In his latest letter to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa laments the negative impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the media. What concerns the president the most is the number of journalists who have lost their jobs since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis at a time, as he says, when we are in dire need of good journalism. In the letter, he reminds us that, “In many countries around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has required the limitation of many civil liberties and put social cohesion to the test. But countries with strong institutions, vigilant judicial systems and a robust media have been able to prevent human rights from being undermined and the authority of the state being abused.” However, “Given the importance of the media to the health of our democracy, it is a great concern that like all other sectors of the economy, the coronavirus crisis has hit our media houses hard. Some publications lost as much as 60% of their income in the early days of the lockdown. A number of companies have had to implement salary cuts, reduce staff numbers or reduce hours worked. Regrettably, some publications have even been forced to close, among them some of South Africa’s most established and well-known magazine titles.” I agree with the president.
This is, indeed, a tragedy. As they say, the truth is the first casualty of war. Similarly, when societies, including those that deem themselves and are deemed democratic, are going through a deep crisis – such as the current global public health crisis – human rights, civil liberties and democracy itself may come under threat. Therefore, the president is correct in alerting us to the possibly pernicious impact the coronavirus crisis might have on our democratic experience. In countries where leaders and their governments suffer from a God-complex, the authoritarian impulse, as we have seen in the case of countries such as Hungary, may become even more pronounced. In the so-called democratic countries where a lot is hidden under the veneer of their liberal democratic aesthetic, citizens have to be more vigilant because, as I keep on reminding the readers of this column, the fact that we are citizens in a ‘democratic’ country does not mean we will not be subjected to authoritarianism. In countries such as ours, the rulers, and the classes on whose behalf they rule, govern with fine-sounding words, smiles, as well as, fists in silk and velvet gloves. In the democratic things they do and say a lot is hidden that is substantively undemocratic. A lot is hidden behind the masks they wear to shield themselves from the will of citizens. The role of the media is to unmask them. The media must expose the extent to which politicians, governments and capital are relying on distortions of intelligence and the imposition of a tyranny of expertise to manipulate our perceptions of the crisis and our responses to the policy, political and economic decisions of the ruling class. This means that the media and journalists as individuals cannot and must not be extensions of the logic of those who monopolise political and economic power in our society. That is why I am happy about the way in which the president’s letter has sparked debate about the media.
Let me say, right at the outset, that my confidence in political journalism and commentary has dwindled considerably over the past thirteen years. What saddens me is the fact that lamentations about embedded journalism are no longer controversial. It is now common cause that embedded journalism is an integral component of South African politics. This means that, as citizens, we must be vigilant of the media itself. This, we must do as part of the imperative of speaking truth to all forms of power – the power of money, political power and the power that resides in the intercourse between money and news. We must not take it for granted that news exists to always promote and defend the public interest. Because of its very nature news does not always exist in pursuit of the general good. Even when the media acts in the public interest, it does so incompletely or imperfectly because news is either the cause of, or is a product of the divisibility of the public interest. This is so because news is not valueless. It is value-laden and, therefore, susceptible to the world view and viewpoints of the beholder, especially when the beholder has power and the power to sell news for profit. Put another way, news is socially constructed. The news may be a reality but it is not reality. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you are looking not at yourself but an image of yourself. Have you noticed how this image of yourself changes depending on which mirror is in front of you? Therefore, the media is a mirror to society depending on the mirror a journalist or his media house chooses to hold. Do a male and female journalist see the same thing when they look at what the bodies of women are subjected to? Do journalists who are black middle class women see the same thing as a black woman from Eldorado Park or Nquthu? Do black and white journalists see the same thing? Do journalists see at all? Do we see at all?
What we see and what, like us, journalists see is a function of factors such as historical and collective memory, gender, race, culture, class, power, religion and so on. These are the things we bring to any representational discourse. They influence how we represent others, how we represent ourselves, and how we are represented. Representational discourses also perform the function of reproducing and the reinforcement of a dominant world view, ways of being and ways of seeing. This reproductive phenomenon also performs the function of imposing canons of rational thought and thinking. Because news is itself representational in nature, it suffers from these maladies of inherent bias. However, to argue thus is not to negate the existence of counter-narratives. In fact, but ironically, counter-narratives can and may serve the useful purpose of legitimising master narratives. For instance, giving space to the counter-hegemonic may lend credence to the illusion of objectivity and balance. In short, this thing we call ‘news’ is inherently ideological. Does this mean we must succumb to a sense of fatalism and nihilism? The fact that we live in a world of master narratives and echo chambers does not mean we are creatures devoid of free will and agency in a matrix constructed by the powerful. The challenge is to expand the horizons of the counter-hegemonic. We must become discerning and critical consumers of news. We must be discriminating about what we consume. We must do what Rosa Luxembourg called for, that is; the reservation of the right to freedom of expression, almost exclusively, to those who differ. We must, as the president says, be vigilant or run the risk of our democratic institutions and our rights as citizens being undermined. As I said above, this vigilance must extend to the media itself. What we must not do, however, is to throw the baby out with the bath water.
The media has a role to play in helping society become vigilant as the lines between science, ideology, profit and politics become blurred in our Covid-19 discourse. Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the need for vigilance on the part of both the media and the citizenry has never been greater or more urgent. The existence of a deep public health crisis and an economic crisis as a result thereof may render us susceptible to increased levels of Orwellian manipulation. In this regard, journalists must resist the pressure or temptation to be uncritical purveyors of this Orwellian manipulation. As one journalist put it, when a person in power says the sky is blue, the job of a journalist is to check whether the sky is, indeed, blue. In other words, journalists must join the dots for themselves. They must not allow those with political and economic power to draw the dots and then tell them how to join them. This speaks to the need for the media and civil society to be vigilant about the abuse of both political and economic power. Examples of both have been abundant since the beginning of the lockdown at the end of March. But, as usual, the media seems to be more critical of the former. With regard to the political, the media exposed the manner in which access and proximity to political power may have been used to advance private and personal interests in the Covid-19 related corruption of the government’s procurement processes. Another example of the critical role of the media in exposing the abuse of political power relates to how ANC leaders got a lift from the minister of defence as they were preparing to walk to Zimbabwe, giving the minister no choice but to accommodate them on an air force plane. When he was quizzed by a journalist, ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule, was adamant that the fact that members of the party were given a lift by the defence minister did not amount to an abuse of state resources. Magashule forgot about the principle of maintaining a social distance between the party and the state. The president, therefore, correctly praised the media for its vigilance. Unfortunately, when it comes to the power of money, the media is not as vigilant or critical. That is why I regard business and motor car journalism as two sides of the same coin. It is for this reason that I maintain that it is grossly unfair to accuse mainstream business journalism of being independent. Like their allies in politics, business leaders and the private sector have their praise singers in the media. In this regard, the media is the court jester of capital. Those of us who are (un)fortunate to be middle class live on a narrative that tells us the world is a good place when so-called sound economic indicators coincide with the inclement social and economic conditions of the rest. Things, as they are now, are bad when profits are meagre.
Therefore, it is with regard to our political economy that our media, like its counterparts in other parts of the liberal-democratic world, tends to be found wanting. When it comes to ideology, our media, with very few exceptions, is an extension of the dominant logic of neo-coloniality and neo-apartheid in the economy. This has implications for our democracy and the media itself. We must remember that during the feudal period all power – military, political and economic – resided in the same location, namely; a feudal lord, king and so on. With capitalism came the separation of the political from the economic as the feudal lost power to the industrial. This separation was worsened by the financialisation of the economy – the creation of money from nothing. This is why some non-mainstream economists have argued that politicians’ salaries must be paid by banks(ters), not the fiscus, because that is where real political power lies. That is why i have argued in the past that, when money talks, politicians mumble. This mumbling by our politicians is not good for democracy because, in part, it means they are loyal more to the interests of capital than they are to the needs of citizens. The last thing our democracy needs are journalists who mumble like politicians when money talks. This is why we, as civil society, must make sure that our own vigilance extends to the media as well as those sections of civil society that mumble when the power of money speaks. For their part, journalists must defend the integrity of their noble craft by not thinking they are promoting media freedom when they defend rogue and embedded journalism.