No wonder viewers are switching off

By Gavin Davis

The splitting up of the former Department of Communications has raised many questions. But the most important question is “why”? And more specifically, “why now”?

The answer is purely political.

The fact is that the ANC is losing its grip on power. It recorded its worst-ever election result this year. The party dropped in Gauteng by 10 percentage points; and at the next local election, the ANC is in danger of losing three cities.

To survive the next five years, President Jacob Zuma needs a good story to tell. And he needs all the help he can get to tell it.

So when the president appointed the cabinet in May, he really put his Faith in communications. And, make no mistake, Minister Muthambi is a very strategic deployment.

In her first few weeks in office, we have learned that the minister wants to create what she calls a “professional army of communicators” to bring about an “information revolution”.

The minister has been at pains to deny that this is a propaganda ministry. But her constant criticism of the media suggests otherwise. Last year, she castigated the media because it dared “to publish negative news on government, disregarding the good service delivery record of government”.

The minister rehashed this line a few weeks after assuming her cabinet post: “I will be the happiest person if we can have a situation where every South African is informed about what government is doing. There are people out there doing good, but the story is not being told.”

Clearly, the minister thinks it is her job to tell this good story, with public money.

The Government Communications Information System (GCIS) will now be working much more closely with the SABC, under the aegis of one minister. It is this arrangement, more than anything else, which signals the SABC’s shift from public to state broadcaster.

It must be of some concern to the minister that fewer people are watching and listening to the SABC than ever before.

Internal research commissioned by the SABC (which was quickly buried) has shown that the key reason for declining audiences is the perception that the public broadcaster is partisan.

It is not hard to see why. Over the last few years we have seen the appointment of SABC boards stacked with ANC deployees. We have witnessed opposition party adverts being banned from SABC TV at election time. We have heard that SABC journalists are under surveillance and their phones are being monitored.

Last but not least, we have seen the rise and rise of Hlaudi Motsoeneng. This is a man who interferes in editorial decisions, who says that 70 percent of the news must be “happy news”, and who says journalists should be licensed. It is an indictment of the SABC that his rise through the ranks has gone unchecked.

If the minister wants to regain lost viewers and listeners, she needs to show in word – and deed – that she is committed to protecting the SABC’s independence. But, instead, she has already done the precise opposite. Since assuming office, the minister has given the impression that the SABC must compensate for negative stories in the press. She has said that she wants to give herself absolute power to hire and fire the SABC board. And, inexplicably, she has protected and promoted Motsoeneng when he should have been fired.

No wonder people are switching channels.

But where do they go? Most people cannot afford satellite television. The big commercial radio stations don’t have the reach of the SABC radio stations.

This is where the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) can play an important role. This year, the MDDA will transfer R34.4 million in state funds to community and small commercial media. And, in collaboration with the GCIS, will ensure that R30m, or 12 percent of all government adspend, goes to supporting community media.

On the face of it, this appears to be a noble objective.

But the question is: can community media be truly independent if most of its funding – through advertising and grants – comes from the government?

When former GCIS chief executive Jimmy Manyi centralised all government adspend in the GCIS, he threatened newspapers that he would pull government advertising if they did not toe the government line. His recent appointment to the MDDA board is therefore an ominous development of concern to everybody who cares about the independence and sustainability of community media.

Each entity in this new department is a cog in a powerful propaganda machine. Taken together, they give the minister enormous influence over national television, radio and community media – either through direct control or dependency on state funding and government adspend.

There is nothing wrong with a government communication system that informs people of their rights, and the services they are entitled to. What must be rejected is the creation of a propaganda machine obsessed with telling people “good stories” about government.

The jobless and the poverty-stricken are not interested in the government’s “good stories”. They want good governance, good service delivery and good jobs.

And they want a government that spends its budget on fixing problems, not on trying to spin its way out of them.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications. This is an edited version of a speech delivered in the Department of Communications Budget Vote Debate. It was published in The Star on 17 July 2014.


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