The mainstream media simply don't reflect the full spectrum of views  among South Africans, writes Chrstine Qunta in The Star. They continue to further a white agenda.

Christine Qunta writes in The Star:

While the old establishment has been gnawing at the fabric of our democracy for the last 10 years, they are now circling, buoyed by a seeming retreat of African intellectuals and a perceived weakening of cohesion within the ranks of the ANC.

Old establishment may not be the most precise word to describe what is essentially a coalition of liberal and rightwing elements within our society.

They constitute a group of people who have failed to accept the legitimacy of our democracy. Perhaps it happened too quickly or was too far-reaching in the transfer of political power.

The content of our democracy is one of those important questions that have not been adequately debated within our public spaces. What does rule by the majority really mean in the South African context?

How would we give effect to such rule beyond the numbers in parliament and the ability to devise policies?

Why is it that these elements get so angry when their views, often strongly expressed, do not always carry the day in the formulation of policy?

Is it that they have not accepted the "inconvenience" of democracy, which gives those who have the support of the majority of the electorate the privilege of determining policies and shaping the political landscape? This power is only constrained by the constitution and the extent to which it serves and is accepted by that electoral majority.

Is the South African reality represented fairly within our public spaces, including in institutions involved in knowledge production and the media?

Are these institutions obliged to present our country in all its complexity and be balanced or are they entitled to take a particular partisan position and slant their reporting or intellectual output to fit this position?

Of course they are. Many media institutions in the West do this. British people know that when they read The Guardian, they are reading views that are broadly reflective of the Labour Party while the Telegraph reflects the Tories' (Conservative) views. (Rupert Murdoch newspapers are up for grabs to the highest bidder as shown in how he dumped the Tories and switched to Labour just before the 1997 general election.) The difficulty with taking partisan positions is that the views of those who stand at the opposite spectrum or disagree with such views are not fairly represented and usually are excluded.

The concept of freedom of expression protects even those institutions that take such a partisan position. They must however be honest and clearly declare their allegiances. We are entitled to ask the question whether in a society that is emerging from an era of severe repression, would a partisan press stifle the freedom of expression of those it opposes and if it does, can it be above criticism?

There is currently a debate among black people about the inadequacies of the media in reflecting a sufficient spectrum of views.

In particular they argue, the African perspective of the South African reality is absent from much of media institutions.

They have a basis for such complaints. Apart from the increasing bitterness among black people about what they perceive to be the media's deliberate manipulation of public opinion in favour of the most negative and racially prejudiced perspectives on our new democracy, there is another danger which should worry media owners.

Njabulo Ndebele, one of this country's most thoughtful intellectuals, in a recently published book of essays, Fine Lines from the Box, alludes to the problem of a solidarity forged by a collective sense of grievance at being victimised.

He asks pertinent, if uncomfortable questions from both the media and those criticising the media. In a keynote address delivered at the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) conference last year, he asks: "Could it be that the collective sense of being misunderstood, despite the possible acknowledgement of wrongdoing, may lead to a desperate and defiant closing of ranks that only exacerbates the problem?

"The concealment of corruption or wrongdoing is not what is asked for but rather for a more effective, contextual engagement with what can go wrong within institutions governed by Africans."

It is worthwhile to quote Nbebele fully when he deals with an issue that agitates so many thinking Africans: "For my part, I find that I am increasingly impatient and exasperated by more news of struggling organisations and corpses of dead reputations. I have come to expect that the historic forest through which we are looking for a direction is likely to be littered with such corpses. They tell me nothing anymore. Instead, they may have become the new frontier of conceptual constraint that has to be pushed back towards newer boundaries."

Such conceptual constraint arises from, in part, the exclusion of divergent views by those in charge of shaping public opinion.

Despite denial, there is what one can broadly describe as a black perspective. It differs from that of the dominant white perspectives on key issues that affect our past, present and future. Affirmative action, institutional and personal racism, the performance of government, culture and society and foreign policy issues such as the crisis in Zimbabwe are examples.

The Star newspaper and the City Press are notable exceptions in the insistence on reflecting only the views of the old establishment. In the case of The Star there is now a fairly representative spread of perspectives. It is probably not a coincidence that it increased its readership figures in the last period by a significant 36%. This shows diversity pays. The artificial manufacturing of public opinion, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, does not.

These issues are likely to be raised in the forthcoming annual Media and Society conference organised by the SABC in partnership with Sanef on October 19. One of the topics that is likely to generate a lot of debate and hopefully some sorely needed introspection by media practitioners is "Rights to Privacy and Human Dignity vs Freedom of Expression".

# Christine Qunta is a Cape Town-based lawyer. This column appeared in The Star on 10 October 2007.