Party newspapers don't produce great journalism, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. Yet if the ANC wants to set up its own paper, going against international trends, it would be welcome to do so. Bit it might do better to improve its communication through the existing media.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

The African National Congress (ANC) has reopened discussion on starting its own newspaper — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The ruling party’s national executive meeting last weekend tasked a committee led by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan to resurrect a plan the ANC bounced around in the early 1990s. Then it did not have the money to start its own newspaper and there was hostility to the idea. Now the signs are that it has the money. But one might ask if this is a wise way to dispose of it.

In principle, there is room for a paper owned and controlled by the ruling party. If such a newspaper is going to give more column centimetres to important ANC matters that are neglected by the media, as spokeswoman Jessie Duarte has said, then it can give space to material for which the commercial media does not always have space.

New newspapers are almost always a good thing. They create jobs, push up the demand for and remuneration of journalists, and open up new public spaces. But they are difficult, expensive beasts, especially if you do not have the existing infrastructure of printing and distribution, or you are unable to share costs with other ventures.

A party-owned newspaper is likely to appeal only to a core of ANC cadres who want to keep abreast of the finer points of ANC policy on water or housing, to cite the examples used by Duarte. If the ANC believes it can produce a paper that competes with the commercial media for eyeballs, then it is deluding itself.

THE ANC will be going against international trends. In most countries, and certainly in open democracies, newspapers have moved away from central party control to do what newspapers do best — operate as independent entities free to challenge authority and do the things ruling parties are seldom comfortable with. This is true even of countries with a long history of partisan newspapers, such as Sweden.

The truth is that party newspapers do not produce great journalism. At their best, they might produce competent reporting and an inside track on government thinking but great journalism comes from those who go where ruling parties and governments do not want them to go — those who probe, ask questions and shine light into dark corners.

Of course, we have a long history of party-controlled newspapers in SA. The Afrikaans papers were for years the playthings of the National Party and this led them into a deep credibility crisis. It was only when some editors began straining at the party leash in the 1980s that they became even vaguely interesting. Even then, what they said and covered was constrained and you had to go elsewhere to understand what was really happening in the ruling party.

The Inkatha Freedom Party controls Ilanga newspaper, but that is not where you would go if you wanted to know the interesting stuff going on in Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s party. And if it has interesting stuff on the ANC, its credibility is thin.

The great danger, however, is that government advertising might be abused to prop up a party publication. There has already been a threat to use government ad-spend to pressure the media, so an ANC paper would present a major problem if there were not a clear mechanism to ensure that government advertising went only where it was most effective at reaching its audience, and could not be used for political effect. This should be written into law.

I suspect the ANC can achieve a lot more by improving its general communication through the mass media. It could expand its website, develop a better working relationship with the commercial and community media, withdraw “deployed cadres” from the SABC and get the government to lower communication costs so that more people can get internet access.

A newspaper might just be a distraction from these real communication tasks.

* Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day, 19 March 2008