The spat between Premier Helen Zille and The New Age newspaper about the partial bankrolling of the paper by parastatals like Telkom and Eskom and the partial bankrolling of the DA by a company associated with the owners of The New Age is great fun to watch. It’s a bit like watching WWE SmackDown on television. You know the contestants are performing their allotted roles, but you cannot avert your eyes from the gaudy performances on the screen. Pity they are not addressing the most pressing problems related to the subversive influence of public and private funds on our political process.
We all know that money can buy an election. The recent US Presidential election cost a staggering 2.5 billion dollars. If Barack Obama had not raised over 1 billion dollars for his re-election campaign, he would never have been re-elected President of the United States.
One of the most important reasons why the ANC will remain electorally dominant for some time to come, is that it can raise hundreds of millions of Rand to pay for its lavish election campaigns. With the help of its Chancellor House front company and large donations by big business (who donate money to the ANC with the expectation that it would receive large tenders or policy favours in return) the ANC has become a money-spinning machine. The DA will also continue to improve its electoral performance as its access to patronage and power in the Western Cape and various cities and towns increasingly attracts big business donors who are eager to gain tenders or policy favours from the DA-led government or to avoid harsh criticism by the DA spin machine.
Yet, both the ANC and the DA refuse to reveal who their funders are. Both parties claim to support openness and transparency. But because it is in their immediate interest to avoid openness and transparency, they are not prepared to practice what they preach. There is no way in which we can know to what extent funders influence the policies and governance practices of these parties. Did the police decide to break up the Marikana strike because of the influence of Lonmin and other mining companies who, for all we know, might have donated large sums of money to the ANC? Did it decide to end its discussions on mine nationalisation because it was going to lose an important source of funding if it alienated the mining houses?
Can the muted response of the DA to the police massacre at Marikana be attributed to their need to keep potential mining companies sweet? Are they pushing for changes to our labour laws to reward big companies who would like to fire people without having to worry about the legal protections currently afforded to workers?
We will probably never know.
But money also influences elections in another important way. Money plays a role in determining the range of news and opinion voters are exposed to. That is why it is problematic that government departments and parastatals seem to keep The New Age afloat, despite the fact that this does not make any business sense. The governing party is trying to use its power and influence as governing party to try and buy good publicity through The New Age. This seems like a bad investment, as no one knows whether anybody is actually reading the newspaper. I tried to read it, but was put off by its novel strategy of publishing only the most boring and uncontroversial copy haphazardly thrown on to the page, seemingly without the assistance of a layout artist.
Public funds are also used to subsidise the SABC, which is by far the most important source of news and opinion for the vast majority of South Africans. And as the SABC is ANC aligned, it seldom reports on (or carries opinions about) things that would threaten the hegemonic political consensus on which the ANC’s political success partly depends.
This is not to say that the private media is truly “independent” and free from the corrupting influence of money. The private media mostly make their profits (if any) by selling advertising to businesses deeply invested in the ideology of the free market. The news reports and opinions in the media might be critical of individual companies, but will seldom threaten the hegemonic interests of big business. Moreover, the private media must target the audience whom advertisers would like to sell their products to. These middle class consumers of mainstream media are often steeped in a “safe consensus”, holding self-serving “common sense” opinions about the desirable economic system and about a range of other policy issues (without always knowing that they do so).
This allows private media outlets wanting to make a profit to provide a narrow spectrum of “diverse opinion” that cleaves narrowly to the middle ground. Reporting and complaining about ANC corruption is safe because many of the high-end consumers of news want to know about this, while many business leaders are instinctively suspicious of the ANC. But how often would the media point out that the logic of the free market condemns millions of South Africans to hunger and poverty? The mainstream media will also seldom report extensively on the lives of people living in rural areas, while often depicting the poor and marginalised as dangerous, irrational and violent, welfare scroungers or as pitiful but powerless victims in need of our patronising, LeadSA-inspired sympathy and our handouts.
With some notable exceptions (City Press at its best, the Daily Maverick on the Marikana massacre), the media serves the ANC-DA consensus uncritically, providing the illusion of carrying robust exchanges of opinions and ideas, while ignoring ideas and opinions (and failing to report stuff that many real people experience every day) when this would threaten the elite consensus about what ought to be important and how South Africa should be governed.
Underlying much of the reporting and opinion published in newspapers and broadcast on television is an assumption that important political contestation only happens within and between political parties. Social movements and grassroots organisations are largely ignored. The political elites almost never engage with the leadership of such movements and the media seldom report on grassroots mobilisation by communities in the far-flung corners of South Africa – until so called “service delivery protests” flare up and violence engulf places like Ficksburg or Sasolburg. For a few days after such an event stories about “mobs on the rampage” would appear, but only in exceptional cases do we read about the circumstances (and the political currents) that motivated communities to rise up against the state.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with Business Day pushing its free market agenda or choosing not to publish long interviews with local protest leaders or striking mineworkers. Neither is there anything inherently wrong with The New Age pushing an anti-DA and anti Helen Zille agenda. The problem is that even if we wanted to, we would seldom be able to access news reports and opinions that do not serve the narrow ideological interests of the elites. There is little diversity of opinion in the media in South Africa. Really, if we are presented with a world in which we only have to choose between two options: the DA’s open opportunity society or the ANC’s semi-authoritarian state capitalism, then we have not really been presented with much of a choice at all.
If, as the Constitutional Court argued in several judgments, freedom of expression is important for a democracy, partly because the robust exchange of ideas and opinions help us to seek out and even find the “truth” (or at least our version of the “truth”), and allow us to become active citizens — free to make meaningful choices about who we are, how we want to live our lives and who to vote for — then the corrosive influence of money that produces a narrow band of facts and opinions in both the public and private media in South Africa do not serve the aims of free expression, nor of deliberative democracy.
Yes, it might serve the interests of the two major political parties (albeit unevenly), and it might serve the interests of the elites and of the business community — but that is only a small section of the 50 million people who live in South Africa. This narrow ideological focus of most of the media does not effectively empower citizens to live meaningful lives in which their dignity is promoted and they are provided with the tools to make real and informed choices.
No wonder that, on paper at least, the policy differences between the DA and the ANC are often related to style more than to substance. Both parties have adopted the National Development Plan as its policy Bible. Both believe that the state should play some role in addressing the unfair and unsustainable effects of past discrimination and exclusion. Both cosy up to big business — although for internal political reasons the ANC has to be nice to organised labour while the DA can bash the unions without alienating its donors.
Instead of providing us with more choices and more information, the influence of money on political parties and the media narrows down our choices and robs us of our dignity. This is not going to change soon — no matter how much money parastatals pump into The New Age.