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.