Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
6 December 2010

On the The New Age

During my student days I worked at Die Matie, the Stellenbosch University student newspaper. We had lots of fun finding new ways of upsetting the powers that be (believing we were revolutionaries when we were really only left-of-centre students having fun with questioning authority). From publishing an article about students having sex in the Ox Wagon stationed in Die Neelsie (the student canteen), to publishing interviews with Trevor Manuel (shortly after his release from a longs pell in detention) and Archbishop Tutu, we managed to get the authorities of this apartheid university quite worked up.

Once, after writing a column in which I compared PW Botha (who was the Chancellor of the University) to a clown and in which I included a fake phone conversation between PW Botha and the head of the SABC, which ended with PW Botha slamming down the phone and his wife saying: “Pappie, bedaar tog. Jy weet wat die dokter oor jou hart gese het” (“Daddy, calm, down. You know what the doctor said about your heart”) I was called in by the Vice Chancellor who threatened to expel me from the University.

That never happened, of course. In the apartheid years, good Afrikaner boys were not expelled from conservative Afrikaans universities – no matter how much they had angered the State President or had upset the thin-skinned apartheid apparachniks running the university.

The paper was still made up by hand at the offices of Die Burger in Cape Town. On Wednesday evenings as we put Die Matie to bed, the subeditors of Die Burger would come down from their offices on the 5th floor to where both papers were being  finalised to have a final look at the pages of their paper. In those days Die Burger was still the official mouthpiece of the National Party and the editors were anxious about how their pages would be viewed by President PW Botha and other Nat leaders.

More than once I heard them remark about how happy PW Botha would be with their particular page — either because it contained many stories from PW Botha’s home town of George or because it contained stories which put the PFP or the ANC in a bad light.

If one read both Die Burger and the then Weekly Mail one would have thought that they were reporting on two completely different countries. The former was filled with stories about the Total Onslaught, that “communist and terrorist”, Nelson Mandela, and endless reports of cabinet ministers opening agricultural shows and railing against the liberal media and the evil opposition in Parliament, led by an Afrikaner traitor, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. The latter reported on UDF politics and on police atrocities — although such reports were scarred by black strips before it was made illegal for a newspaper to cover certain sentences in their reports with black strips when these sentences contravened the totalitarian state of emergency media regulations.

We have come a long way since those years. Freedom of expression — including freedom of the media — is now entrenched in our Constitution and the mainstream media is now far more vibrant and critical of business leaders and politicians than it was then. Because of the changing political and legal landscape, newspapers are far more capable and willing to report on government corruption. The defamation laws have been relaxed to make it more difficult for politicians successfully to sue a newspaper (which is why President Jacob Zuma’s various defamation actions are never ever going to reach a court of law).

Anyone with access to the Internet can now obtain information from a wide variety of sources, including foreign newspaper websites, sites like Wikileaks and from many local and international Blogs. If the National Party had still been in power today it would not have been nearly as successful as it was then in controlling the flow of news. In a globalised and connected world, those with access to the Internet who wish to know more about the world around them, will find a way.

It is in this context that The New Age newspaper finally launched today. The venture has been widely ridiculed, not only because the financial backers of the paper are tenderpreneurial friends of President Jacob Zuma, but also because the paper has stated that it will broadly support the ANC government. Why anyone would have a problem with The New Age stating upfront that it would be broadly supportive of the ANC government,  is beyond me.

Unlike the SABC, which is supposed to be a public broadcaster serving the needs of all South Africans and, hence, is supposed to be scrupulously fair and non-partisan (something it is decidedly not), The New Age is privately owned. If it wants to take a pro-ANC line, so be it. If there are enough newspaper readers who would want to buy such a paper, it would probably be good for the media landscape in South Africa if The New Age survives and even thrives as it will provide another voice to take part in the national conversation.

In my experience South African print journalists have a tendency to hunt in packs. Because they often hang out together and often have more or less the same ideological commitments or political instincts (which — rightly in my view — seems deeply cynical of the political class), they have a tendency to agree on what the take on a particular story should be and often pursue more or less the same angle to a story, whether they work for The Times, The Citizen, The Star or The Sowetan.

This is not part of some liberal conspiracy — its just the way human beings work. The addition of another voice — one that is slightly more professional and credible than the SABC, which is a news outlet that does not always seem too hard to try to be fair — that might provide a different perspective, will hopefully make all journalists more aware of their own unspoken assumptions and commitments and will help them to sharpen their analysis and reporting. Competition is often a good thing — also when it comes to reporting.

There is no such thing as a neutral news source. Journalists can try and be fair and they can steer clear of obvious party-political propaganda, but in the end what they report on and how they report on it will not be absolutely “objective”. (There is a difference between being fair and being objective. The former is worth striving for, the latter is impossible.)

Every day millions of potentially important things (important at least for some people) happen in the world and it would be impossible for one newspaper to report on it all. This means some things are left out and decisions about what is left out and what is published are based on many factors, including the underlying assumptions of newspaper editors about how the world works and who reads their newspapers.

That is why South Africa’s serious newspapers mostly have a bias towards Gauteng and Cape Town, why they report on what Ministers say and what happens in Parliament relatively well, but seldom tell the stories of Mrs Ledwaba in Sheshego or Mr Biyela in Lusikisiki. What is published in a newspaper and what not, how it is reported and what angle is taken, all depend on the underlying assumptions of those writing, editing and publishing the newspaper. This does not make the newspapers evil or  part of an anti-democratic plot as Blade Nzimande suggested rather laughably last month: like history, the news presented by one news outlet will always be just one of many possible versions about our country and our world.

The New Age will be no different. It will provide one version of what happens in our country. That will not necessarily make it a bad newspaper. As long as it does not turn into a propaganda mouthpiece of the ANC (a bit like Die Burger used to be for the National Party and like the SABC used to be for the National Party and now more often seems to be for the ANC), it will add a valuable voice to the media landscape in South Africa.

If The New Age can fill some of the gaps left by other publications and if it can report on parts of our world which other newspapers do not often cover very well, it would be good for all of us as it will help us to understand our country better and perhaps even help us to understand the ANC better.

Of course, the paper might turn out to be boring and uninspiring, in which case the Gupta’s will waste millions of Rand on a hopeless venture before the paper closes down. And there is a danger that the paper might gain advertising revenue  from the state not on the strength of its readership, but because of its pro-ANC stance. If that happens the paper will be associated with corruption and this will not be good for its reputation. It will also constitute an abuse of power on the part of ANC-aligned state institutions and might well be illegal.

So, I welcome the publication of The New Age. I hope it will not be boring and that it will not become a propaganda sheet without any credibility, but that it will provide a different take on the news and different political analysis from what is currently available in the mainstream media. If it does, I will become a regular reader — even if I will not always agree with the way it reports on everything or with all the political stances it takes or political opinions it carries.

This is one of the wonders of a free media: one has a choice to listen to different voices and then to make up your own mind about what is right and wrong.

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