Should the media take sides in elections?

06 January 2019 - 00:00 By Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

Last year was an interesting one for the media fraternity. The court case between the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) and the EFF, following a spat between the party and various journalists, has set the stage for debate about how the media should cover parties ahead of polls.
Whoever advised the EFF to go to war with Sanef is not thinking too cleverly ahead of the polls. Instead of refining their strategy to deal with whoever does not like them in the media, the EFF leaders employ bully-boy tactics reminiscent of their days in the ANC Youth League when they insulted journalists with ease and called for the establishment of a mindless media tribunal. Sorry chaps, you can't have your cake and eat it.
To the EFF, I say: The media is a combination of news reportage and opinion-making. So my colleague Ranjeni Munusamy is not about to shut up, even if she calls in jest for your nemesis, Pravin Gordhan, to be the next president. It's her right to express her views, just as it is your right to reply to her. But to call for her to shut up is plain silly.
I don't like Peter Bruce's views but how does that make him "Ramaphosa's defence force"? Were those who praised you in the same columns ever called the "EFF defence force"?
Rather write opinion pieces and explain to us how you will govern if by some miracle you win an election. Under your government, it looks like journalists will not be allowed to have opinions - they will have to report like robots without ideological orientation.
An election can't be won by fighting against the media.
But let's talk frankly now. Should newspapers not stop with the pretence of neutrality when it comes to the polls?
Think about it: week in and week out the papers express strong views on matters that influence the public. They appraise politicians on health, crime, corruption and the economy. If they can do this freely, why can't they freely opine who should govern? Where should the line be drawn? Why is it OK for the newspapers to call for a useless minister like Bathabile Dlamini to be fired but not be free to suggest who the next president should be?
I think our society needs to grow up in this regard and stop believing that the media must somehow suspend their freedom to opine. Of course there is a misguided South African exceptionalism that kicks in - after all, "we have the best constitution in the world". The reality is that if we look elsewhere in the world, the media is no longer shy to take a stance.
In the US, newspapers have been endorsing presidential candidates for decades. In the UK, newspapers are clear on which side of the body politic they stand, and this has not made them less credible to their readers - if anything, the readers know what to expect from their pages instead of a pretence of neutrality.
Many people whose opinion I sought in preparing this piece were quick to say "but the South African media is already biased" - referring to the way in which the media is seen not to be fair in covering the political players. But media in SA is so diverse, with so many platforms, that any political party not getting its fair share of coverage must examine its own media strategy. There is no excuse.
The media is under so much scrutiny that it has no choice but to cover all the players. In any event, the three big parties mess up so interchangeably that any good political writer would be foolish not to give all of them equally bad press.
So it will be interesting to see how The Citizen will vote - will it go with FF Plus? Will Iqbal Surve allow the Cape Times to go with the DA or will he ram the ANC down readers' throats? Could Daily Maverick surprise us with an EFF vote, despite the axe they have been wielding against the party lately, or will they leave that endorsement to Power FM? What about 702 and eNCA? Could we see a final blue confirmation? Could the Mail & Guardian get off the fence this time?
I see you are not too comfortable with this, but come on now, be a sport. Happy Election Year to you all! - Tabane is the author of Let's Talk Frankly and is an independent political analyst and communications expert

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