Media for the masses
The media will always be a contested space. Some insist that there should be no controls over the amorphous beast that is the media; others insist that we cannot have a free-for-all.
In South Africa we presently walk an uneasy middle road between a free press and a powerful public broadcaster, and there are corporate and political oligopolies that want to place self-serving limits on our freedom of expression.
Most South African media are corporate owned, with Avusa, Independent Newspapers, News24 and Primedia the most prominent. Government accusations of media bias are primarily directed at this media bloc, which is not nearly as homogeneous as its critics claim.
Accusations of bias have led the ANC - more particularly, a clique within the party - to initiate both a media tribunal and an ill-considered Access to Information Bill. This has nothing to do with national security. Instead it is a rushed and clumsy attempt to control what are projected as critical, corporate-friendly, conservative perceptions. History is being forgotten, only to be repeated.
Despite South Africa's concentrated corporate ownership, a willingness remains to project diverse views. However, the system is imperfect. There are sectors, particularly among the print media, in which conservative and reactionary views are given inordinate coverage.
The poor majority remain effectively voiceless. The launch of the New Age has provided little new insight. The Daily Maverick remains inaccessible to most and speaks to existing media consumers. How to open up the media?
Difficulties arise when irrational interest groups and vested interests demand preferential treatment. Just as reporting on the cause of Afrikaner rights is anachronistic, calls for nationalisation by people such as Julius Malema, who flaunt their wealth in the face of grinding poverty, claiming to speak for the dispossessed while perpetuating the status quo, cannot seriously or honestly be accommodated.
How to deal with this media disjuncture? Though the ruling party objects to media bias, it is equally guilty of the continued marginalisation of the voices of the truly dispossessed.
Instead of speaking for the poor, the ANC intentionally marginalises disadvantaged groups, misrepresenting them as "ultra leftists" and "single-issue NGOs".
Though the poor and dispossessed majority might not be overt media consumers - they have more pressing things to spend money on - it does not mean that their voices should not be given equal weight. Despite some presence in the new media, and being heard among themselves, where they live, their reality is hidden.
Just as the voices of the powerful, the Rupert Murdochs, the Robert Mugabes and Julius Malemas dominate the media, the true voices of the people are not heard. Neither the SABC nor the mainstream media cover the critical issues that give rise to democratic challenges, misrepresented as "service delivery protests" or "ultra-leftist outbursts". There is self-censorship within both corporate and state media. The cosy situation between media and power remains unchallenged, locally and internationally.
The solutions will never lie in media tribunals or secrecy acts, or implanting ideological watchdogs to oversee the media. These days, whatever happens, the truth will eventually get out. Apartheid was responsible for heinous media laws and regulations, many of which remain in place today. Yet even then the people's voices were heard through courageous journalism and publications like South and The Weekly Mail and through the political grapevine.
Today exposure is an SMS, a click or a tweet away. Social networking is in everyone's hands, given the spread of cellphone technology, as shown by the realities of the Arab Spring. The media will never be the same. Our world is increasingly interconnected. Wikileaks looms large. Keeping critical media under the jackboot of political oversight is no longer possible. The genie is out the bottle. Clumsy tribunals and limitations might impede the dissemination of information but they will eventually fail.
Even with the News of World gone and Murdoch's News Corporation under investigation, Fox TV and other malign forces continue to intentionally polarise popular opinion - look no further than the US debt crisis. The ultra-wealthy Murdochs, Kochs and Berlusconis are so used to shaping the opinions of the proletariat that they will not go down without a scrap.
Our entire media and communication model has begun to change. We must enable it to shift away from a polarised model towards one that is open, inclusive and vibrant. Citizens' control of the media is essential to protect ourselves and our children against an economically and ecologically uncertain future.
- Ashton is a writer and researcher. This article first appeared on www.sacsis.org.za