Tell the same lie over and over maybe people will start believing it - that's the government's big gambit. And look no further than 702 Talk Radio's interview this week with Jimmy Manyi, the government's new communications tzar, for evidence of this cheap chicanery.
(Listen to the podcast and read for an EyeWitness News story summing up the interview by 702's John Robbie.)
A few of the lies
Let's take a few of the lies Manyi is trying to get the unwary to believe (as told to Robbie on Tuesday, 21 June 2011):
- The only time the media reports on the government is when there is something wrong;
- Everyone is innocent until proven guilty but the media doesn't work this way and thinks it can smear anyone it likes;
- There is a lack of diversity in SA media; and
- The latest one: that South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) chairman Mondli Makhanya is showing cartel-like tendencies because he's calling on the country's media to work together to fight the ANC's attempts to limit media freedom.
In response, I wish to point out:
- The media reports on many aspect of the government but - as it is true in many countries - it's the big exposés that make the front-page headlines. "Excitement ahead of Obama's visit to Apartheid Museum" and "Dept looks for funds for school sports" does not an interesting Page 1 make, although this is what BuaNews, the government's "gateway to quick and fresh government news and information", had as its top stories this morning.
And let's not forget that the government has plenty of channels through which to communicate - the SABC's radio and TV stations, the openly government-friendly The New Age newspaper, the government's own website, BuaNews and the soon-to-be revamped government magazine, Vukuzenzele - not to mention its sizeable advertising budget and army of communications staff, all paid for by the South African taxpayer. The last thing the government is is underpowered in the communications department.
- The media couldn't "smear", even if it wanted to. Everything it reports on must be within the bounds of defamation law or it faces crippling law suits. And the first defence against defamation is truth, so if the media goes with a big government corruption story, it's only because it has the documents and multiple sources to back it up.
- Diversity in the media has improved over the past decade, especially in radio. It is, in fact, the government's responsibility to fund the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) that nurtures and funds alternative media (though the media houses contribute, too). If the government is serious about diversity, it should put more money and expertise into the MDDA.
The criticism that four media houses - Independent Newspapers, Media24, Avusa and Caxton - own most of the country's press is pretty silly, when you consider that we have quite a small economy - and a small pool of readers. Four media houses is quite good when you compare us with Australia, for instance, which is dominated by two players - Rupert Murdoch and Tony O'Reilly's international empires.
- Makhanya is calling on the media to work together in his capacity as the head of SANEF (@SAEditorsForum) to fight for media freedom, for heaven's sake - not to huddle in a back room to fix prices and fiddle with the processes of the market.
Seems so unsuited to the job
Many of us media luvvies scratched our heads when Manyi was appointed head of GCIS. He seems so unsuited to the job as chief government spin doctor - such a goon, so stunningly unsophisticated. And indeed, the seasoned journalist Chris Vick - who understands this government well as he advises human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale on communications - said recently in an opinion piece for The Daily Maverick: "What's lacking is a desire to understand how the media works, or how to work the media - whether it's mainstream or new technology. Instead, the attitude often seems to be that if you don't understand it, you don't waste time working out how to deal with it - you just hit it on the head."
Not so much a case of the media is from Mars and the government is from Venus, then - more the Sopranos stomping into town. The ANC - and Essop Pahad, Thabo Mbeki's chief enforcer, who seemed to start it all when he was in government - is wont to making a big scary noise and then sitting back to see if the other side will quietly make a concession.
Julius Malema is a master at this, the ANC and Cosatu frequently do it to each other, and I think Manyi's desired outcome of the suggestion that the government will only give advertising to government-friendly media is: media owners will mull it over and then pick up the phone and tell the editors: "I can't tell you what to do but this is something we have to think about."
Manyi could also, of course, be setting the stage for the government to pour advertising into The New Age newspaper (to be followed, I'm sure, by nice fat government contracts for the new press the paper's owners, the Guptas, are buying from Germany.) [And what about Floyd Shivambu's new youth magazine, Loocha?- managing ed.]
Ain't this also the ANC way?
Manyi seemed to step back this week on 702 from his previous scare tactics, saying the media can trust the government, that he did not threaten to withdraw advertising - but ain't this also just the ANC way? Make your displeasure known out and then ameliorate it, thereby avoiding a proper debate on your stance. Classic passive aggression, that - and more Machiavellian than goon-like.
Take Nceba Faku, the ANC's Nelson Mandela Bay chairman, for instance. After the local government elections, he told a crowd of people to burn down The Herald building becuase it supported the DA and Cope - instead of the ANC. He later denied saying this and the ANC disassociated itself from the comments but Faku got it out there, didn't he?
Fortunately, The Herald's editor, Heather Robertson, is made of sterner stuff and the paper is pursuing its quest through PAIA to get released a 2003 ANC forensic report that recommended that Faku be charged with fraud for his role in various municipal projects. (No prizes for spotting Faku's ulterior motive, then.)
It's hard to decide if the ANC is very clever or very thuggish but, ulitmately, when it resorts to scare tactics, it's not playing to educated South Africans who work in newspapers and who read newspapers. It's playing to the poor, its voters whom the ANC is betting will identify with the party painting itself a victim of a conspiracy. It's betting the poor and the working class will hate the educated middle class and their ponsy broadsheet newspapers. So really, it's clever to appear ignorant.
Quite a small part of the mix
Ironically, however, Manyi may well be barking up the wrong tree with his grand plan for government adspend. At least three newspaper editors (and it the newspapers that the ANC wants brought to heel) told me this week that government adspend was quite a small part of the mix for them - and what was there is mostly job ads in classifieds.
While one said government advertising made up about 6% of revenue - a not unsubstantial amount - others said they had started weaning themselves off reliance on government advertising quite a while back because a) the government is such a bad payer and b) the writing was on the wall when Pahad started threatening papers such as the Sunday Times with witholding advertising years ago. Though none of them would sneeze at more advertising from the government, most are getting along without it already.
The Herald's Roberston believes an unofficial boycott of the paper by government is already in place since the paper started breaking stories about corruption in the municipality. She estimates that government advertising makes up about 10% of what's going into The Herald, compared with about 20% two years ago. Ads for municipal tenders, for instance, now go to The Herald's competitors, Son, the Eastern Cape edition of Die Burger and the Daily Sun.
Nielsen, which compiles the AIS/AdEx annual review of SA advertising spend, says the lion's share of national government advertising in 2010 went to broadcasting. (These figures can be generous as they are calculated on official ad rates and, therefore, cannot factor in discounting and cross-title deals within the same media house.)
Lion's share went to broadcasting in 2010
According to the AIS/AdEx Nielsen numbers, national government spent R232 million in advertising in 2010. R80 million of this went to print, compared with R84 million to radio and R56 million to TV. (That's R140 million for the radio and TV broadcasters.) R6 million went to outdoor advertising, R2 million to Internet and R3 million to direct mail.
The national government came in as the 23rd biggest spender in 2010, after the likes of the FMCG sector such as Unilever SA, retail such as Shoprite and Pick n Pay, cellphone firms such as Vodacom, and liquor companies such as SAB Miller and Distell.
Quite where Manyi's figure of the R1 billion government-advertising budget comes from, I'm not quite sure. According to the AdEx figures, the national government and provincial governments spent a combined R497 million last year. If you factored in local governments and parastatals, you might make R1 billion but I think this deserves further explanation from Manyi, considering he is talking about consolidating the ad budgets of the various national governments - not provincial, local and parastatals.
And so I say to Mr Manyi: Best you check the numbers before you bluster around all over the place. You don't scare us. The wary are watching.