The director of Media Monitoring Africa, William Bird, is concerned that Caxton’s decision to pull out of presenting to the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team will put the process at risk.

“I think it’s a major problem,” he told The Media Online after presenting MMA’s submission at the hearings in Johannesburg on Wednesday. “The print media should be going at this full ball. Talking about transformation. Getting involved. Because if this doesn’t work, the print media will be inviting a transformation charter.”

Bird was responding to Caxton’s decision to withdrew from the PDMTTT to focus on a Competition Commission investigation into the big four print media companies, which have been accused of suspected anti-competitive behaviour. Caxton’s non-executive chairman, Paul Jenkins, told The Media Online that in “addressing the issues of media concentration and lack of ownership diversity, it is necessary to analyse the same facts and circumstances that are being investigated by the Competition Commission”.

Bird is not convinced. “The print media mustn’t stuff this up,” he says. “They need to look as if they care about it. Otherwise government will start threatening a Media Appeals Tribunal. I am also concerned over the reaction of the PDMTTT to Caxton’s pulling out. It doesn’t seem to worry them that much.”

At the same time, Bird says transformation is not just something that the print media should be criticised for. He says while the SABC is supposed to be  ‘transformed’, it “lurches from crisis to crisis” rather than being a “counterpoint to the print media”.

“If transformation is required only in order to demonstrate representivity in ownership, management and staffing (and an ability to ‘tick boxes’ in meeting codes for BBBEE and related imperatives) – then one need look no further than some of the small, black- owned print commercial media, or the public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), to see that different ownership structures and changes in ownership, management and staff will not necessarily bring about transformation in content,” he says in the MMA’s presentation.

And he points out that in terms of SABC editorial coverage of news, “white people featured almost three times their representative population (26% versus 9%) in economics stories”.

This means “fulfilment of employment equity targets has not brought about the necessary changes in organisational culture that demand accountability and editorial independence, and that result in fundamental shifts in coverage”.

Bird’s point is that people at grassroots are not being serviced by media organisations, or the fact that South Africa has expensive broadband that prevents access to media.

“We argue strongly for access,” he says. “Access is key to communities having access to the media on phones. We need fast, cheap broadband. This is something we should be lobbying for all the time.”

The MMA also says gender representivity is a key issue in the print media. “Gender inequality, and gender based violence in particular, is a problem that impacts not only women but also men – it sullies our concept of masculinity and it undermines our democracy. It is therefore critical that initiatives taken in newsrooms – such as those by City Press to have women on each page – are recognised and encouraged in efforts to transform,” he says.

It is these issues that the print media needs to address, he says. It’s not just about ownership and control. It’s about all aspects of media. The MMA’s stance is that “greater transformation is required in order to promote our constitutional democracy. The media should be at the forefront of the fight for freedom of expression and speech; it must speak to the interests and needs of the diverse range of people in South Africa; and it must do so in ways that are ethical and financially sustainable”.

It is also “imperative” to transform, Bird says. And if the industry doesn’t do it for itself, it “runs the risk of government setting its transformation agenda – with attendant risks of greater political interference and pressure.

“Secondly, if the industry is able to transform itself in ways that meet the needs of its readerships and audiences, and becomes more representative of the values enshrined in our Constitution, it will gain credibility and, as a direct result, financial viability will be strengthened. “

This article was published on The Media Online website.