South Africa: Appetite For Influence Has Not Changed
Duncan Du Bois - 11/9/2007
Freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary are constitutional provisions the ruling party and its associates claim to support. Yet through the insidious process of political correctness those principles are being eroded. In February 1982 the Steyn Commission of Inquiry into the media expressed the view that ' much diversity had already disappeared from the South African media scene' because of the degree of corporate control over the press. The Commission warned that the information industry was threatened by Leviathan because of the powerful and predatory position of the Argus Group. By 1986 Leviathan had arrived when 90% of the English-language press was controlled by the Argus Group.
But that was the old South Africa which did not have a bill of rights and in which press freedom was circumscribed by nearly 100 legal provisions.
Notwithstanding the changed circumstances since 1994, Leviathan in the media is as much a reality today as before. Independent Newspapers, owned by an Irishman known to be well-disposed to the ANC, controls 75% of the country's daily press. Naspers and Media 24 control 60% of the magazine market and a number of major newspaper titles. Concerns at the effect this concentration of ownership may have on editorial independence are routinely dispelled. Editors bristle with indignation at the suggestion that editorial policy is dictated to them.
The issue, however, is more subtle than that. It's about promoting convergent thought and marshalling it in a particular direction. It's about manipulating tone and volume so as to manufacture the impression that divergent thinking is being catered for while in reality a single message is being propagated. The insidiousness of convergent thinking and its ally political correctness is that, in time, it resembles an unseen series of electrified fences which serve to condition and to contain public debate thereby ensuring political correctness prevails.
Influencing thought is one of life's major occupations. It is therefore naive, where newspapers are concerned, to view a nexus between big business and those with political interests as a low-key development. That certainly was not the case back in the 1970s when the Nat government secretly channelled state funds through business tycoon Louis Luyt to launch a newspaper, The Citizen, that would promote thinking convergent with the government's cause. At the time it was called the Information scandal.
The appetite for influence has not changed - just the way it is pursued. News that a black empowerment company, Koni Media, which has direct links with key personnel in the Office of the President, is bidding for Johncom, the owner of the Sunday Times, the country's biggest newspaper, using funds from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), should ring alarm bells. But according to Allan Greenblo, a media mogul in Johncom, that is not necessary. Greenblo attempts to shepherd thinking away from alarmism by contending that it's all above board and that, in any case, the PIC, as an agent of the huge Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), would not contravene the mandate given to it by GEPF trustees ( Business Report, November 7).
That may be well and good. But Greenblo's view that the GEPF trustees may be counted on to honour their fiduciary duty and that any shortfall suffered by the GEPF, as a defined benefit fund, would have to be made up by the Government is a premise that cannot be taken for granted. As state interests and party interests grow increasingly indistinguishable one wonders where Greenblo has been in recent years. As ANC toadies and cronies come to hold positions of influence on virtually every board and commission, what guarantee is there that the rules of good governance won't be watered down and overlooked ? After all, power corrupts.
Three situations already testify to that. First is the serial failure of state departments to satisfy the audit requirements of the Auditor-General. Yet year after year not a single director-general or cabinet minister is sacked for mismanagement. Then there is the total lack of governance in Zimbabwe as a result of the complete infiltration and takeover by Zanu-PF of all organs of state and of civil society. Worldwide, there is hardly a more sobering example of what happens when political correctness becomes a straitjacket.
But it is the functioning of the Judicial Services Commission, as this column remarked previously, that poses the greatest threat to the future of good governance. Stacked 16 out of 23 with Mbeki-sanctioned individuals, the JSC's findings in the judge John Hlophe case speak volumes. By failing to recommend the impeachment of Hlophe for his gross violation of judicial ethics the message the JSC has sent out concerning the future of good governance is a bleak one.
The longer a political party is in power the greater its potential to abuse power. In this respect criticism and the health of society are inseparable: the one is a gauge of the other. The more vigorous, penetrating and fearless the criticism a nation can stand, the healthier and stronger it will be. That needs to be the watchword for the media and for all concerned with the dispensing of good governance.