ANC plans to start a party newspaper are ill advised, writes Thami Mazwai in Business Day.  It will be expensive, and face challenges of credibility and integrity.  Although the party has every right to do so, it would be much better to tackle the excessive concentration in the media sector and allow new voices to appear. Some of these may be more sympathetic to the ANC's views.

Thami Mazwai writes in Business Day:

WHILE the ruling party’s intention to start a newspaper is justifiable, is it not putting the cart before the horse?

The idea of an African National Congress (ANC) newspaper — to sell the party’s vision of development issues in civil society’s market of ideas — has been mooted for some years. Incidentally, it is not only loyalists that want the publication. Substantial portions of the black community (read intelligentsia) have also supported the idea as, rightly or wrongly, they believe “black issues” do not receive enough attention in the media or are relegated to the background in the name of inclusivity.

US intellectual Noam Chomsky makes the point in Necessary Illusions: Thought Control In Democratic Countries , that a few years ago the Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a campaign for the democratisation of the media. The bishops argued that the major TV networks and multinational media companies concentrated on the upper classes and did not reflect the lives of ordinary people . More grassroots participation was needed in the public debate, they said. Participation by blacks in public discourse via this publication is also what the ANC has in mind.

But wait a moment. Not so long ago, the ANC bemoaned the fact that the country’s media was highly concentrated. This is real and the situation is getting worse. There are three media giants — Media 24, which is the biggest, Avusa and Caxton. Independent Newspapers owns the bulk of the daily newspapers in the main centres but opposition is coming from Avusa , and if newcomer The Times can upstage titles in the Independent stable, it could mean a worsening of the situation. As if this were not enough, these major media houses are also taking stakes in smaller publishing houses to grow their printing and distribution businesses.

The dominance is worsened by the vertical integration in the media, in which the major media houses print and distribute the titles of competitors and smaller publishing houses. This is widespread and, in terms of printing and distribution, independent publishers are virtually being priced out or subsidise publications owned by the major media houses. This persists despite protestations against the situation.

This has led to a number of small black-owned publishing houses disappearing and the independent black voice vanishing from the media landscape. To suggest that editors in the country are now mostly black misses the point. It takes more than a black editor, however strong, to change the culture and character of any publication. Hence the Sunday Times under Mike Robertson, and now Mondli Makhanya, is perceptually what it was during the days of Joel Mervis, Tertius Myburgh and Brian Pottinger. Other national publications do not necessarily reflect “black passions” in the national debate. This leads to the sad situation in which no newspaper can be said to truly express the soul of the black majority.

The only institution capable of ensuring that various communities in our diverse society enjoy the freedom to have their views and passions ventilated is the government, and this means the ANC, which is the ruling party. Thus, the party has a responsibility to clean out the concentration rather than want to be part of it, especially when three major challenges face it when it starts its publication and one, sustainability, directly relates to the issue of concentration.

The ANC would need very deep pockets to start a publication, daily or weekly. It is worse when the publishing house will be a one-title outfit. The ANC can learn from the late daily, ThisDay. This newspaper was a good read but was smoked out of the market by the concentration described above. It had to be printed and distributed by its competitors. This meant its competitors, despite confidentiality clauses and the like, knew of its major stories beforehand and could work on good follow-ups for later editions. It could not compete on exclusive stories.

The two other challenges are integrity and credibility. The journalists on an ANC publication will want to protect their integrity and show they are not lapdogs. They will be more strident in challenging the organisation with their comments and stories, which is what journalists did when they worked on Anglo American-owned publications. Will this be fair to the ANC and reader, when the comment or column is influenced by ownership or is based on someone proving his or her independence? Also, the journalists on the paper will want to trump other journalists on the basis of “inside information”. To what extent will the ANC tolerate journalists in its employ publishing exclusives on the basis of leaks from “comrades” on its national executive and national working committees?

The third is credibility. This will be the toughest nut to crack for the new publication. It will take a long time, if ever, to convince readers that the stories or comment in the publication are not in pursuit of ANC objectives. It will also take something extra to make sceptical ANC members believe their own publication. This will be worse when there are schisms in the organisation, as there were last year before the ANC’s national conference. In the light of this credibility gap, it will not be remiss for members to test the credibility of their publication through what The Star or The Times publish.

Editorial integrity and credibility depend to a large extent on editorial independence, so these last two issues can be summed up in a question: to what extent will the ANC give editors free rein?

Finally, there is nothing wrong with the ANC starting its own publication and it will hopefully take account of the above. But, let it first clear the concentration and create an enabling environment in which the free flow of ideas and information is not held hostage by big media houses. This environment will enable smaller publishing houses to flourish. This will result in the emergence of new publishers and titles. These could be better suited and more credible to stimulate debate around the country’s development agenda than the ANC itself. At the end of the day, there is more value in an “ANC friendly” than an “ANC owned” publication.

# Mazwai is director of the University of Johannesburg Centre for Small and Medium Enterprise Development. This column appeared in Business Day on 1 April 2008.