South Africa is a complex democracy, more specifically a neo-liberal democracy. Media transformation is expected to be driven by the market in accordance with neo-liberal policies. However, markets have failed over and over again to drive transformation. This raises a rather important debate around how to change the media landscape and who are the drivers when the state is a passenger to transformation.
The ANC embraced neo-liberal policies as far back as 1996, and some may argue that this happened before the 1994 change in government. Through its policies it allowed for a free press driven by the invisible hand of the market; sealing the fate of media to rely on advertising revenue for growth. Following years of censorship, this immediate freedom was consistent with the ideals of a young democracy.
A period of burgeoning commercialisation ensued, with advertising representatives getting first option to choose prime spaces in the newspaper, only then, are the journalistic articles accommodated. Journalism has become a matter of filling the space between advertising, and it’s what the journalist does with this space that has become of particular concern.
Since neo-liberalism creates a consumerist market, driven by self regulatory forces outlined in Living Standards Measurements (LSMs), the content is orientated to the selling space. In Marshall McLuhan famous quote ‘the Medium is the Message’, the message has become consumerist. Therefore, it is the standard that in hard news the journalist places all the most important information in the first paragraph, because after the first paragraph the reader’s eye wonders to the advert, which is strategically placed through clever layout and design; like placing a coca cola advert next to an article about access to water – If you don’t have water, buy a coca cola.
Despite an overwhelming mandate to the ANC to provide a better life for all, the government embraced policies which allow bourgeois ideals of corporate rule to flourish, further corporatising the media, forcing them to adapt or die.
Strangely enough, for all the money the ANC government has invested in advertising its ideals – sold as nation building – they have not gained any favours from the media. This gives us all hope that maybe the media are somewhat fulfilling their watch dog role in spite of advertising pressures.
Alternatively, the government is not the big player and does not have enough money to wield the influence some industries have over the media. For example, the massive advertising space given to Dischem pharmacy when the story of their workers’ strike goes virtually unreported. In other words, the ANC government has not realised that it is not a corporate, and should not operate as one.
Why then does the ANC now want to ensure media regulation? It is clear that markets alone cannot make the ANC the “watchdog’s best friend”. And now they (ANC) are looking towards a state repression of the media to ensure its “best friend” status.
The Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) should not just be seen as an onslaught on the media – it should also be seen as the failure of the ANC to be the dominant market-player as it tries to make the media its door-MAT.