Media transformation: Still a difficult issue, after all these years

The recent spat involving City Press editor Ferial Haffajee and some of her staff, over transformation and the political allegiance of the paper, probably indicates that, at least, we have moved on from the challenges that I faced as an editor in those early days of South Africa’s transition. But it also shows a worrying trend in our society where decisions are made more on the basis of political allegiance than what is good for a particular industry.

In the mid-90's I became one of the first black editors of a major newspaper in South Africa. I guess I could have substituted “major” for “formerly white-owned and controlled” because that was the reality of South Africa’s media industry at the time. In many ways, it was merely reflecting a society that was only then beginning to change.

In those days, my major challenges revolved more around how to make sure that I change the demographics of my newsroom without upsetting the white reporters, who were in the majority by far. I felt that changing the demographics was important if I were to produce newspapers that more accurately reflected our society.

Haffajee is right in her assertion that she will not tolerate black or white racists. She is also right about her paper’s focus on the president and the ruling party, because of the important and prominent role they play in society.

Of course, I would have done one or two things differently.

I would never have made this issue public, as Haffajee did, but I suppose that is the danger of belonging to the Twitter generation. In our eagerness to express ourselves quickly and in less than 140 characters, we sometimes don’t think through what we are about to tweet.

Most newspapers or media houses, as is the case with most businesses in South Africa, have transformation issues. Often, each and every group (whether based on race, religion, gender or other conveniently divisive measures) feel discriminated against. Most feel they do not have enough access to resources and opportunities, while other groups do, and that this limitation of access is purely based on group dynamics.

I have also often seen, in more than 30 years in the media industry, that cries of racism can sometimes be the last refuge of incompetents. People of dubious ability often use race dynamics to hide their own imperfections.

Unfortunately, in the case of City Press, they have an editor who could be perceived to be “not black enough” by some people, no matter how much Haffajee might protest.

I have the same problem. I have always and still describe myself only as a black South African, but it is amazing the number of people who more and more look at me in a puzzled manner, as if I have not taken a proper look at myself in the mirror lately. Many of these people who question my blackness are people who we once used to consider as progressive, but they seem to have forgotten the teachings of Steve Biko which drove many of us through the struggle years.

I suppose almost 20 years of democracy is enough time to redefine some people’s identities.

But I digress.

The main reason I would not have taken City Press’s issues public is because, as editor, you are supposed to have the back of your reporters. One of the first things I learnt is that you defend and protect your reporters publicly, even though you might smack them privately. If you engage with them in a public fight, you tend to lose some of your moral authority as an editor.

I have always believed in the power of persuasion and I have never subscribed to the dictum that the editor is always right. If you are able to persuade me, then I would be prepared to change my views, even though there are certain lines that, like Haffajee, I draw in the sand. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to convince me to abhor racism, sexism and other -isms less than I do at the moment.

Now that the genie is out of the proverbial bottle, it is important to deal with the issues that have been raised by the City Press reporters instead of just dismissing them and expecting the reporters to “lump it”.

City Press, as should other newspapers, needs to understand why some reporters, who are supposed to operate within the boundaries of fairness, if not objectivity, can feel that their own publication is not fair towards a particular political party or a politician.

City Press needs to satisfy themselves that, indeed, their coverage has been fair and unbiased. They can only do this scientifically and not based on perceptions, even though perceptions are probably very powerful, especially where politics and politicians are concerned.

My humble advice, especially to the journalists who have questioned Haffajee’s agenda, is to set out to produce the best journalism that you possibly can and to try to cover our society in as comprehensive a manner as you can.

If you report on society properly, you will discover that it will include reports about the good and the bad done by politicians and political parties. You will probably find that your focus will be more on the ruling party because, well, they are the ruling party.

But to be fair, the DA is the ruling party in the Western Cape and, even in that province, they are not put under the same microscope as the ANC. Maybe there is some merit in that criticism, not necessarily only towards City Press but to the media in general.

The good thing that can come out of what is going on at City Press at the moment is that the media industry will take an introspective look at their role in society, not only in relation to the ruling party and the president, but at how we report on a society in transition.

It is clear to me that the media has failed in many ways in that task. What the City Press incident can do is to provide us with an opportunity to address that and in the process we might be able to benefit everyone, including the media industry.

However, we will not be able to do it if we think that this issue is only about City Press and that other editors can get away by smirking in glee that it is not them who are involved.

This incident is giving us an opportunity to really put a microscope on the entire media industry. It would be good to see if Haffajee, as well as all the other editors in our country, are up to the challenge that this opportunity presents. DM

(First published by the Daily Maverick on 20 October 2013)