Jeremy Cronin’s light defence of the proposed media tribunal couldn’t have come at a worse moment – a few hours before the showy arrest of the Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika.

That’s a pity, because his comments were more sensible and readable than those of his comrades – although still misguided and, ultimately, dangerous, as I shall argue.

Jeremy Cronin - no longer a victim of the powerful

It’s difficult not to lump into one basket the various hostilities emanating from government and the ruling alliance towards the media.

Aside from the aforementioned arrest, and several high-profile verbal attacks on the press,  there is the Protection of Information Bill wending its way through parliament and the ANC’s own proposed ‘media tribunal’ up for discussion at that organisation’s National General Council in a few weeks time.

Here  for a link to the ANC’s extraordinarily badly written and poorly argued document (Media Diversity and Ownership) proposing the media tribunal. Here is Jeremy Gordon’s irritated criticism of the document on the happily trending rightward Politicsweb. Here, for those with time on their hands, is the tedious Protection of Information Bill.

I think the impression that the ANC and government are engaged in a concerted effort to make the media more compliant is indisputable. The fact that they are doing what governments, ruling parties and “the powerful” do in all places and at all times does not mean they should not be criticised and watched carefully and suspiciously. It just means that we should be less breathless and astonished when we do the criticising and watching.

So before Cronin’s piece gets drowned out by the sound of jackboots let us examine the points he makes.

Firstly he correctly points out that the major newspapers have had a nasty few weeks – he mentions Business Day apologising to General Nyanda for shoddy journalism in a story “alleging intended corruption in the suspension of his Director General”. He points out that The Times carried an apology for a story alleging that Blade Nzimande had called for the jailing of journalists (catch a cached version of the original stupid story here – frankly The Times deserves whatever punishment they it gets for that trashy headline!)

Cronin interestingly chooses not to mention the City Press being forced by the Ombudsman to apologise to ANC Treasurer General Mathews Phosa – see that here. It is possible that his deadline missed the release of the Ombudsman’s order, but he may not have mentioned it anyway because his point is that the self-regulatory mechanisms are inadequate – that what we need is a tribunal answerable to parliament.

Where Cronin deserves credit is he then lists the various problems he and his comrades have with the media that a media tribunal is not designed to address:

  • the  “narrowly anti-ANC oppositionist stance” of much of the “print media”;
  • failing to balance the “watch-dog” role with other roles like providing “ordinary citizens with accurate information”;
  • the centralised ownership of big newspaper “corporations” (a matter he thinks would be better addressed by the Competitions Commission);
  • The foreign ownership, especially of the “Independent” newspapers, which has resulted in working capital draining out of these organisations to support loss making operations in other countries;
  • the “trashy tabloid” character of much of the print media, that results from the profit imperative being imposed on the newsrooms.

For Cronin, the ‘media tribunal’ is somewhere that:

… members of the public, including (but not only) high-profile personalities, can take concerns around grievous misrepresentation and unethical reporting …

without having to go to the expense and difficulties of the courts.

Now if that was all there was to it we would all pat Jeremy (Cronin, not Gordin) warmly on the back and add our support to the tribunal. There are two linked issues, however, that I would like to take up with Cronin.

Firstly the tribunal is not argued in anything like the terms that Cronin argues in the gigabytes of documents and criticism that come from his comrades and their various organisations – just throw your eye (as certain South Africans are wont to say) over the aforementioned execrable Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity document. In amongst all the bullying and bombast is every single argument that Cronin disavows.

So are we meant to accept the media tribunal for the sensible reason that Cronin advances or reject it for the outrageous and dangerous reasons his comrades advance?

The second issue I wish to take up with Jeremy Cronin is more subtle but actually gets my goat in a more profound way. In a thousand different ways Cronin presents himself and the ANC as the wronged victim of the powerful, centralised, foreign owned and corporate print media. This is big business imposing its arrogant will on the democratic movements of the people and the workers.

That is, quite frankly, rubbish. It is time that Cronin woke up to the reality that he is the powerful one and/or the representative of the powerful. I get that big business is going to be selling its line into the public consciousness every chance it gets, but it will take a lot more than Cronin’s innocent belief in his own good intentions and the good intentions of his comrades to convince me that they are, in fact, not the bigger of the problems that confront us and our media.

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