Press watchdog Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) says South Africa's media enjoys considerable freedom and independence but it has allowed politicians to set its agenda. It has been praised for its balance, fairness and accuracy but scored poorly on depth and diversity in its reporting. The comments came in an interview IPS conducted with programme's director, William Bird.

IPS asked MMA's director, William Bird, what kinds of stories could contribute to improving good governance in the country.

William Bird: The role of the media in an election is probably the most fundamental precisely because it's about the basics of democracy. It's about making sure that people know whom to vote for, how and where to vote, what it means to vote, how the government will work.

Those really are crucial to citizens making an informed choice. Otherwise we have to seriously question whether or not their vote is in fact a fair vote and whether to a degree, is a free vote.

You expect reporting to talk beyond the events of the particular parties; that are going to analyse issues, discuss political parties' points of view, and make sure that people understand their role in democracy.

It really is about looking at what constitutes news. We've operated on fairly unchallenged assumptions that news is about events, about something bad that happens. And while that's true for a lot of things, when it comes to elections, the media's function and responsibility has to be more. It's a time to look and start explaining issues.

You don't learn democratic process by osmosis.

IPS: How do you balance deadline pressures, space constraints and commercial factors with what you're proposing?

WB: The media need to realise that part of their agenda, as South Africans that enjoy constitutional guarantees to freedom of expression, is that they have a duty and responsibility to devote time and space to reporting issues that enable citizen participation.

It's fundamental, profit margins aside. The thing is that once they start to do that anyway it works as a business model.

IPS: Would letters pages and phone-in programmes not constitute giving citizens voice?

WB: Letter writing is a middle class thing: you need resources, time and know how to frame things. Many people simply don't know how to do this; don't have the access and time – very substantial challenges. Encouraging questioning is something that didn't happen under apartheid.

It's easy to blame the media for not fulfilling this role, and to a degree that's true, but maybe if we had politicians with more depth we might actually get better coverage out of them.

Our parties have been pathetic at making people excited about wanting to participate in democracy. Parliament themselves have complained about a lack of public participation in its processes. And that is a clear failure by every party to engage citizens in a real and meaningful way.

IPS: What are the major areas the media have tended to ignore?

WB: An issue that should be there for everyone is what to do about poverty. We've got 54 percent of the population below the poverty line; that kind of thing is untenable yet it's not making headlines.

What are political parties going to do about that? Yes they've got their manifestos; I want politicians to explain what this translates into. They say we're going to eradicate poverty – find me the politician who says we're going to entrench poverty.

What we're interested in is to explain the ten concrete steps on how you are going to do these things because then you begin to empower citizens. Less than one percent of all election coverage focussed on HIV, poverty, children's rights and gender based violence and yet those are four very clear fundamental issues for every South African.

IPS: How can the media do things differently?

WB: They could adopt their own agenda or policy around reporting elections. To say, for our readers, these five issues are the most important.

News events, like violence, must be covered. However outside this standard, when we speak to politicians we'll frame our questions around these five issues. Say to them, give us a response and frame your answers according to those things.

A lot of it is about being more critical. The irony is that the only way we can hold political parties accountable is by electing them on the basis of their policy, and yet that is so substantially marginalised in our coverage.

IPS: Does your criticism hold true for all the media?

WB: When you look at the overall issues and topics that have been covered in an election period, the majority of media tend to have almost exactly the same news diet.

[Privately-owned] Radio 702 and [public broadcaster] SAFM are offering the same to their audiences as a community station in Western Cape and public service station in Free State. And it's the same in the Star newspaper in Gauteng.

In spite of regional and geographical differences – the emphasis is on the national. Their news diet is almost identical. And this points to the fact that very often the media's agenda is not determined by them but by politicians. And that's wrong.

Journalists are overstretched and under-resourced largely because of commercial decisions informing these things. Then they're getting five well-written press releases from political parties versus going out and finding sources and different angles. Newsrooms, media companies need to take a policy decision that we have to do something to alter the way this happens.

* This interview first appeared on