Nic Dawes gave a remarkable keynote address at the opening of the M&G Literary Festival on 3 September 2010 on the highly current issue of unfettered free speech vs. a media tribunal + potentially draconian legislation. His carefully presented, logically argued and brilliantly elucidated argument evoked in me pleasurable feelings of intellectual stimulation.
As a post-graduate student of mass communication, the ongoing debate fascinates me. I do not, for a second, support any form of government intervention in the reporting of news and vehemently oppose any legislation that can be (mis)used to enforce hegemony or to simply to cover up facts.
However, it does not bode well for our media fraternity to act virtuous when clearly, something is quite rotten there as well.
I fear that Nic Dawes’ learned homily may be ultimately pointless, perhaps destined to gather dust in the hallowed worlds of academia and the written word. It fails to discuss, at any length, the real issue – which Dawes alludes to briefly, and in passing only.
Here is the real issue, a fundamental discord in our discourse: The lofty popular presumption of media freedom does not, in reality, exist.
There is a kernel of truth in the oft-repeated criticism of the media by ANC-apologists: That commercial considerations and often mistaken perceptions of what readers approve, drive the editorial agenda.
Editors can practice self-censorship in the most brutal manner when they perceive their readership as being threatened.
Ask our really controversial columnists: Jon Qwelani or David Bullard. Both were shunted out of top-line publications after controversial columns. Or even the late great John Matshikiza, who stopped his illustrious contributions to the M&G shortly after the Chinese uproar over one of his columns.
Or quite simply ask the vast majority of our nation – the poor and dispossessed, residents of shacks and those in the lowest rung of employment. They are not viewed as primary media consumers and are, therefore, not accorded equal space in our public discourse.
What about opinion pieces and comment? Only a select few ‘lead’ stories actually have any accompanying comment. The rest are accorded secondary status or merely downgraded to the reporting of news with no comment. Reporting itself can be secondary to the all-important commercial imperative.
The Hayibo saga illustrates this. Here is a satirical web site, an equal-opportunity offender, with as biting comment on the opposition DA as on the ruling ANC, unlike the mainstream press. Featuring razor sharp wit, its satiric articles are, in my opinion, better than some of Zapiro’s [mainstream media] cartoons. Hayibo.com has very impressive visitor traffic statistics, yet it is now on the verge of shutting down, due to a lack of advertising support. Advertisers run when they think a media vehicle may cause offense to their loudest consumer constituency – the middle class, mostly from the previously-advantaged, self-righteous and demanding demographic section. A few years ago, the same could be said of the famous Felicia Mabuza Suttle television show – an otherwise successful show that simply failed to gain advertising support on account of its host, who was roundly hated by the afore-mentioned consumer constituency.
Media professionals, especially our esteemed editors, columnists and thinkers of note, tend to make utopian well-intentioned arguments that deny the actual reality on the ground, as experienced by the nation. This is that reality: public discourse in this country is still driven by a privileged few, who may have the best intentions and be academically qualified, but are nonetheless ‘the few’, and therefore may lack diversity and first-hand experience of bread and butter issues. And, as neither side in this debate have snow-white intentions as Aubrey Matshiqi famously put it, we also need to get past hidden agendas, if any. In my opinion, most media practitioners, being a flawed lot, tend to unquestioningly follow opinion makers’ lead in a sheep-like manner.
Media freedom as it is currently experienced, is therefore, fundamentally imperfect. Nic Dawes, brave soul that he is, alluded to it in his speech. However, barring a Dawes or a Ferial Haffajee, [both of whom I deeply admire, being brave enough to really apply media freedom in publishing those religiously contentious cartoons], how many honest brokers can we count on? We need leaders in the media fraternity who can speak with leadership, clarity and above all, absolute honesty, in the current fracas. Credibility is key.
We are told that certain media practitioners express in private, views that are either contrary to or substantially more moderate than their public profession. If this is true, we should ask why this is so.
What is media freedom? Is it freedom from hegemony? Freedom is not a concept to be grasped intellectually but a right to be experienced at an existential level. Freedom, therefore, cannot be argued into existence but should be fought for by those who have a tangible benefit in securing it.
The question is: are the benefits of a free press clear and tangible to the nation? Or should the real debate be on the topic of media freedom itself and how we interpret it?