CHRIS VICK: ANC conference gives clarity on role of media
SO WE didn't quite get a second transition out of the African National Congress (ANC) policy conference. But we did get clarity - largely unreported - about the latest ANC policy on the role and character of the media.
The conference's decisions could directly affect the content of the newspapers you read, as well as their ownership and control. Ironically, the conclusions reached by delegates also highlight how the people who run newspapers are losing ground on both issues.
Look at the timeline. In 2007, the ANC called for an alternative to the self-regulatory press council, which it regards as a buddy-buddy system, and consideration of a media appeals tribunal. It also called for transformation of ownership and control.
Last July, as the ANC stepped up pressure for a tribunal, the two bodies representing owners and editors - Print Media SA and the South African National Editors' Forum - devised a stop-gap: they established their own Press Freedom Commission.
When the commission's report was published in April, it concluded: "An independent co-regulatory mechanism, not including state participation, will best serve press freedom." Crucially, it added: "To be an effective and responsible regulatory system, this mechanism must manifest administrative fairness and institutional independence from the industry it is to regulate."
The owners and editors had a dilemma. Not only did their own commission argue for co-regulation and independence, but its recommendations were immediately embraced by the ANC. An acceptable middle ground, the ANC believed, had been found. And it wasn't a media tribunal.
Three months have passed since then, and you would have expected the owners and editors to have developed a proper response to their own report by now. You would have expected engagement with the key concepts, a definitive statement to either commit, adapt or reject, some indication of process, and for progress to be made.
But the only place the debate continued with some seriousness, and with a meaningful outcome, was inside the ANC. And now they're hot for the commission's findings. Two conference delegates I spoke to - who are members of the ANC communications committee - said there was "a general sense of satisfaction" with the proposals. "Delegates resolved that Parliament should proceed with the investigation into a new regulatory model, using the commission's recommendations as a framework," said one.
The world is still waiting, however, to hear how the owners and editors intend to deal with proposals made by their own creation. Both organisations have held at least one board or council meeting since the report was tabled, yet neither has articulated any detail on how they intend to take it forward.
"They can't set up a commission and then not provide a substantive response to its findings," one ANC committee member said. "It's their commission. The least they can do is outline what they intend to do with the press council and how they envisage the transition. Or are they going to wait until Parliament does it, then moan about the outcome?"
Clearly, some detail is needed soon. A continued silence on the question of content regulation could irritate the process, and also harden attitudes on the other big issue - ownership. Particularly given that Print Media SA now wants to establish its own "self-transformation council" to address newspaper ownership and control, as outlined in this column two weeks ago.
At the time, I described the idea as "brainless". ANC communications committee members, post-policy conference, share that view: "They cannot declare self-transformation - particularly given the state of the industry, and the fact that they haven't even acted on their last delaying tactic (the Press Freedom Commission )," one said. "You can't have a situation where the voice of the people is owned by a handful of white men. They're just trying to delay a media charter."
The irony is that even the Press Freedom Commission, although established to investigate content regulation, could not avoid the need to address ownership. It even recommended consideration of a media charter.
And maybe that's the problem. What do you do when a structure you set up to save your neck ends up potentially hanging you not once, but twice?
I'll leave the final word to Media24 CEO Esmare Weideman, who wrote to Business Day last week questioning my statistics on the dominance of white male control.
What was particularly insightful were Ms Weideman's observations on calls for a media charter: "The drive for a charter has nothing to do with (black economic empowerment) ," she declared, "but is an effort to have the state control the free media and turn it into a print version of the SABC."
Better the white guy you know than the government you don't know?
. Vick runs Black, a communications consultancy.
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