Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Collective Responsibility Project – Editorial Independence vs. Editorial Balance.

By George A. Hill

It was mid-winter in Cape Town; the kind of day where the South Easter blew violently and brought with it sharded raindrops. I had a long walk to the journalism department at what was then called Peninsula Technikon. Not even the horrid weather could keep me away from writing my entry exam to study journalism. Filled with ideals of changing the world and telling the people’s story of a newly-liberated South Africa, I sat down rain-soaked and battered and entered into my vocation as a truth-seeker.

That was almost two decades ago. Today the ideals are still firmly entrenched, but then, along the way, the new South Africa happened. Hindsight most certainly has it benefits. We were a new breed of journalists that were set loose to transform the media landscape. The years that followed saw distinct advances as we began to change the narrative of the media in our country. The transformation process was painful but necessary and we achieved major advances. The face of the former State Broadcaster changed and entered into an era of responsible Public Broadcasting. The early 90’s to the early 2000’s was our woodstock. A period of free thought when our ideals were the fire that fed our convictions. Newsrooms across the media spectrum underwent cultural revolutions as we chipped away at the white enamel that for so many decades set the narrative in our country.

We witnessed the rise of the black editor across the spectrum and we thought that  we were now feasting on the fruits of our struggle.

We can never cast asunder the advances we made and the opportunities it had created for so many that has come after us, but in hindsight all I see today is a tired, has-been ramp model with too much make make-up on. It is after twelve and 20 whiskeys later, it all goes on sale and everything and everyone looks good. But the morning after, the reality sets in.

No one taught us how to navigate the treacherous ocean called Capital. Because of our political upbringing we knew and understood that white capital was evil. Given the legacy of Apartheid, we knew and understood our role as the Fourth Estate. We held on to the transformation agenda and thought that a few black faces in strategic positions meant true transformation. We even thought that launching our own media interests would be sustainable. We had to wake up to realisation of just how little we have transformed almost two decades down the line.

As a nation in the post-1994 era, we often neglect to admit that the foundation of this new South Africa was built on compromise. A compromise that benefitted Capital more than the people. I will be the first to admit that we have made advances. The question is though, to what end? As far as the majority of media institutions are concerned, we just need to do a simple ownership audit to see what the real lay of the land is.

The new South Africa was fast-tracked and many in this country had little choice but to simply assimilate. The same goes for the media industry. Capital does not take kindly to change, particularly when it interferes with the bottom line. Economic modules are in play and no transformation agenda will stand in the way of their revenue stream.

When we look at where editorial independence then comes into play, we need to do an honest assessment. In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chompsky, the authors analyse news media as a business. They use what they call 'the propaganda model' and assert that what drives all mainstream media  - and we can argue even our Public Broadcaster -  is the bottom line. They are merely businesses subject to commercial competition for advertising revenue and profit. There is always a profit-motif; thus, we need to wake up and understand that this is where we find ourselves. We are part of this Free Market World, irrespective of the ever widening gap between rich and poor in our country. Irrespective of the rhetoric of a developmental state.

Capital has no color, has no compassion and is not interested in Editorial Independence. All media houses have agendas depending on its ownership. So what do we do? Do we merely continue accepting this or do we move the debate onto another plain and perhaps start talking about Editorial Balance. Editorial Independence pre-supposes complete control over the news product by appointed editorial staff, with no interference from the owners. This definition and/or aspiration will always see the business owners in conflict with its editorial staff even though there is a set of editorial guidelines and ethics regulating the final news product. The givers of revenue do not take kindly to negative reportage. The Fourth Estate does not take kindly to being told what they can put out there. And the owners do not take kindly to losing revenue. After all they are running a business and the profit share and bottom line is king.

While we are engaged in a battle to prevent government from establishing a Media Appeals Tribunal, we should not lose sight at the real transformation of our mindsets that need to take place in a much contested media environment. As the Fourth Estate, we need to do deep introspection and start engaging media owners on how we bring back an accepted level of Editorial Balance into our newsrooms. We are no longer in a position where we can simply discard the business of our media entities, and in the same vain we cannot wish away that we are neglecting the real-politik in terms of a progressive narrative.

Let us take the reality of our disposition and call back the idealism of that youngster that so much wanted to change the world and simply tell the story of a new nation. Let us take Collective Responsibility for where we find ourselves and move forward to a space where we can openly and honestly debate our challenges to enact real transformation and empowerment.


George was the youngest head of news and content director for Yfm. Other radio stations include MetroFM, lifestyle editor and SAFM, entertainment news and current affairs editor. Hill also has a background in television current affairs programming.

He is a columnist for Blink magazine and is a widely published author and an Afrikaans performance poet. He is also a commentator on both youth and Afrikaans literary issues. He has worked for Zazise Communications, as the Western Cape general manager and also at Uhuru Communications as strategy and media director.

Hill has extensive media contacts in both the print and electronic media, both on the continent and internationally.


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