A man in a psychiatric facility stood everyday with his ear against the wall; listening. After a few weeks of this activity, the doctor, out of curiosity, finally went to join him, putting his ear against the wall and listened. “I can’t hear anything”, the doctor said to the man after a while. “Yeah”, replied the man, “it’s been like that for weeks now!”

The story, though told in jest, holds some truth: if we are not careful, the people whom we should be ‘guiding’ will be the ones guiding us. If we are not careful we could easily succumb to other people’s foolishness. Going with the flow, as it were.  

Yet the story also holds some undoubtable truths about the role that our media plays in South Africa. Too often a number of our democratic institutions, some in the police, in the courts, parliament, our Chapter 9 institutions and even some members of the executive, simply go with what the media is saying. They simply put their ear to the wall. Allegations, made in the media, are repeated and the effort is made that to give life to a lie and attempt to make it a truth, the lie has to spread as far as possible and be repeated as often as possible, who said “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”

Of late, we have even seen academics and research projects rely heavily on media reports. Instead of the media being the ones to report on the scientific and factual findings of these academics and projects, we have witnessed the exact opposite. Presentations are made in parliament and to society, as fact and scientific, though when questioned and queried we are told that the sources are based on media reports.

The ANC, which has always had an acrimonious relationship with the media, has also sought to simply put its ear to the wall. Before the dawn of democracy, the media in South Africa had been circumvent in its praise and support of the liberation movements. While some liberals in the media played their role in holding the National Party government to account, they were not so much in favour of the Nats being replaced by an ANC government. Many members of that government, was the view, were trained in the Soviet Union and in any case were terrorists pursuing an arm struggle.

Yet there remains some fundamental challenges in the media which the media themselves have not necessarily interrogated. The fact that profits come before proof, tales before truth and secrecy before sources, all point to the fact that corporatism trumps democracy in our media industry. 

In its submission to the South African Human Rights Commission Hearings on Racism in the Media, in April 2000, the ANC highlighted that to ‘understand the phenomenon of racism in our media, we must start from this basic point – that many practitioners of journalism in our country (including the foreign correspondents) carry [a stereotype of Black people] in their heads at all times.’ It would not be incorrect to include even Black journalists in this number today.

Black journalists have simply succumbed to putting their own ears to wall by subscribing to the White, liberal and stereotypical institutional cultures persistent in our media houses and newsrooms. Black journalists themselves have somewhat adopted this stereotype against fellow Black people to inform, as the ANC said in that submission, what is news, what takes priority as news, the interpretation of the news and the portrayal of the activities and opinions of Blacks in positions of authority.

In summary, the ANC submission then indicated that every effort was being made in our newsrooms and media houses to ensure that at no stage must Black people, especially those in positions of authority, be portrayed as exemplary and achieving. Instead, it would seem, that for every good story of a Black person, there must be five others portraying Blacks as immoral, amoral, savage, violent, disrespectful of private property, incapable of refinery even through education and corrupt. Black journalists, in the main, have made it their duty to prove such.

It was Harriet Tubman who once said: “I have freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed many more, if only they realised that they were slaves.”

The inability of our media to self-criticise and self-correct has always been a concern to us. We see this stereotype against Black people rearing itself in instances such as the Nontobeko Sibisi incident where she was discriminated against for wearing a doek in eNCA. The Sibisi incident came in the aftermath of the Phakamile Hlubi saga who had written of the 24 hour news channel: “…we still have many problems at E [sic]. The lack of transformation, racism, unjustifiable salary discrepancies amongst people who do the same work, are just some of the problems which must be addressed.” 

When journalists become aware of racism and injustices happening in the workplace, then they wish to make the headlines and broadcast it but everyday these types of stories by innocent  Black South Africans and happening in other sectors are simply not prioritised and are pushed to the lower end of the news – if they appear at all – by these very same Black journalists. In fact, is it not time that Black journalists and commentators ask: what has happened to Sibisi’s case? What has come of Hlubi’s complaints at eNCA?

Why is there no vigour in reporting about the Multichoice corruption scandal and pursuance of the story in the media? Many stories, investigations and allegations have been made based on the so-called GuptaLeaks emails. Yet there is no vigour in reporting on what has come of the allegations of Multichoice’s involvement and naming in the same said emails. In 2011 already, Media24 faced predatory pricing allegations when it inflated its circulation figures for some of its publications in order to charge more for advertising. There are no investigative journalism into these stories. If we to read Hennie Van Vuuren’s book “Apartheid Guns and Money”, you will have witnessed first hand how collusive and potentially corrupt Naspers was in the heydays of Apartheid National Party rule and how the Multichoice deal was concocted by the NP for Afrikaans business, the hypocrisy of white corporate established businessman today who fed of the suffering and pan of people is astounding, considering that no reparation was paid by corporate SA for its potential rape and pillage of land, mines, banks, etc in SA. 

It would not be incorrect to assert that the opposition in South Africa is as weak as it was in the early 2000. However, as Moegsien Williams, the former editor of the Cape Argus, attests in 2001, at a media conference with former president Thabo Mbeki, the editor of a leading financial publication asserted that because the opposition was so weak, it was the duty of the media to act as an opposition to the ANC. This position, even today with a weak opposition, remains. The only difference is that Black journalists and commentators have now been coopted in fighting the Black government.

The ANC would be wise to stop listening to the media or accepting presentations based on media reports or media sources. You are hearing nothing! Unless Luthuli House can jack-up its own communications department, which remains really moderate, it cannot rely on the media to be bias towards it. It must learn, as any political party knows, that the media will never be on your side. Like capital, it is not loyal and neither are its agents. The ANC should simply build its own communications capacity to speak directly to the chattering classes, its members and its supporters. 

The ANC can therefore little afford to be putting its ear to the wall. If anything, the 54th National Conference at Nasrec proved that the ANC remains the largest organisation in South Africa with a reach from the richest top echelons of business to the poverty stricken communities at grassroots level. The patient must be listening to the doctor, not the doctor taking his cue from the patient. The ANC should be telling the media what to do because the people listen to the ANC, and the ANC takes its cue from the people!

Wesley Seale is a PhD Candidate at Beijing University in China 

comments