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Publication Details

Reference
Mbali, Mandisa  (2002) Anton Harber's Lecture on 'Journalism in the Age of the Market': A review by Mandisa Mbali. Centre for Civil Society Wolpe Lecture: -.

Summary
Professor Anton Harber

The 4th Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture
Journalism in the Age of the Market


We live in an era in which a handful of mass-media multinational corporations control much of the global media. Twenty four hour news has meant that facts are checked less before stories are released. Scandal and the cult of celebrity often supersede serious political news. All of this affects the political culture of debate in the public sphere, the strength of democracy and the strength of civil society. In the light of all this, the role of the media in the ‘age of the market’ is a highly relevant issue with regard to the state of South African society and democracy.

Mandisa Mbali

Anton Harber played a courageous role in exposing apartheid era abuses as editor at the Weekly Mail and recently became professor of journalism at Wits. In the 4th Wolpe Memorial lecture he set out to analyse the effect of the global trend of increasing market influence on the South African media.

He refused to see the impact of the market in polarised terms as either inimical to or the catalyst for good journalism. Instead, he presented a nuanced vision where “…the marketplace is at different times the worst enemy and the best friend of journalism”.

Drawing on American literature on the impact of the market on journalism, Harber presented the market as the worst enemy of journalism when it trivialises the profession and when the cultures of entertainment, infotainment, argument, analysis, tabloid and mainstream press mingle together and merge.

Citing Kovach and Rosenstiel on CNN style live 24/7 journalism Harber raised the five main effects they have shown this to have on journalism. In 24/7 journalism allegations are often not checked before being aired and are rather rushed out then vamped and re-vamped until a response or refutation is made. Sources increasingly dictate the terms under which they interact with the media. Editorial standards drop as information moves too fast for news organisations to vet a story before their competitors run it. To fill space cheaply commentary, speculation, opinion, argument and punditry are overwhelming reporting. In 24/7 live journalism there is a blockbuster mentality where big formulaic stories such as the Monica Lewinsky Affair and the OJ Simpson trial are used to gain mass-audiences.

On the other hand, for Harber, the marketplace was the best friend of journalism when the New York Times was able to marshal its considerable resources to the task of running a careful and detailed obituary for every single victim of the 9/11 attacks.

The double-edged sword of the market in South Africa has also been evinced in the Broadcasting Amendment Bill recently debated in parliament. According to Harber, this Bill, in its current form, will remove the guarantee of the freedom of expression from the SABC’s statutory charter. It will also force the SABC to have ministerial approval for draft policies on editorial matters. Under the bill the government will also authorise two new public service channels thereby circumventing the position and authority of ICASA, the independent regulator.

For Harber, the Bill, in undermining the authority of the independent regulator, will undermine the democratic broadcasting system currently in place.

How does all this relate to the market? Harber showed that the Minister of Communications, in justifying the Bill, argued that it was necessary to make the SABC fulfil its public service mandate; this comes somewhat ironically from a government that has increasingly forced the public broadcaster to rely on the market for its revenues, leading to a lessening of local content and TV channels dominated by soap operas and reality TV.

If the market is sometimes the problem, then the state must sometimes be part of the solution. However, as Harber highlighted there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the current government, which is between its historical social responsibilities to the values of equality and justice and fiscal restraints imposed since then.

Whilst Harber made it clear his is not opposed to the government’s fiscal policy, and does not desire profligacy on the government’s part, he argued for more government spending on public broadcasting. He pointed out that spending on presidential jets and new weapons has taken priority over spending on better programming such as decent South African dramas and programming in indigenous languages.

The market has not only ‘dumbed down’ public broadcasting though. It has also led to dramatic cutbacks in newsrooms, with the falling rand making it harder for foreign newspaper owners to take the kinds of profits they expect. Harber pointed out that one serious quality newspaper does not have a fulltime editor; another only has a reporting staff of two. There are fewer experienced journalists in newsrooms. Also, there is the rise of the new phenomenon of the ‘editor-as-marketer’, with editors increasingly not being judged primarily in terms of the quality of the journalism in their newspapers, but more in terms of the sales they achieve and the advertising they attract.

Harber also pointed to the long history of market forces and political interference reeking havoc on South Africa’s independent media. Citing the folding of independent black newspapers in the early 1900s, the left wing press in the 1950s and 1960s and the Rand Daily Mails’ demise in the 1980s, Harber showed what a deadly combination political interference and hostile market forces can be to independent, quality journalism.

He was seemingly in favour of empowerment, holding that it may have prevented concentration of media ownership in too few companies as has happened in the US.

On the other hand, transformation has increasingly become the cloak for political interference by the government in the media. Whilst in the early post-apartheid era it was fundamentally about changing the racial composition of owners, managers and journalists it has shifted in meaning, in terms of how the government understands the term. Five years into democratic rule in 1999 the ANC government has come to view the media as political hostile towards it and as opposed to ‘nation-building’. By boosting the community and public sectors of the media the government hopes to counteract this. However, Harber argued that the community sector may end up being just as critical as the commercial sector. Most importantly though, he warned that the changing goalposts of in the transformation debate may give government an endless justification from undue interference in the media.

Fundamentally, for Harber, government funding does not produce good journalism, so there clearly is a need for privately owned journalism. It is the cutbacks being induced in the private sector by market forces that are threatening good journalism.

In terms of censorship, the danger lies not in outright repression of opinions by the state but more in a culture of conformism and caution, which is inimical to good journalism. In Harber’s opinion, good journalism is ultimately well-written, thoroughly researched and insightful, not merely whether the piece is pro- or anti-government.

Harber’s talk clearly stimulated much interest in the audience as question time was vigorous and the Centre was inundated with requests for copies of his talk for days after the event.

In question time, Harber once again dealt with the issue of self-censorship. He argued that criticism is not encouraged and that much of the issue hinges on whether editors are prepared to protect the journalists working under them.

A question arose about the use of rights-based discourse by liberals in South Africa to justify their opposition to the situation in Zimbabwe. In response, Harber argued that the language of rights should not merely be left to white liberals and stated his own opposition to the situation in Zimbabwe.

In response to a question about whether journalists merely pursue their own political agendas in opposing the government, Harber posited that journalists need personal political agendas to write well. He also positioned the media as a counterpoise to government power, and as one of the checks and balances of government power necessary to democracy.

Lasting impressions from the lecture are that the rise of market ideology clearly poses a threat to the media in terms of cutbacks in newsrooms, and the 24/7 live approach to media.

However, I found that in setting up the media as either dominated by state or by market, Harber ignored other possibilities. He did not mention the actual and potential role of civil society in fostering good, independent journalism. Also I found him too uncritical about the notion of ‘fiscal discipline’ which some would find inherently in opposition to increasing social and cultural spending.

I found that he underestimated the role of the internet in facilitating independent, alternative media. A glaring omission, for instance, was to mention the indymedia website (www.southafrica.indymedia.org) which has provided excellent coverage of protests against the government’s implementation of market ideology by new social movements. He generally dismissed the internet as lacking enough ‘gatekeeping’ editorial control, but such control may exclude certain voices from being heard. Certainly there is a lot of nonsense written on the internet, but there is also the space for oppositional voices can be heard.

On the whole though his talk was informative, stimulating and enjoying. It spoke to real things I have seen as an avid newspaper reader and follower of the news. In the age of reality TV, infotainment, cutbacks in newsrooms, and increasing political interference by the state in our media, it is refreshing to hear legitimate concerns eloquently expressed about the need to maintain media independence.

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