by Stef Terblanche

Media transformation

Battle for heart of media to intensify

South African print media
South African print media.JPG

An African National Congress resolution on ‘transformation and regulation’ of the media, made at its Mangaung national conference, has triggered a new round in the fight for the heart of the media in South Africa. Some claim it is all just hot air and that nothing will come of the ANC’s proposed parliamentary investigation of the media; for others, it signals an intense battle ahead. 

The ‘battle of ideas’, as the ANC calls it, has been long in the making. It started at the 2007 ANC national conference in Polokwane, where the possibility of a ‘media appeals tribunal’ (MAT) was raised. The MAT was to "strengthen, complement and support" existing media self-regulatory institutions and measures, triggered fierce debate. The media and some analysts labelled it an attempt to curb press freedom. 

At the time, government was increasingly being embarrassed by media exposés of corruption. Jacob Zuma, then on his way to becoming president, was also the subject of much unsavoury media coverage surrounding, among others, corruption charges, which were later dropped.

The battle soon included ANC charges of monopolistic media ownership in still largely white hands.   

Further alarm bells went off with the reintroduction of the highly controversial Protection of State Information Bill in 2010. Critics over a wide range claimed it would stifle the media’s ability to expose corruption or other illegal activities within organs of state. 

Media’s own role

But the media itself is not without blame for the mounting pressure. On two occasions organised media attempted pre-emptive action, only to fail to follow through.  

Responding to demands for a MAT, Print Media SA (PMSA) and the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) created the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) in 2011, aimed at improving self-regulation to avoid a state-controlled MAT. 

The PFC of nine persons from outside the media, chaired by former Chief Justice Pius Langa, delivered a report in 2012. The ANC participated in the PFC, declaring itself satisfied with its recommendations.

The media itself, however, was selective in acceptance of the recommendations and slow in the implementation thereof.

The Press Council, for instance, claimed revamping itself – but to outsiders it was little more than window dressing.

Now the ANC has revived the idea of a MAT. The resolution considerably broadens the scope of possible state interference, calling for:

•     adoption of a media charter to regulate and transform the media and promote black economic empowerment in the sector; 

•    parliament to conduct an inquiry as to the desirability and feasibility of a MAT, including the PFC recommendations, a review of existing media accountability mechanisms, of the balance between individual and media rights, and of privacy, libel and defamation laws;

•     strengthening of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) to support more community and commercial entities; 

•     the Competition Commission to focus on anti-competitive practices within the sector; and 

•     transformation of the advertising industry to ensure its contribution to media diversity is prioritised.

Currently, the ANC’s main focus is on the mainstream print media including printing and distribution operations, to a lesser degree on the advertising industry and on the ‘new media’ (online and mobile platforms). 

To date, the print media and advertising industry have been self-regulated through the Press Council and the Advertising Standards Authority of SA. Online media is, to some extent, regulated by the Online Publishers Association, but the major online news channels are owned by four major print media groups.

The electronic and broadcast media is regulated by a statutory body, the Independent Communications Authority of SA, and regarded by independent researchers as being the most transformed media sector.

The MDDA is a partnership between government and major media companies, aimed at developing and diversifying, among others, community and small commercial media. It has had solid success at this end of the market, with large-scale transformation to black ownership and control.

When the ANC late last year stepped up calls for transformation of the print media, major media publishing houses, organised as the Print and Digital Media of SA, again tried to be proactive. The Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team was created.

But having declared itself against the ANC-mooted media charter, the PDMTTT seems to be on a collision course with government. The media displayed little enthusiasm for its own task team. 

Few hearings have been held; one of its major members, the Caxton Group, recently withdrew from the process in reaction to a Competition Commission investigation into monopolistic practices. No public participation has been called for, with little in-depth reporting on the issues involved or the processes embarked upon.

The ANC believes the big four print media groups – Naspers, Avusa, Caxton and the foreign-owned Independent Group – still dominate the entire value chain in this sector and are the biggest barrier to market entry for other media players, displaying possible anti-competitive behaviour. Hence the call for the Competition Commission to investigate.

The commission is already investigating suspected anti-competitive behaviour by Caxton, Naspers, Times Media Group and Independent Newspapers. 

Problems in this area are clear from the commission’s 2011–12 annual report, citing a case of “predatory pricing” by Media24 (Naspers) in the Free State goldfields. 

The ANC, however, has failed to supply a credible explanation for its quest to control and transform the media. It has not had any, what it would consider significant, influence with the main print media players. 

There is only the recently launched The New Age (TNA) newspaper, controlled by the Gupta family, with close links to President Zuma and other senior ANC members. But despite recent reports of vast public advertising spend being channelled into it, TNA has not yet reached sufficient market penetration to divulge actual circulation and readership figures.

MDDA research, released in 2009, is often selectively quoted by the ANC to claim that media ownership by blacks, or historically disadvantaged individuals (HDIs), amounts to only 14%.

It is, however, an extremely complicated subject open to manipulation, depending on which categories of media are included and how calculations are made. Some figures might have changed since 2009. 

Ownership data differs immensely from one media group to another. For instance, Media24 has 15% HDI shareholding, Caxton 0% and Avusa 25.5%. Independent is wholly foreign-owned and therefore also has 0% HDI shareholding. This situation dramatically changed last week, however, with the sale of Independent Newspapers to local empowerment group, Sekunjalo.

Altogether, the HDI shareholding of the big four groups, until last week, amounted to an average of 10.1%. If Independent Newspapers was excluded, it was 13.4% – but that will now change for the better after last week’s transaction.

On the other hand, if the 469 so-called independent media players – smaller regional and community publications, or single-newspaper publishers – are included, the average HDI shareholding rises to around 44%. This includes close to 70 smaller newspapers that are 100% HDI-owned. 

To complicate matters further, HDI shareholding is not equal to black shareholding. Mail & Guardian has 87.5% black ownership, but 0% HDI ownership because its main shareholder is a naturalised Zimbabwean – not considered an HDI owner.

Clearly the ANC’s primary interest is in the big four print media groups that control the influential major newspapers, and not in the other largely transformed sectors. It is here where the ANC believes, in its own words, that the “war of ideas must be fought like a real war”.

The government already controls a massive state media sector via the SABC and the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS). Through these and friendly smaller newspapers as well as the ANC’s own internal communications and political structures, the party quite adequately gets its message across to the voting public.

But with literacy rising and urbanisation accelerating, a new generation of more sophisticated voters is emerging, driving the ANC’s desire to change the control and news content of the ‘anti-ANC’ mainstream print media.

This is also evident from the ideologically loaded tone of its Mangaung resolution, containing rhetoric such as: “... the battle of ideas is being waged between the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the democratic developmental state and neo-liberal paradigm”.

The press ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, reportedly said recently that he thought it unlikely the ANC’s proposed MAT would materialise, as it would be subjected to a Constitutional Court battle – but the parliamentary inquiry would continue because the ANC has to be seen as carrying out its resolutions.

Much more than the proposed MAT is at stake, however. Judged by the vested interests and indications of hidden agendas of both sides to this divide, and a general election looming in 2014, a major ‘war of ideas’ may well lie ahead.

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