At the Roots
Mail and Guardian Online
Election year 2004 promises to be a tough test for radio. When it's all over, listeners will know whether the majority of stations cared about all the things that democratic media are supposed to care about - informing the public, highlighting issues, challenging corruption, not taking nonsense for an answer. And so on.
What are radio stations going to do about Jacob Zuma, for instance? Following the Hefer Commission and with court cases still going on, there is still, it would appear, a prima facie case against him for allegedly receiving money and providing favours for his business associate Shabir Shaik. Radio news and commentary in the run-up to the election can surely not let this issue disappear - the deputy president has proved to be popular with the rank and file (and is still up there with the president dancing the jig at election rallies).
The Zuma factor raises a host of uncomfortable questions for radio managements and editors. Is it the role of radio - particularly in the public broadcasting sector, that is the SABC - to conduct investigative journalism, or should it just report what other media and official probes are saying? Do radio newsrooms have the capacity to undertake in-depth and independent election coverage? After all the hullabaloo in the 1990s about building a new broadcasting dispensation, are South Africans still served by a radio news system that is essentially passive and takes its lead from politicians, not the people?
One person who aims to prove the sceptics wrong is Pippa Green, head of radio news for the SABC. Her news division is hatching plans to review - at grassroots level - what has been accomplished in the first ten years of democracy. At the same time, politicians will not simply be "handed the mike" to say what they want: radio journalists will observe and report the election campaign independently.
"We have to establish that radio is a serious medium, and to do this we must establish a strong editorial presence in the stations," says Green. "I think our news and commentary on the Hefer Commission in Bloemfontein demonstrated that we can provide quality reporting and insights. My argument is that we need to elevate SABC journalists from the marginalised position they have occupied in the old and the new South Africa."
Green asserts that she has the "philosophical" support of senior SABC management, whom she has publicly defended against charges of creeping censorship. The extent of top management support is likely be tested, as News seeks to get the managers of particular SABC stations to accept the unified news service and stop trying to control the news themselves.
The print media are urban and elite, asserts Green, while SABC news has a legal obligation to give a voice to the people in all regions. The logistics are frightening, with daily coverage involving 10 newsrooms around the country employing nearly 300 journalists to produce 212 bulletins in 13 languages with 34 hours of current affairs programming.
Observers know that when Green took over the SABC radio news division 18 months ago, its back had been broken by the combined weight of SABC bureaucracy and lack of clear professional direction in news coverage. She set about hiring, training, rebuilding investigative capacity, and introducing more economics, science and rural coverage. Taken together, these initiatives mark a notable departure for radio news. They offer the prospect that after the elections all SABC stations will emerge strengthened and better able to provide credible public information.
But it remains a question whether the strategy for a unified news service will work, or boomerang. Unified control could facilitate political interference. Recall the short shrift given to former Minister of Telecommunications and Broadcasting, Z Pallo Jordan, who was fired from the Cabinet in 1996 for apparently championing broadcasting independence. According to reports at the time, he clashed with the president for refusing to take a hands-on approach to the SABC.
Today the SABC news division is not alone in attempting to put some distance between itself, the State and its news sources for the sake of greater objectivity. Alec Hogg's Classic FM business slot in the evenings may have little to say about the elections but it too has to steer a delicate course between business interests, advertisers, and the interests of listeners.
Truth-telling is good for listenership figures and hence good for advertising. But in the political sphere the connection between integrity and income is not as compelling - in fact, we know very little about how political coverage affects listenership. There's a good doctoral research project in there for someone, but meantime rules of thumb apply: report fairly if you want to hold the trust of the people.
Underlying this statement, however, is a problem: who are the people? Maybe we don't have a democratic "public" but only publics in the marketing sense of segmented targets, or in the ethnic sense of multiple language and cultural communities. Maybe the idea that there is a public capable of making up its mind and forming an opinion is an old Enlightment myth that never had any substance outside the coffee parlours of 17th century Europe, where gentlemen and journalists met to gossip snidely and bring down governments.
If there is no "public" then everyone has their own rules of thumb: we are all thumbs. Democratic consensus is only achieved by a sleight-of-hand. When the votes are counted and the winner is declared, that's the consensus hiding all the pluralities of the modern State. If that is the reality, then radio news and commentary from a unified professional perspective has no real authority and is merely another fragment in the marketing or ethnic mix.
The counter-argument is that diversity in coverage is the stuff of democracy. While South Africa in the 21st century is still not a nation, maybe the many voices of the grassroots and of political players add up to a nation in the making.
With acknowledgement to Graeme Addison and the Mail and Guardian Online.