Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, July 30, 2004

Mbeki launches his strongest attack yet on SA journalism
Thabo Mbeki has continued his unpresidential penchant for personally responding to media articles that he feels misrepresents him or his party, which I have commented on before. This time Thabo has taken issue with a recent Sunday Times article entitled "Mbeki passes the buck on job creation", and his augmented his usual commentary in his 'ANC Today' newsletter with a broad attack on the South African media.

In this case, Mbeki's usual paranoia about media criticism has been heightened by his assertions that this second term is one of delivery. In this criticism, the Sunday Times is attacking the implementation of the Expanded Public Works program as a non-starter, which cuts to the very core of Mbeki's State of the Nation resolutions on delivery.

Many great business leaders enjoy micro-managing, but I am unconvinced that a president should be involved to this level. This is a government spokesperson's role, not a presidential role. Mbeki should be placing himself above the day to day commentary of the media and letting his party strategists shape government responses to criticism and respond through alternative channels. Personally attacking either an author (as he has shown want to do in the past), or in this case, a particular newspaper, only elevates the issue at hand to a wider audience and thus escalates the national commentary of the issue, usually with negative consequences for Mbeki.

But Mbeki has gone even further this time, launching into a tirade against the quality of South Africa's journalists and general media. Forsaking brevity, this needs to be quoted in full:

"The strange and false discoveries of the "Sunday Times" with regard to the EPWP raise a number of serious concerns. One of these relates to the quality of journalism in our country. The sorry tale told by the "Sunday Times" handling of the EPWP issue points to the reality of a serious national problem. Questions must necessarily arise about the extent to which we, and the general public, can rely on the media as a source of objective information, on which we should base our actions."

"Another relates to the extent to which "political correspondents" actually understand the most basic elements of South African and other political reality and practice. This must be considered together with the peculiar notion that seems to be prevalent in some circles, that media independence must necessarily translate into a consistent effort to find fault with, and criticise the government and the ruling party, at all costs."

"The third of these concerns arises directly from the obvious certainty on the part of the "Sunday Times" that the ANC ran a fraudulent election campaign, based on the brazen propagation of a big lie. This indicates that there are some within a media that proudly proclaims that it is committed to "objective, truthful, unbiased and balanced" reporting, whose fundamental assumptions about the ANC are far removed from what would qualify to be described as objective, truthful, unbiased and balanced."

This depth of criticism is an unprecedented move by Mbeki, and shows a leader that is placing comments into the public sphere that, in my view, are best kept private, or at best dealt with through more collaborative channels. Mbeki is questioning the role of the media in the country, and is communicating ambiguous and dangerous signals of government inferences on muzzling media criticism.

Personally, I also feel that this shows a great weakness in Mbeki's leadership, a lack of measured, composed management of situations and a lack of nuance and sensitivity to a sector that is critical to the management of the public image of the presidency.

Mbeki concludes by quoting Ignacio Ramonet: "As people are now beginning to realise, news is contaminated. It poisons our minds, pollutes our brains, manipulates us, intoxicates us, and tries to instil into our subconscious ideas that are not our own. This is why we now need to establish an ecology of news, to sort real news from a flood of lies."

He then closes by saying "Hopefully the situation will not arise in future when, as seems to happen so regularly with regard to negative social phenomena, somebody will claim a place for us as the global leader among the purveyors of contaminated news."

If this is how Mbeki reacts to a small piece of criticism amongst a media that is almost pathetic in its reluctance to criticise him, one wonders about the future of government interference with the media, and I truly hope that there is much response to his tirade from the media industry itself. In the past the industry has tended to run for the hills when Mbeki throws his big stick around, but I fear that this may be a watershed moment.