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The failure of newspaper owners to drive transformation in the industry more “firmly, clearly and publicly” is a big mistake that invites government intervention.
This was the view of Professor Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University, as the issue of transformation in the print media reared its head once more this week.
Harber warned that if newspaper bosses wanted to reject a proposed empowerment charter aimed at transforming the industry, then they had better come up with a convincing alternative.
“Media owners need to do more to display the progress they have made and a clear set of goals to address outstanding transformation issues.”
Harber’s comments came in the wake of a decision this week by Parliament’s communications committee to instruct the Government Communication and Information System and its Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) to draw up a print media charter.
The decision was announced at the end of a day-long media indaba in Sandton, with committee chairman Eric Kholwane saying the two government entities should liaise with Print Media SA (PMSA) – the association which represents newspaper owners – in drafting the charter.
At the meeting, PMSA tried to convince the committee that its members had committed themselves to setting up their own print media transformation council.
The grouping argued that there was no need for the proposed empowerment charter.
The indaba included input from a range of industry players.
It was held in the context of only one of the big four newspaper groups – Avusa – having achieved meaningful change in ownership.
Avusa has 50 percent black ownership, while News24 has 15 percent and Caxton and Independent have none. It also took place amid media speculation on the takeover of the Avusa media stable by ANC heavyweight Tokyo Sexwale’s Mvelaphanda Group, sparking fears in some circles of a monopoly and of the political repercussions of such a move.
In the same week, the UK newspaper industry proposed a radical reform of the regulation of the press, including fines of up to £1 million for titles found to have breached ethical standards.
The media indaba also came a week before the ANC meets for its national policy conference, where a proposal for Parliament to examine the feasibility of a media appeals tribunal will be discussed.
While PMSA insisted that a charter in the sector would be unworkable, Kholwane highlighted the role of the government in driving the transformation of the sector, saying the charter would address deadlines and targets to meet transformation objectives “in the entire value chain”, which would cover newsrooms, publishing, news sources, printing, distribution and advertising.
PMSA responded by vowing that it would resist government attempts to ram through the charter, with PMSA chairman Hoosain Karjieker stressing that the industry should self-regulate by means of a council. “We believe transformation must take place… but we want to operate in a self-regulated environment where our independence is guaranteed,” Karjieker said.
Harber, who attended the indaba, said PMSA’s idea of a transformation council “sounded like something thought up at the last minute”.
“There was no meat on the bone, and little substance to the proposal to make it convincing. They need to do better than this,” Harber said.
“The industry needs to show there is a better and convincing alternative.”
Harber said he found the indaba “disappointing on a number of fronts”.
“The ANC majority on the committee appeared to have a pre-prepared response read out by the chair at the end that indicated they had arrived with a predetermined conclusion.
“But the PMSA let itself down. They popped up with the idea of a transformation council without giving much detail, so it looked like something they had thought up in a rush over the weekend in desperation. By failing to argue its case strongly, the PMSA is opening the door to those who would like to see more government interference in the newspaper industry, with all the risks this entails for editorial independence.”
Harber said it was vital for editors and journalists to stop leaving transformation to their “complacent” owners and managers, and drive the process themselves.
Professor Jane Duncan of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, agreed with Harber that media owners should have been “much more proactive” on the transformation question.
“They should have read the terrain and exercised leadership on the transformation question a lot sooner, as the ANC is now very strategically using lack of transformation as a beating stick to delegitimise the industry. They cannot have it both ways: fail to transform and then fail to accept responsibility for developing a measurable transformation road map.”
Duncan disagreed with Harber that the industry should self-regulate. “The industry has up, to this point, been left to transform themselves and they have not made a very good job of it. They could have made much better progress on transformation during the economic boom times of the early 2000s and they didn’t.
“Now they are being placed under pressure to transform during a recession, which is proving to be difficult. By dragging their feet on the transformation question, the industry’s leadership have failed the industry. Now they want to be trusted to speed up transformation on their own.”