Dissident Spin Doctor: Assaulting our media — let slip the dogs of war
by Emma King (@EmmainSA) Has anyone else been worried about the recent outright and coordinated attack on our free media? Those who aren’t should be. And those, like me, who are, need to step out from behind our armchair Twitter accounts.
To put this into perspective, let’s not underestimate the role that a strong and independent media has played in forming our young democracy. Nor let us forget the role it’s still playing now — imagine if the media had never brought to light the skandaal of the fire pool at Nkandla or the juicy-yet-nauseating levels of corruption detailed in the #GuptaLeaks? It all makes for a fabulously interesting read over the morning coffee, or scintillating discussion around the water cooler, but there’s a darker story in this to be considered.
One of the last standing barriers
Our media is one of the last standing barriers (along with our constitutional court and, we hope for now, a free and fair election system) between a strong and healthy democracy and a failed state. At the recent Daily Maverick Gathering evening in Cape Town, the discussion went further. Panellists suggested that whistle-blowers and journalists are playing a role of ‘freedom fighters’ in fighting for our democracy, while others suggested that what we’re seeing now is testimony to the level of state capture that has occurred, where the media is essentially playing the role of the failing criminal justice system.
The result is that our proud tradition of an independent and free media is coming increasingly under attack.
This isn’t confirmed to the borders of South Africa. Media houses globally are increasingly coming under more and more financial and social pressure, faced with nose-diving revenues, and as with the case in the “Land of the Free”, a concerted effort to delegitimise any voices that question the powers that be. But it’s been taken up a level here, where journalists have been hounded and physically attacked. Where they need bodyguards to leave their houses, simply for refusing to stay silent.
Likewise, we have seen a poisonous use of media and social media in structured, planned propaganda campaigns. We only need to look in our own backyards to see how editors and journalists have been the targets of sustained attacks by armies of belligerent Bell-Pottingereqsue Twitter trolls in what some have described as the “weaponsiation of social media”. There are people whose agenda it is to tell the truth, and other whose agenda is not to. And, as with many things in life, one only has to ask who’s funding it for it to make a certain kind of sense.
It’s all very easy for us, sitting in our safe little businesses and sipping our artisanal ground coffees to turn a blind eye. But it’s useful to look at recent history to learn some lessons.
Martin Niemöller, a prominent pastor who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in a concentration camp, famously wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
And so, today, in our climate, here and abroad, it’s not just the media who should be worried but all of us. Because, make no mistake, there are bigger stakes at play.
So the thing we all ask ourselves, myself included, is what the hell we can actually do about anything? If investigative journalists have put their jobs and lives on the line to find out the truth and fight back, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to support them, instead of sitting on the sidelines sipping said coffees?
First, those in business should understand the role that they play and the bigger voice they could have in the defence of our freedom and democracy. There is the worry that, in a punitive state, there are consequences to pay for sticking a head above the crowd but there’s also the opportunity for businesses to come together as a powerful team, to be more fearless — as Wendy Applebaum said at the DM Gathering “if they don’t, there will be nothing left.”
Secondly, we — businesses, individuals — need to make an active decision to support the credible and investigative media outlets which are struggling stretch tight revenues. Imagine if they failed and we had no access to any free or independent information?
We need to start paying for subscriptions and not expecting information for free all the time, and businesses need to put their advertising revenue behind outlets which are “fighting the good fight”. As much as Facebook and Google may be chewing up advertising revenues, they certainly aren’t ploughing that back into South African investigative journalism.
We need to understand that the lack of resources which the media is facing is hampering their ability to get information to the poor and the rural masses — arguably the audiences that most need to be informed. Can businesses rethink their CSI budgets so that they are not just handing over a cheque but where they are, instead, supporting the growth of technology to build clever ways to galvanise people and share information?
The last and most powerful thing that we, as individuals, should understand is that every single one of us can be a journalist and social activist. We can share information and we can add our voices to stand up for those who are standing up for us We are at a pivotal point in our democracy and I’m sure I speak for many in saying we want to be on the right side of history.
News24’s Adriaan Basson also said at the DM Gathering, “When looking at people like Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas [at which point there was a standing ovation], how could we not play our part? We have no choice; we need to be part of this.”
Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.