With media ownership dominated by three companies, and white males still firmly in control even where the top job has gone to a black person, there's still a need for much transformation of the media, writes Onkgopotse JJ Tabane in the Mail & Guardian. Change should start with a bigger role for the Media Development and Diversity Agency, and for the government to use its economic muscle – through advertising – to insist on transformation.

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane writes in the Mail & Guardian:

Delegates to the ANC national conference will examine the media’s role in the transformation of our country over the past 13 years. They will ask what has changed, what needs changing and what should be — if any — the political commitment of the media in a changing society.

It is unlikely the ANC will adopt an analysis that denies the many changes that have taken place in the media. The conference will undoubtedly note demographic shifts in race and gender in newsrooms since 1994, while recognising there is still much to be done.

In the same vein an observation is likely to be made that, although many editor positions are now held by black people and women, other important positions, such as news editors and sub-editors, are still largely filled by white males, who hail from a broadly homogeneous part of our diverse society. From this observation follows an obvious question: does the South African news media reflect the diversity and broad aspirations of this country?

The role of advertisers and advertising in the news agenda is another critical part of the discussion. An examination of the experience of the past 13 years should reveal the extent to which advertising considerations have shaped the news agenda and what this has implied for the “free press”, which depends on advertising revenue for survival.

Another question concerns the ownership pattern through which the dominant media are owned by three big companies — Johnnic Communications, Independent Newspapers and Naspers — and what this implies for new entrants to the industry and for the expression of a diversity of views and opinion in a democratic society.

A point that will no doubt be considered is the contention in the Konrad Adenauer Foundation democracy report on South Africa, which singles out ownership concentration as the biggest threat to press freedom. “This situation,” says the foundation report, “reflects the historical decline in the power of editors who nowadays have to report to a managing editor instead of directly to the board. Editing content is often now subservient to commercial agendas and democratic considerations come second.”

The report underlines the influence exerted on the news by commercial interests, alongside the media’s stated commitment to the public interest.

Yet, alongside commercial imperatives, there are other conceptions of the media in a transitional state. Recent media reports highlighted the clash between jungle values of the most raw type and ubuntu, the value system to which Joel Netshitenzhe refers to as “the civilising mission of revolutionary democracy”.

This raises another key question about the relationship between the media and society. Less than half of South Africa’s population has access to print media because of distribution, language or literacy. What is required for the media to reflect adequately the public interest? What deliberate efforts are needed if the media are to justifiably claim that they reflect what the public thinks and feels and has an interest in?

The challenges noted here are not only matters for the ANC to address. The media must rise to the challenge and interrogate its guiding value system in the context of a country in transition. What do prevailing media values expressed in practice mean for the profession relative to the biases to which our history makes us prone?

For the ruling party the challenge is to examine the material, socio-economic and cultural relations that affect our society and to clarify the policy and practical measures necessary to ensure a balanced representation of the unity and diversity of our society as a whole.

Diversity of opinion and content assumes particular significance in the South African case, both because of this country’s diverse population and also because of the challenges of access to media — and what this implies about whose views are seen or heard.

The ANC has various options available to it. These include an investigation of ways to dilute ownership patterns through encouragement of sales to emerging and especially black publishers. Doing nothing and proceeding with the current apologetic trajectory is not an option. I believe that the solution is fourfold:

1) Review urgently and radically the reach and resources of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA). An annual budget of about R30million is inadequate if the ANC is serious about creating an alternative voice that can reach as many people as possible and can compete in the dog-eat-dog world of media ownership. To take on a multibillion-rand industry there needs to be a concomitant investment that will make an indelible mark in the face of an untransforming media.

2) Communications regulator Icasa should be influenced to look again at radio and television licences, restructuring them in such a way that businesses find advertising in alternative media commercially viable. The existing limitations on cross-ownership are not enough to result in meaningful diversity. A balance between national, regional and local licence conditions needs to be revised to achieve commercial equilibrium and raise the status of community radio, enabling it to share in the spoils of commercial advertising.

3) The funding arrangement of the media diversity project must be revisited with clear legislation. The concept of voluntary contributions to this project, with all its non-confrontational intention, was ill-conceived and has resulted in nothing but inertia. Media players and the government jointly must fund the diversification of the environment for more voices to thrive.

4) The issues of ownership and control of 95% of the print media must be prioritised by the movement. Efforts must be made to force conglomerates to transform or face commercial sanction from the public purse — one of the biggest contributors to their bottom lines. Organised support for black people who want to participate in ownership of these conglomerates must be made to speed up the transformation of how these organisation are run. If need be, competition legislation should be tightened to weed out the collusion that makes it impossible for new players to enter this lucrative market.

Anything short of the radical surgery proposed here will amount to a hollow insult. The ANC has the power to make these changes, backed by the financial muscle of state-funding institutions, such as the National Empowerment Fund, Industrial Development Corporation and Development Bank of Southern Africa. There is a real chance for a plan that will take into account the commercial imperatives of diluting the current owners to give way to a representative media ownership landscape.

The challenges of diversity will not end with ownership. There is an urgent need for rigorous attention to be paid to the academic education of media practitioners, with the minimum requirement of specific subjects as a consideration for qualification. Bearing in mind the complexity of our transition, is it not worth considering the requirement that journalists study, for example, African history, politics, philosophy and economics?

Academic training must pay particular attention to social interest as inherent in all human beings, rather than encouraging a perception of professionals who are imbued with mythical values of objectivity. And is it not time for media houses to look at academic specialisation for journalists in highly technical fields?

Changing the pattern of media ownership is the first step — but not the last — towards real diversity. This will no doubt open up a meaningful space for a plurality of voices that will nurture our democracy.

*Onkgopotse JJ Tabane is chief executive of Tshirundu Communications. He writes in his personal capacity. This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian as part of the Polokwane Briefing' series on October 12.