Tell us about your favourites and win
As the landscape changes in South Africa, many will eventually come to grips with the fact that the real battle is not about being first with the news, writes Makhudu Sefara
Johannesburg - On a daily basis, many struggle with what it means to be – what some call the notion or doctrine of being.
With our minds contaminated by our surrounds, and what we mindlessly consume, the notion of whether or not “pure thought” ever existed is, well, as old as the mountains. Yet, in order to create an ideal society, for which we all yearn, we must get to grips with the creatures we are, and the creatures we raise in our families.
At a corporate level – and especially for the media – the stakes are even higher. The media is responsible, though not wholly, for what many consume.
The process used to arrive at what average members of society view as possibly the truth of their situation is as important as the truth itself, where it can be established.
Theorist John Stuart Mill’s epigram “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, while sometimes misrepresented to mean he was interested only in quantity and not the quality of happiness, is, it appears, most apposite for the role the media plays.
For his contribution to the development of what is referred to as the utilitarian theory, Mill is credited with the argument, later adopted by many governments, that individuals and organisations must be allowed the space to air their views for as long as they do not impugn or harm others. This is the genesis of our hate speech laws, for example.
If societies “silence an opinion, we may silence the truth”. So, in order to preserve the well-being of society, or to preserve the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is important to preserve the individual’s freedom of expression.
Fredrick Siebert, in Four Theories of the Press, wrote: “Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished.”
With rapid changes to our media landscape, the question must be asked: who will survive and who will be vanquished because they are false and unsound? If the media is the marketplace of ideas, it is in dire need of ideas to save itself from a proliferation of news platforms.
In TV, radio and the internet – specifically, social networks – platforms available for news dissemination have increased exponentially in recent years.
This has unleashed a chain reaction. Precipitous plunges in circulation for major newspapers around the globe have unleashed changes and realignments.
The World Association of Newspapers reports that newspapers in Western Europe and North America have seen a decline of about 17 percent from 2007 to 2011, while growth in Asia was pegged at 16 percent.
The sale of the Washington Post to Jeffrey Bezos caught many unawares and, more importantly, left many agog about why the Amazon.com founder had ventured into what appeared to be a besieged industry. Has he the magic key to new revenue streams, many wondered.
Here at home others have ventured, rather prematurely, into broadcasting, unleashing comic bloopers in their wake. ANN7 has become the new standard of how not to launch a TV station, more so a news channel.
When people make fun of ANN7 bloopers – oh, I liked “Louise Hamilton winning the Grand Pricks” – we all run to watch, share a good laugh and revert to our old habits: watching what works for us.
Putting together a list of models to read news isn’t going to endear you to viewers, for it is as insulting to the whole journalism profession as it is to audiences. But make of it what you like, ANN7 is here and it will hopefully improve.
Patrick Conroy, head of eNCA, can’t have an extended laugh at the amateurishness of those behind Gupta TV. That the SABC also launched a 24-hour news channel on DStv complicates the matter further. Despite its teething problems, the SABC appears to be finding its feet.
While TopTV was supposed to offer Multichoice a run for its money, it has not quite, though the 130 000 subscribers it boasts are a good start for its new owners.
Sentech, meanwhile, is planning to launch a platform for community TV stations which, importantly, will also offer news and current affairs programmes. And you can add to this mix the entrance of PowerFM, the dominance of Talk Radio 702, and SAFM, which retains a semblance of credibility in spite of the limitations that come with being at the SABC.
The owners of e.tv, Sabido, recently announced that they will, through an entity called OpenView HD, launch multiple new channels. These will be available on a decoder for which members of the public will be expected to pay a once-off amount for the hardware and installation – but which could open doors to about five or 10 new channels, including, most importantly, eNCA.
While this will worry Multichoice managers (especially in respect of the customers who subscribe only in order to access eNCA, global news and a few movie channels), it should worry newspaper editors too. The media, generally, is in a state of flux. In fact, the multiplying news platforms are a game changer.
As the media landscape changes, it is only natural that many in news organisations will revisit their strategies, introduce tweaks, re-examine their earlier assumptions that informed their offerings and check whether their strategies have yielded results.
In the end, though, it will not come down to who got the scoop or is always first with the news. Though that remains important, the most critical thing is going to be about news credibility.
It will be about where readers go when they want news they can believe. It will be about who appears set on providing comprehensive coverage. It will be about who investigates, researches and writes or delivers the news with precision – regardless of who is involved.
If, for example, DA leader Helen Zille is invited to the new SABC channel and ANN7 only when she is to face a third degree kind of session when the same is not done with ANC politicians, the stations will lose credibility. It will be like pumping money into a bottomless pit.
Similarly, if eNCA deals with ANC politicians as morons who are merely out to enrich themselves and suggests no one in the ANC government is doing any good work, it will be making the case for the continued existence of the SABC and Gupta TV.
For ANN7 and other broadcasters, their greatest credibility test will be about whether the pretty faces who deliver the news spend time reading, well, newspapers, just so the name of Muhamed Mursi looks familiar when it suddenly pops on to the auto-cue. And also so they are able to question, authoritatively, the experts they invite to their studios.
This brings us to one critical element of broadcasting: interviewers often ask “tough questions” but remain unengaged with the expert or guest, thus creating the impression the person who really is knowledgeable is the producer who prepared the questions rather than the loudmouth “personality” we hear.
At the top of my list of respected interviewers are intelligible and gutsy Eusebius McKaiser, and addictive and well-read Redi Direko, who happen to be on radio at the same time and create a headache for me. On TV, well, who does Justice Malala compete with? Is it Gupta TV’s Jimmy Manyi? Well, then.
Therein lies the challenge for the SABC’s 24-hour channel and ANN7. Can those in charge of the SABC and Gupta TV be trusted to be fearless and do no one but viewers a favour by telling the South African story as it ought to be told?
Is it even in their DNA to be fearless? Or will e.tv, in an attempt to prove its fearlessness and independence, become hostile territory for the ANC and some might add, black people too? Ditto newspapers?
Hiring pretty faces isn’t necessarily a bad idea, if the models also happen to know their work. If these various platforms lack credibility, whether by omission or fiat, the media is imperilled.
The South African narrative is complex. It is one of great concerns about governance and accountability. But it is also one of great achievements in spite of these challenges.
The multiplicity of voices, in print, on radio or TV, will merely be ephemeral and will not support democracy if it fails to be fair or realise that the credibility of content is king.
The truth, it appears, is that the commercial imperatives – especially shrinking advertising – make it harder to resource media institutions such that they can deliver improved credible news. Similarly, without such credibility the commercial enterprise that supports news gathering and dissemination will eventually collapse – and thus threaten the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”, to borrow from Mill.
Or, as Siebert put it, “the true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished.”
The media has never been this tested.
* Makhudu Sefara is the editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak