Friday, 16 November 2007

Is a circulation figure just a number?

I am no religious adherent to political economy approaches of media, contrary to what my previous post about Johncom's bid to buy the Sunday Times might have suggested. I do think political economy approaches in their crude incarnations are often rigid and unhelpful if account is not taken of journalistic agency. Yet economic considerations, especially in highly unequal societies like South Africa, have to enter the equation constantly if one is to arrive at a contextually informed analysis. But these economic conditions also have to be viewed in terms of the social and cultural context. When commercial interests combine with religious fundamentalism, it can become really ugly: two weeks ago, the South African Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport appointed the controversial columnist Deon Maas (pictured) in the hope that he would stir up things a little (as he has already done at Rapport’s sister newspaper in the Media 24 group, Die Burger). But Rapport didn’t expect Maas to stir up things quite as much as he did when he wrote a column with the title ‘666 is just a number’ and arguing that in a free and democratic society, well, logically, Satanism also should be able to enjoy religious freedom and tolerance. The paper's readers - the majority of whom will never stand accused of being free-thinking liberals - did not feel the love. They embarked on an SMS campaign threatening a consumer boycott (but reportedly also threatening to resort to more, uhm, old-fashioned methods like burning delivery trucks) if Maas was not fired. Which, merely two weeks after he appointed him, the editor Tim du Plessis promptly did. Said Du Plessis of his reason to close down debate (rather than, for instance, using the pages of his paper as a space for what Henry Miller called a ‘nation in conversation with itself’): ‘The decision changed from one about freedom of speech to one of commercial interests’. Did anyone say ‘economic determinism’?
Anton Harber provided another interesting perspective on his blog - pointing out how the threats from Rapport's readers is an example of how new media technologies can also empower reactionaries. Looked at from that perspective, this was not a case of merely economic interests (although those were the bottom line by Du Plessis' own admission) but also an example of the new interactivity between journalists, editors and readers made possible by new technologies. It is a valid point that underscores the importance of not viewing new technologies like emails and SMS's only as a progressive force for journalism.
Whatever way you look at it, it was a bad turn of events.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

The Political Economy of South African Media

There are some that criticize political economy approaches to understanding media as top-down, conspiracy theories. But when today it came to light that a consortium associated with the Mbeki political camp is involved with a bid to take over Johnnic Communications, owner of, amongst others, the South African Sunday Times, one cannot but observe that politics and economy are inextricably linked. The Sunday Times, under the editorship of Mondli Makhanya (pictured), has been a thorn in the side of the Mbeki government over the past few years. The latest example of the tension developing between the newspaper and the government was the controversial (and to my mind ethically rather dodgy, to say the least) publication of the medical records of the current Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. One is therefore tempted to see in this bid an attempt to co-opt what has become one of the (notoriously sensitive) Mbeki government's fiercest critics. One can expect the media to display outrage about this move to incorporate dissent (the first, predictable, comparison with apartheid has already been made). But isn't this market-led 'independence' and 'freedom' part of the deal that the South African media has been clamouring for persistently over the last number of years? In a democracy where freedom of speech is Constitutionally guaranteed, you cannot close down newspapers willy-nilly. But the market can silence and marginalise voices. If a diversity of perspectives, a broad-based public sphere and wide participation from the citizenry is so important (such as it should be), why have most of the significant attempts to broaden the mediated public sphere in the post-apartheid era come from the government itself? One thinks here of the Media Diversity and Development Agency, for instance, which, when established, was met with accusations of 'government interference' by the mainstream commercial media in the country. It will be interesting to see where the debate about the attempt to buy Johncom will be going. But a certain proverb about making beds and sleeping in them comes to mind.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Media images of Aids in South Africa

Why, when the HIV/Aids pandemic in South Africa is among the worst in the world, does the South African media pay such little attention to it? According to a study by Media Tenor from 2004-2005, the South African media devoted less than one percent of its coverage to the pandemic. In an article published in the latest African Studies Quarterly (available free online), Sean Jacobs and Krista Johnson put it down to a range of reasons relating to the way the South African media is structured political-economically as well as the journalistic conventions and routines it operates within. The result of the confluence of these structural and journalistic factors was a trivialisation of HIV/Aids and a sensational approach to the conflicts between government and social movements.
The media's poor record in this regard, the authors argue, is part of the democratic deficit in the country. For a media industry that is very vocal about its 'independence' and 'freedom', their efforts in response to the tragic proportions that HIV/Aids have taken in the country have just not been good enough.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Voices of Africa

One of the latest buzzwords in media and journalism circles is 'citizen journalism', describing the increasingly blurred lines between consumers and producers of media - leading to another buzzword, 'prosumers'. This increased interactivity is said to be changing the definition of journalism as we know it. This is certainly true of media-saturated societies like the US and Europe (the shooting at Virginia Tech in the US was seen as a typical example of 'CitJ'). But much of this debate, as with so many other debates in journalism and media studies, has been taking place in splendid oblivion to circumstances in Africa (and other parts of the global South), where access to new media technologies, especially the internet, are not as prevalent. However, the growth of cellphone use in Africa has been 'explosive' (in fact, a summit in Rwanda today and tomorrow will seek ways to replicate this boom for the internet). A Dutch foundation called Africa Interactive Media Foundation has embarked on a project to harness this cellphone boom to stimulate citizen journalism on the continent. Called 'Voices of Africa', the project aims to promote citizen journalism in Africa. In partnership with a Dutch citizen journalism website called, the project provides high-tech mobile phones to African journalists, who then upload stories to the Skoeps server. It is a small beginning, and one should remain realistic about the limitations of new media technologies in Africa, but if these journalists are given free rein, the project can go some way in providing African journalists with the tools to tell their own stories to a larger audience - a welcome departure from parachute journalism.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Sympathy journalism - or something more?

Is The Guardian's new project in the Ugandan village of Katine another case of stereotyping Africans as powerless victims dependent upon the generosity of Northern benefactors? Some of the newspaper's readers have already lashed out against the Guardian’s description of Katine as caught in the ‘Middle Ages’, and for its partnership with a bank that might have ulterior motives. But the Guardian is also partnering with the respected NGO Panos, amongst others, and has appointed an independent assessor to keep a watchful eye over the project. One could – and should – keep asking critical questions of projects like these, to ensure the beneficiaries are treated as partners instead of mere recipients of goodwill, that they have the opportunity to ‘speak back’ and that the objectives of the project are developed through broad-based consultation. Coverage should also focus on the structural causes of poverty, and the global North’s complicity in these causes (like the weapons trade, or unfair trade conditions, or what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’) instead of only the micro-picture. But whatever criticisms one might have of the imperfections of the Guardian’s campaign, it does seem to set itself apart from what one could call the simplistic ‘sympathy journalism’ so often find in media in the global North. It is clear that real effort has gone into this project, perhaps most strikingly evident from the continuous, three-year-long coverage that the village of Katine will enjoy. This is rather different from the event-based journalism that puts Africa on the news agenda only when there is a war, famine or an election.

Let's keep an eye on it.
(Picture from The Guardian's Katine webpage)

'I think we're pretty damn lazy'

British TV coverage of the 'wider world' has deteriorated over the last two years, a report
by International Broadcasting Trust has revealed this week. The UK newspaper The Guardian reported on the report in its excellent weekly media supplement. It quoted Channel 4's head of documentaries, Angus McQueen: 'I think we're pretty damn lazy'.
(The photo is from the IBT website)

New online journal launched

A new online journal for media in Africa has just been launched: Global Media Journal: Africa Edition is one of 13 editions throughout the world and is edited by Gabriel Botma. (Full disclosure - I'm on the advisory board).
The journal welcomes contributions from academics, media professionals and graduate students on themes including global media concentration, globalization of media, global consumer culture, the role of media in democratic governance and global justice, propaganda, media reception and representation, commercialization, new media technologies, media regulations, regional media, alternative media, and other timely issues in the field of communication.