Commercial paper ‘could ruin the ANC’

Edward West, Business Day, Johannesburg, 18 April 2008

The African National Congress (ANC) might bankrupt itself and go against its own policies for the promotion of media diversity if it launched a commercial newspaper, but a publication funded by members and sponsors could succeed, Freedom of Expression Institute executive director Jane Duncan said yesterday.

The ANC has appointed a committee headed by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan to investigate the establishment of a party-controlled newspaper.

ANC national spokeswoman Jessie Duarte said on Wednesday the committee’s plans would be presented to the party national executive committee (NEC), but were unlikely to be concluded by the NEC’s next meeting next month.

Duarte said some media industry organisations reacted negatively to the ANC plan, but the party needed a tool “to be able to communicate with our people” directly. It was premature to speculate about the committee’s proposals on issues such as the funding and form of the newspaper.

The party wanted to found a newspaper when it was unbanned. Talk of this died for a few years, but in the past three years there have been renewed party calls for a newspaper.

Duncan said she believed there were two schools of thought on the media in the ANC: a “Stalinist” approach involving maximum control of the media, and one that supported an independent but diverse media. “I fear the Stalinisation of media approaches.”

She said that though a publication funded by members or sponsors might succeed, newspapers were expensive to operate in the long term, and would drain party resources. However, a fairly large number of ANC members were likely to read it, and it would have strong distribution through party branches.

Duncan said that if the ANC wished to run the newspaper as a business it would have to compete and would eventually exhibit the features of commercial newspapers, such as the shifting of political opinion towards the centre and the tilting towards reporting on elites, defeating the aims of the publication.

Increasing attempts by the government to manipulate the media through the control of advertising spending at provincial and local government level were “falling under the radar screen”, and this trend might get worse if the ANC published its own commercial newspaper.

There was also the threat that a party-controlled newspaper would suck in government advertising spending from existing commercial newspapers, which would also be contrary to the party’s own policies toward media diversity.

Rhodes University journalism department head Guy Berger said that even a self-funding newspaper was not likely to be financially feasible in the long term, so the newspaper would have to be a commercial venture. “If the party does experiment with this, it needs to set some measure of success and be able to admit if it doesn’t work.”

Berger said the party could do less expensive things to improve communication with its members, such as using SMSes, “jacking up its media liaison” and being more transparent by “opening up more” to the media. The party needed to realise that “you cannot make good news out of bad things”.

He said unfair competition for government advertising should also be guarded against. For example, Namibian government advertising was being spent on in the government’s own newspaper, the New Era, while The Namibian, which had a bigger circulation, was being penalised.


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