Joel Netshitenzhe - Opening address: 'Meet the Media'

16 March 1997

16 March 1997

Social transformation and media coverage

Engagement between the estates

In the past few years the media and government have exchanged accusations on specific issues or on general questions of social change. In this engagement, the Fourth Estate has not been lacking in bravery behind the armour of collective self-defence. In many instances, this has derived from the perception that there is a threat to the collective prize for which many fought and died - media freedom itself. Despite the constitution, despite the fact that this freedom is part of the totality of what constitutes South Africa’s liberation, there is scepticism: that even the best of democrats are automatically turned into autocrats by the fact of being in public office.

Another interpretation of these skirmishes, which most probably will be found among those who do not belong to either government or the media, is that the two are shadow boxing; in the same vein as the conversation between Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Lewis Caroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass: "We must have a bit of a fight, but I don’t much care about going on long", said Tweedledum; "What is the time now?" Tweedledee looked at his watch and said, "Half-past four". "Let’s fight till six, and then have some dinner", said Tweedledum.

Others have tried to examine the deeper roots of this phenomenon. Such was the Communications Task Group set up to examine the weaknesses of government communications some two years ago. Drawing from Paulo Frere, Comtask asserts: "A society beginning to move from one epoch to another requires the development of an especially flexible and critical spirit. Lacking such a spirit, men cannot perceive the marked contradictions that occur in society as emerging values in search of affirmation and fulfilment clash with earlier values seeking self-preservation".

Some assumptions

Personally I subscribe to the latter interpretation. One proceeds here from the premise that South Africa is going through a process of profound social transformation. In such transformation, many ideas, empirical perceptions and attitudes ingrained in people’s thinking do come under the spotlight. Mind-sets are challenged and paradigms are put to the test. Thus these skirmishes are not accidental; nor are they entirely unwelcome.

Yet it is critical all the time to keep perspective; otherwise the essence is lost in the cacophony of shrill accusations and counter-accusations. In this respect, some assumptions are useful, so as not to speak past one another.

The first of these, is that while journalism is a distinct profession, the actors in it are not homogeneous. Journalists are first and foremost social beings. As such, there is the danger that addressing questions facing specific social beings can be elevated to the level of the universal, and become a smoke-screen behind which unscrupulous elements can hide.

Secondly, precisely because the media, in terms of print and electronic establishments, are not the only means of social communications, they do face the danger of being thoroughly irrelevant: read, listened to and watched; but not believed by the majority. Some research (MMP Survey) indicates that 80% of government information reaches the public not via the media. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges for communicators in all spheres is how to ensure that the media become a reliable, dependable and fulsome source of information and analysis on important social developments.

Lastly, and to paraphrase one media theorist (Stuart Hall), the media cannot claim that their role is merely to reflect interests; rather they help to shape those interests. In other words, print and electronic journalists are not passive transmitters - a clean slate - on whom events imprint themselves. The media are not merely reflective of what readers, viewers and listeners want. They do have values and choices which help to shape social preferences. Despite the media’s limited direct reach, they occupy an important position to facilitate or to serve as a break on social transformation.

Communications revolution

In order fully to appreciate the challenges of media coverage it is also critical to understand the environment in which the media have to operate. Indeed, South African media face a rare opportunity - the most exciting period in our history - where we are called upon to record, to interpret and even to influence the evolution of a society whose pursuits are unequalled anywhere in the world: to create a harmonious and prosperous society out of the disparate social, racial, gender, religious and other divisions of the past.

To realise this, the constitution and Bill of Rights provide communicators with the perfect setting. It guarantees the freedom of speech: the right of citizens to information and comment; and themselves to communicate information and views about their activities and other social developments. There is a recognition, articulated in the RDP document that for people to be involved in changing their lives for the better, they should be informed, educated and entertained.

Further, the acceptance of the Comtask Report and recommendations by the cabinet should indeed release the energies of government communicators and journalists alike, to improve discourse among South Africans. This is made the more exciting by the technological changes that have also reached our shores. The high-speed fibre-optic network that is being laid out, complemented by satellite; consolidation of the government intranet; as well as public-private partnerships in an industry growing at the rate of about 15% per annum make it possible for us to leapfrog many stages onto the global communications highway.

One can therefore say that, all these developments provide the constitutional, legislative, executive and technological basis for a South African Communications Revolution. Thus South Africans can speak to one another not past each other; thus they can become active participants in the process of change not passive recipients of delivery or armchair critics. The fact that foreigners often express surprise at the reality in South Africa as against the stories they are fed; the criticism by one Indian diplomat that South Africans report about their country as if they were in a colonial metropolis willing the country to fail; the many weaknesses identified by Comtask: all these and more demonstrate that, as communicators - in government and in the media - we are yet to meet our obligations to the public.

Intellectual horizons and resources

I would therefore submit that among the most important challenges in addressing the focus of South African media coverage is the recognition that we are in the midst of a titanic battle between old and new ideas in the context of a society in rebirth. Thus the most important requirement in developing journalists is first and foremost to broaden the intellectual horizons in the profession to appreciate this dynamic. Indeed, one of the greatest crimes of apartheid was the attempt to impoverish the intellect; to stifle our vision such that we readily see the black and white, and not the grey, in our complex social life. So fond are we of occupying trenches of mutual ideological labelling, that, in economics for instance, we have to be reminded by a George Soros that there is quite a great deal that is wrong with global capitalism.

It is therefore critical that, in addressing the very approach to training of journalists, we put the requisite premium on arming trainees with the capacity to interpret social historical movements in their complexity. After all, in the choice of news and analysis, in the angle and content of a story and in the depth of discourse, the final product cannot be divorced from this social being called a journalist. It is therefore not a matter of accident that among the best writers and producers on any subject are people who master the content of the issue that they are dealing with. Quite a lot needs to be done about enriching practitioners with the intellectual tools to understand our society: its contradictory political interests; its business; its culture; its religion and so on.

Related to this is the question of resources which are available to the journalists themselves. What research back-up do we have in the various media establishments? Don’t we often, as news editors, simply issue instructions about angles to a story, and more often from "gut feeling"? Should media houses not beef up their teams of researchers, and at the same time, comprehensively arm journalists with the methodology to use such resources? Those who interact with news reporters often throw up their hands in exasperation about the so-called "short memories" of the media establishment. Among them, those who have mastered the trade fully, take advantage of this, because they know that this makes their colleagues in the media susceptible to manipulation: with bits of sensational information that on the surface seem to make a good story but have no relation to the bigger picture.

National consensus

This bigger picture should be woven together by a combination of many elements that have the potential of propelling our society forward or even of drawing it back. As many have pointed out before, a nation without a national consensus is like a house destined to collapse on the shifting sands of illusion.

As to what should constitute such national consensus, which should help shape media reporting and analysis, is a question that belongs elsewhere. But one found quite fascinating the speech a few days ago by Judge Richard Goldstone (extracts published in Sunday Times, 15/03/98, p25) where indirectly he identifies elements of such a consensus. Among these, he cites:

firstly, the constitution, a vibrant form of democracy, openness; and therefore that we should not let difficulties prevent us "…from experiencing the joy of having been freed from the chains of apartheid and as members of one nation, being able to embrace each other openly";

secondly, the urgent need to deal with the disparities that we have inherited; and to recognise that "the reality that the ‘haves’ are white and the ‘have-nots’ are black carries with it a time bomb";

thirdly, the need for all of us to take active part in the process of change, and more particularly, that those who benefited from the apartheid system cannot ignore our past and should be "… willing to make a meaningful contribution to restoring [the] dignity…" of the majority of the citizens;

fourthly, that "appropriate corrective action is not only morally and legally justified, but is in the interest of all South Africans".

One can add to this the need for sustainable economic growth and our sovereignty as a nation-state, and the elements of a national consensus start to form. There will always be debate about such a consensus and some, including journalists, may not want to be part of it. That is well and good. But we also need to be aware of a tension of a different kind which plays itself out in the party political terrain. That is that attaining this consensus in actual practice does, in the immediate sense, seem to benefit only the ruling party and its constituents. Thus, those who do not appreciate the benefit of this to the nation as a whole, and even to their own parties, become not only suspicious of the search for a national consensus; but they also see it as their mission to prevent its realisation.

Some specific challenges

In its report, Comtask identifies in detail weaknesses in both government communications and the media. The Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, in its submission makes the telling observation that these "… weaknesses in both interact upon each other with unfortunate consequences". The report refers to issues of which we are all aware and are striving to attend to, including, "juniorisation", under-staffing and under-resourcing in the news rooms; separation between political correspondents and beat reporters. And one can add the unfortunate tradition that, for experienced and good journalists, promotion often means, being kicked upstairs from actual writing and production.

One is encouraged by the fact that both the media and government have accepted the essence of the Comtask report and with regard to SANEF in particular, many steps are being taken to introduce corrective measures. One area which will require a formal partnership among SANEF and the media houses, training institutes and the government is training of government communicators and journalists. We will need soon to harmonise approaches, share resources and improve mutual understanding. SANEF’s Corrective Action Committee has made interesting proposals regarding gender, racial, religious and other balances; and one is confident that the media executives support these initiatives.

Needless to say, an institution such as the media which deals with ideas can only be enriched by diversity: including diversity of ownership which will have to be addressed creatively, as a matter of policy, by the Government Communications and Information System. While much progress is being made in the electronic media, the situation in the print media, from the mass circulation newspapers to the knock-and-drops, leaves much to be desired. So does the status quo with regard to distribution companies and printing resources. One hopes that we have long passed the stage of debate about the need to correct this. What is required is collectively to work out mechanisms to normalise the situation.

I would also want to argue, that changing the focus of South Africa’s media coverage will also require addressing our mind-sets about the calling of journalism. One good instance reflecting this is the nuance in documentation; and I should admit that this may not be a very accurate reflection of the situation. Examining the codes and mission statements of SANEF and the American Society of Newspaper Editors one found a lot that is common, including being a watchdog of those who wield public power, defending and extending the frontiers of media freedoms, objective reporting and so on. But one also found an abiding attitude of public service in ASNE statements, such as reference to diversity in news coverage, complete news reports, and that those who cover issues driven by "selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to the public trust". Is journalism a public service in this broad sense? Is there an authority - "public trust" - to which it should defer and account? Or is the media industry merely a commercial undertaking which just happens to inform, educate and entertain


These and others are some of the questions that we need to keep in mind as we grapple with how the media change their focus as they change themselves in a changing society.

Lest we forget, the bulk of the Comtask report and recommendations deals with the many and varied weaknesses in government communications. We have not gone into these because they are not the direct focus of this Conference. But what should be emphasised is that, in content and simplicity of message, in style of presentation, in the availability or otherwise of government communicators, in their training and status, and in many other such prerogatives resides a great part of the answer to the question of how South Africa’s media becomes part of the leading corps in the efforts to change South Africa for the better.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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