to understand social ownership: most community publications are the pet projects of their editors. But the moment they are founded, they are sometimes amazed at the welter of interest – and criticism – they encounter. This is because newspapers are not simply a product or a business; no, they are social capital, integrated into the social fabric, and their readers increasingly in a very real sense take over “social ownership” from the editor and her or his team.
This is a lesson that must be learned by the mainstream media too: that social ownership is not only the best defence against demagogues who would restrict the free flow of information in SA, but it can make for the best content. Sadly it’s pretty easy to go through the lead stories of today’s newspapers and find sensationalism, fluff, spin, and at times errors of fact.
In a March 2011 article titled Journalism, Democracy… and Class Struggle, Robert McChesney argued that the rise of so-called “professional journalism” came with three in-built biases: First, it narrowed the potential pool of legitimate story sources to officials and prominent public figures which “gave those in political office (and, to a lesser extent, business) considerable power to set the news agenda…” Second, by insisting that there had to be a news hook to justify the story, “crucial social issues like racism or environmental degradation fell through the cracks of journalism unless there was some event, like a demonstration or the release of an official report, to justify coverage.”
And third, professional journalism, “far from being politically neutral… smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers as well as the political aims of the owning class... And of government activities, those that serve the poor (e.g., welfare) get much more critical attention than those that serve primarily the interests of the wealthy (e.g., the … institutions of the national security state), which are strictly off-limits.”
That’s an exceptionally harsh, yet accurate, assessment – I experienced those exact pressures in my almost two decades as a journalist – but there are harsher judgments: Alexander Cockburn, editor of the online American alternative political journal CounterPunch, in a June 2009 column titled Who Needs Yesterday’s Papers?, stated bluntly that apart from “a brief flare-up of investigative zeal” in the early to mid-1970s, “any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions would issue a negative verdict in every era”.
So where do we look to for quality, public-interest journalism in South Africa today? Presumably the place to start is investigative journalism, yet the track record over recent years has been quite mixed, in part because of several systemic problems. On the plus side, investigations units have sprouted up all around, from the Mail&Guardian’s “AmaBhungane” unit to M-Net’s Carte Blanche. We have even seen some (rare) independent investigations by the financial press, reporting on the skulduggery of their owners. But far more often, those media owners sabotage their own investigators. I’ll let one of the country’s award-winning investigative journalists speak for himself: “My editors have issued instructions that we not write more than 500 words – that’s impossible, given the complexity of some of our investigations. There is so much other stuff to investigate, but all they are interested in is busting political leaders for corruption.”
So how do we improve things? The Arab Spring has certainly demonstrated the liberatory potential of social media and citizen journalism – but the power imbalance between that media and the capitalist media is such that while we need to rebuild our alternative media around this potential, at the same time, it is crucial that we storm the Bastille of the traditional bourgeois media by campaigning vigorously for its radical democratisation. And by that I don’t mean nationalisation, but socialisation – eventually of ownership yes, but starting with the socialisation of the media’s content, the transformation of so-called “objective,” professional journalism into a socially-engaged journalism that advocates for the poor majority, for coverage of real issues instead of political spats and bling. At the moment, we can name specialist labour and poverty reporters on one hand; we, the readers and audience, need to pressure editors to change that.
Strangely, an intriguing socialisation initiative came from within the bourgeois press when Daily Dispatch in East London reversed the way newspapers usually news-gather by running a series of public Community Dialogues in which the news agenda was set by the communities instead of by the journalists. This process was not without its flaws; Rod Amner has argued in his study of the process that such socially-conscious journalism still had to battle against “the political economy of the commercial press... driven by deadlines, production quotas and profitability” – and that the weakness of civil society generally undermined such “public journalism”.
But there is a sea-change under way: for one thing, audiences have become pretty sophisticated at interrogating how the news is manufactured; and for another, social media has created new, constantly-shifting social polities that have wielded power within the mainstream media in ways that have at times been breathtaking (think Wikileaks). It’s time to wrest the mass media back from mahogany-row vested interests, time to entrench a progressive popular agenda as the core of what makes them financially viable.
The inaugural editorial of June-July 2009 in Ponelopele News, a rural Twana-and-English newspaper for which I am proud to have done the (successful) feasibility study in Ganyesa, Bophirima, North West, a region with 800,000 Tswana-speakers who had no Tswana newspapers or magazines, only one Tswana radio station (Motsweding) which was almost entirely dedicated to music and not news, and almost zero TV coverage.