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International Experience: Government communication and media
The value to South Africa of studying international experience is less
in any ad hoc copying (or discarding) of specific communication
arrangements, than in drawing the lessons for a guiding philosophy
tailored to this country's needs. This approach means taking account of
the potential - and, significantly, also the limits - of government
communication and media policy in South African conditions. The
recommendation is that the South African government operate from a
philosophical perspective acknowledging the right to communicate. On this
foundation, government should aim for interactive communication with (and
between) citizens, rather than a purely "push" model of communication.
This requires: firstly, that the government does not "mess" with the mass
media (public or private), but rather boosts its press liaison capacity;
secondly that it improves direct communication with citizens via existing
public servants and activities. (Both these strategies necessitate
improved internal communication within government and state). Thirdly, and
most importantly, government should create an enabling environment for
many more citizens to become communicators in their own right. This
entails limited media subsidies for community-based communication, as well
as the rapid development of telecommunications to provide infrastructure
for the cheapest, and most interactive, mass communications system yet
2. Is a national policy on communication possible
4. South Africa: communication and government.
5. Government as communicator.
6. Government and mass media: the
7. Using the media.
8. Co-ordinating government
9. Government as enabling civil communication.
The right to communicate and the Internet.
This paper begins by setting
out a methodology for approaching international experience in government
communication and media policy. This sets the parameters of the
discussion. The paper then examines reasons for the lack of a national
communication policy in democratic countries internationally, and the
relevance of this to South Africa. Instead, it identifies guiding
philosophies for government communication and media policy, as they exist
elsewhere. The paper recommends a home-grown philosophy based on South
African conditions and also drawing on the concept of the right to
communicate in order to supplement international philosophical
perspectives. Applying this to South Africa requires an outline of the
communications picture here. Although faced with significant constraints,
there is still a need for the government to communicate, as examined by
the paper. Government tensions with the media are then evaluated, and the
proposal made that government develop its media relations. The paper
proceeds to investigate ways government could develop civil society
communication capacity. Finally, it concludes with a discussion of the
vast potential of the Internet in developing the right to communicate.
1. METHODOLOGICAL ASSUMPTIONS
Is international experience
useful? It depends. Look at the way many people accept or reject alien
experiences: it is frequently by reference to what they already believe
in. In other words, world experience confirms their own pre-existing
stance and serves as ammunition to back this up. There is a parallel in
the way that religious fundamentalists can always find and selectively
cite a dogma to justify their preconceptions. I am conscious that South
Africa should not, in autarchical style, attempt to reinvent the wheel,
but we also need to recall even the very latest international technology
can always be improved upon, and that very specific wheels are needed for
this country's peculiar terrain. To assess what exactly we draw from
overseas has to be firmly grounded on our knowledge of what is happening
here, what we want to do about it, and why.
The starting point in
the here and now, is - crudely - that the government is trying to upgrade
the quality of life of black South Africans, that it believes
communication has an important part to play in this, and that it has
serious problems with the country's present communication set up. This
situation, the assumption goes, is something that can - and should - be
addressed by government policy measures.
(1) A number of key
qualifications can immediately be made at this point, setting the
parameters of the discussion.
1.1 "Communication has a role to
Communication has a role to play in achieving any
government's - indeed, anyone's - objectives. But exactly what, is hard to
say with any degree of scientific precision. Debate has raged and research
has rolled for decades about the power of communication and its social
effects. There is also a host of related issues to consider like the time
frame entailed, durability of the effect, indirect effects, combination of
media, etc. (Windahl et al, 1992).
In the 1950s, along with a
"Modernization theory" approach to development, the belief was that
communication alone could produce development. From the Left came the
critique that communication (of imperialist culture) was actually
inhibiting development. In reaction to this overemphasis of the power of
communication, the phenomenon was then placed right in the back seats;
structures and struggles were pinpointed as the more important variables.
Today, a more moderate position prevails: communication is seen as
(potentially) supporting development (rather than causing, preventing or
being irrelevant to it). Using a model abbreviated as KAP, it is now
argued that communication effects operate mainly on the realm of
Knowledge, far less on Attitudes, and even less in Practises (behaviour).
All this is important to keep in mind because as Pierce (1979:120) reminds
us (as regards Peru), "no amount of words would take the place of deeds."
Communication, especially not the issuing of flashy South African
Communication Services (SACS) magazines, will not be the panacea for all
South Africa's problems.
If we now
have a better understanding of the place (role and limits) of
communication, we still need to define what it means. There are literally
thousands of books on this subject, but only one point need really receive
attention here. This is that communication is a two-way street. It is
interactive, dialogical - to do with dialogue. Without this understanding,
we leave out the core dimension, and denude the concept of its proper
meaning. Thus, we may counterpose the question: "Does government have a
responsibility to communicate to the public?", to a different formulation:
"Does government have a responsibility to communicate with the public?."
This change in one word means a world of difference in the implications.
1.3 "Communication, media and government policy."
they are often conflated, communication is not the same thing as the
media, let alone the mass media. Media is what makes communication
possible: it is the means. A lot of communication occurs without what we
usually call "the (mass) media": direct speech, body language, fashion,
architecture. These are all ways of sending and receiving messages and
meanings. Government communications are thus not synonymous with
government use of mass media: indeed government use of real life
"footsoldiers" (i.e. every civil servant) in direct, unmediated
communication with the public is arguably as important in terms of
achieving results as messages mediated through print, broadcast,
billboard, etc. For the purposes of this paper, media will be used to
refer to mass media, which is but one aspect in a communications process.
A policy on communication then is not the same thing as a policy
on media. It is far wider. And of course, a policy on
government-communication is a subset of a government's more general policy
1.4 "What should government legitimately do?"
A final methodological premise that needs to be established in
this paper is the question of objectivity. This author does not believe in
value-free research and analysis. Interestingly, much of the
English-language literature on government communication relations
approaches the topic from the point of view of the media, not from the
point of view of a government trying to communicate. This clearly reflects
Western origins, and such value biases need to be made clear. My own bias
is somewhat different. I approach the topic of government communication
from the point of view of communication as such: to evaluate both
government and the media in terms of their contribution to social
communication. Ultimately, this probably means an approach from the point
of view of the individuals making up society at large, rather than from
the perspective of either two institutional actors, no matter how central
they may be. The perspective then is not what is in the interests of the
government, nor what is in the interests of the media, but what is in the
more global interests of a society communicating with itself.
Underlying any recommendations about government communication and
media policy are also strong moral and political values about the nature
of South Africa today, what needs to be done, and who should do it. The
value position of this paper is drawn from a synthesis of modern Western
beliefs favouring a weak state subordinate to a strong society, and what
is probably a more Africanist perspective of a stronger state playing a
leadership role in development. I believe South Africa needs a strong,
effective state and a strong, effective civil society. This perspective
informs my analysis of the relevance of international communication
experience for this country.
2. IS A NATIONAL POLICY ON
From the discussion above, it should be
apparent that a comprehensive communication policy is the framework within
which the question of government communication and media policy should be
tackled. It would be flawed to have a policy for only the mass media, or a
policy for only government communications, (or a policy exclusively
concerning grassroots communications, for that matter). The big picture,
including all these elements, needs to be accounted for. (2)
turn, a general communication framework is not free-floating: it will
exist typically within a broader set of policies. The importance of this
is noted by Parker and Mohammadi (1977:179/180), who write:
"Messages in support of regional development all emanating from a
centralized national media channel would be ineffective because the nature
of the source would inherently contradict the message. If the national
policy is to encourage local initiative, then national or regional
messages to that effect will be less effective than arrangements that
permit local access to broadcasting facilities."
It follows that
in South Africa, national communications policy initiatives are likely to
be within the framework of the Reconstruction and Development Programme
(RDP) and its various policy planks. That much is easy. The next step is
where the problem arises. Just as the RDP suffers by being such an
omnibus, total strategy whose vast extent inhibits any specific
understandings, so it is equally difficult to come up with a national
communications policy that is coherent and comprehensive. Not only that,
the complexity of the field makes this nigh impossible. South Africa in
this regard is probably not much different to international experience,
the lessons of which are as follows:
2.1 Communication policy is
not only made by governments:
Policy is a set of principles and
norms to guide action (Unesco, 1971:8). But where does it come from?
Communication policies are often formulated and implemented by different
bodies, each one with a limited and specific purpose (Ploman, 1977:51/2).
Even within the state, one finds for example that a bureau dealing with
development communications is located in the ministries of information
and/or planning in Indonesia and Iran, but based in rural and agricultural
sector ministries in the case of Mexico, Peru and Iraq, and in the
population development/health ministries in Kenya and Thailand. (Ploman,
1977: 62). In the UK, 30 or more agencies deal with the media or
media-related matters. (Negrine, 1994:204). Selected departmental
responsibilities for media policy in the UK are as follows (Seymour-Ure,
Competition Trade &
Industrial rels Employment
Radio & TV
policy Home Office
Overseas services Foreign
& Commonwealth office
Film Trade and Industry
Cable Home Office,
Trade and Industry
Satellite: Home Office
One should also not assume that government alone
makes policy. In the USA, some media policy has-been decided by the courts
(Edgar and Rahim, 1983:19). South Africa's constitutional court is likely
to do the same. Then there is the whole realm of non-state communications
policies, such as within the newspaper industry, where policies (eg. on
affirmative action, language) are made in areas where government either
has no policy or cannot enforce a policy.
2.2 The range of media
tends to fragment communication policies.
A communication policy
includes a media policy, but that in turn requires a definition of media
(Negrine, 1974:203). Media are defined in differing ways: film by
location, newspapers and magazines by physical produce and cycle of
appearance, radio and TV by receiving apparatus, cable and satellite by a
means of distribution; video and sound records, by their function. The
result of this is that a country like France has had a robust
telecommunication policy, but not a national communications policy. The
USA of course has different policies and standards for different media. In
many countries, books or the Internet are barely recognised as mass media.
In addition to the definition of what is within the definition, one needs
to ask whether there is even any underlying unity amongst the mass media,
given their different characteristics, contents, markets, organisation,
ownership and functions (Negrine, 1994:204). The very complexity of the
area thwarts consistency in policy.
2.3 The different needs of
government makes a single policy difficult.
It goes without saying
that government is a highly complex business, with a variety of generic as
well as specialised functions. These cover a vast array of areas -
political, legal, economic, social, infrastructural, international, etc. -
all of which have a communicative aspect. Some of these functions are
coterminous with institutional structuring; others are performed, for
instance, within and/or across ministries.
derives from the fact that many government and state functions require
particular mixes of internally-oriented and externally-oriented
communication. In addition, communications capacity is highly varied among
government departments and state sectors, with different degrees of
in-house expertise and infrastructure, engagement of commercial service
providers or use of a body like the SA Communications Service. It would be
unrealistic to expect such a situation to be rationalised and standardised
overnight, or indeed at all. This is not, however, to deny that a lot more
co-ordination can (and should) still be done in this country.
The range of issues to regulate inhibits a single communication policy.
Focusing for a moment only on the mass media, much policy acts on
the media environment, and though not aimed exclusively at the media,
makes a substantial impact upon it (Seymour-Ure, 1987:271). This would
apply to training policies, affirmative action policies, etc.
addition, however, there are a vast array of complex topics specifically
applied to the media, and evidenced for instance by the writer Seymour-Ure
who categorises British media policies as follows (1987:272/3):
Medium Policy fields
In the grid created by these two axes, Seymour-Ure cites things
like the Monopolies commission, VAT rating, Official Secrets Act,
Copyright law, Broadcasting Complaints Commission, etc.
Policy of course needs to be informed by research about
the area singled out for policy. South Africa is, however, notably lacking
in comprehensive data here. Without this, however, a communication policy
will not relate to real and existing conditions. Unfortunately, we do not
have much in this line of research in South Africa.
the issue is also not only how much research, but what kind of research. I
have grave doubts about quantitative content-analysis research -
apparently done by SACS in the past - which looks at the extent of mass
media coverage of government activity.
First, this obviously
ignores the key question of quality of coverage (positive or negative,
educational or informative, etc) - a question which, incidentally, is also
methodologically dicey in terms of pinning down and applying acceptable
definitions. Second, this research focus places government-mass media
relations at the centre of communications analysis, ignoring questions
like where and how citizens really get their information about government
and state. For instance, while politicians place a lot of emphasis on what
is in the press, in South Africa only some 44 per 1000 people read a daily
newspaper (compare Norway at 619, the UK at 362, Malaysia at 112,
Argentina at 79) (Salomon, 1993:vii). The impact of the press does spread
far beyond its immediate readers, but this is not a basis for constructing
any overarching policy framework. For that, research is needed to
establish just how South Africans, newspaper readers and non-readers, get
their information, including from their own direct experience - and how
they mediate information as active audiences, how they regard different
sources, how they further disseminate versions of such information, etc.
This review helps explain why countries
are more likely to have several communication policies, rather than a
single consistent one (see Negrine, 1994:204). Britain - with its
saturation mass communication systems - has no overarching communication
policy. In fact, it has not even got a media policy: it has several "media
policies that are unco-ordinated, expediential, partial, indirect, and, in
terms of a public political agenda, largely invisible."
1987:270). As a result of the fragmentation there are major
inconsistencies in British communications policies.
Edgar and Rahim, there is a lack of a coherent and all-embracing policy in
every developed Western country, except Sweden (1977:11). In the words of
Ploman: "it is hard to discover a national communications plan which
merits the name." (1977:71).
It is unlikely that South Africa will
successfully establish a single national "total strategy" for
communications where other democratic countries have failed. Government
here will face the same intrinsic difficulties in this venture, as well as
suffer from the lack of a research foundation. However, what the country
could have is, if not a single policy, what does exist internationally:
sets of political philosophies or worldviews that underpin the disparate
communication policies in any given country.
Communication policies should address, inter alia,
the following questions, according to Pool (1963:234, 1971):
much of scarce resources should be invested in communications? (i.e. what
is the relative value of communications compared to other demands?)
What are the roles of public and private?
- How much
freedom/regulation will there be?
- How will the implementation be
In addition, one can add the questions of distribution
of media, access and participation (covering the whole matter of editorial
independence), and centralised versus decentralised patterns of
organisation (Shinar and Rodgrigues, 1977: 227; Ploman 1977: 73/4). What,
besides research, can and does inform policy on all these aspects? The
answer is: a guiding political philosophy.
researchers Siebert, Schramm and Peterson argued in the 1960s that media
systems and structures were reflections of the political philosophies
found in a given society. They neglected to analyse the other side of the
coin: what these political philosophies themselves reflected. They thereby
underplayed the importance of factors like the form and degree of
industrialisation, urbanisation, technology, literacy, income levels,
social structure and social contradictions in determining political
philosophies along with media and communication arrangements.
Bearing in mind that political philosophies themselves need to be
accounted for, it is still of some value to examine the four categories
identified by Siebert et al. This is because policy does, to some degree,
derive from a political philosophy (even if this philosophy in part
derives from something else.) The four philosophies identified by the
writers are authoritarian, communist, libertarian, and social
responsibility. Less Cold War oriented writers like Lowenstein (1971) have
written of "social centralist" rather than "communist" philosophies, which
would differ from an authoritarian philosophy primarily in degree. Raymond
Williams (1976) uses the term "paternalistic" to describe the social
responsible option, and "commercial" rather than libertarian. For the
purposes of this paper, it will suffice to refer to authoritarian,
social-centralist, liberal and socially responsible philosophies.
It is not necessary to spell out in great detail here the way
these different philosophies imply different guidelines for government
policies on communication. The USA obviously stresses the
libertarian/commercial policy with a separation of government and
(weakly-regulated) private communication; this philosophy informs the
answers in that society to the policy questions highlighted at the start
of this section.
In contrast to this model, the former governments
of Eastern Europe were social-centralist. Their government communication
and media policies reflected this. Like the Apartheid regime, many past
Latin American governments have featured the authoritarian philosophy,
with a high degree of centralisation and control of the production and
distribution of communication and media. Similar situations exist in
Indonesia and Malaysia (Servaes, 1986:221).
Clearly, these four
"distinct" philosophies can sometimes be located within the same country -
for instance the UK is fairly libertarian vis-.-vis the press, and
socially- responsible/paternalistic in relation to broadcasting. This is
not to diminish the significance of these categories. Rather, they help to
clarify the variegated character of communications policies in some
countries. The main point is that it is not an Either/Or situation. More
than this, however, this typology of four models is not the final word on
the range of guiding philosophies a country may adopt or exhibit.
The choice of a political philosophy is related to political
values of a society and those in power at a given time, as well as the
kind of demographic, technical and social characteristics noted above.
Contemporary South Africa obviously has very particular political values
espousing popular democracy, arising out of particular conditions. It does
not have the experience of at least three of the four philosophies listed
above: libertarian, socially responsible and totalitarian. It has emerged
from authoritarian, and presumably wishes to avoid the totalitarian. Could
the government then adopt a libertarian or socially-responsible (or some
hybrid) philosophy for South African conditions?
this, however, it is worth noting a different philosophical conception,
and one that is lacking in any of the four perspectives identified by
Schramm et al, and indeed lacking in many countries today. This is a
philosophy that includes the right to communicate as a fundamental human
right (see Servaes, 1986:223; Traber and Nordenstreng 1992; the Bratislava
and Windhoek Declarations). The libertarian view would interpret this
right as simply an absence of restraint; the socially-responsible would
stress the right to be communicated to. However, the right to communicate
has another sense, as interpreted in Sweden, whence it originates. In this
philosophy, there is a government responsibility to help realise the right
to communicate. In South Africa, this would entail that the government
going further than simply using communication (inter alia) to champion the
existing bill of rights, to facilitating the growth of citizens as
communicators. While this draws on some of the strands of the libertarian
and social responsibility philosophies, it moves into a different
dimension, and indeed one that squares with the Reconstruction and
Development Programme's philosophy of democratisation and civil
To pursue the implications of this for South Africa,
it is necessary to analyse the context and current character of
communication and the relations between government/state and media.
4. CONTEXT: CIRCUMSTANCES
South Africa's communication
relations reflect the power and privileges of the broader society. There
is a minority first world sector, exhibiting high media consumption
patterns, and disproportionate involvement in media production. There is a
majority third world sector, marginalised from much mass media consumption
and production through language, literacy, wealth, location, and in which
most communication relations are primarily unmediated, with the exception
Against this background, it would be a mistake to
see communications simply as a means to changing South Africa.
Communication has to be simultaneously part of a change, and one of the
goals of this change. But there are limits to what government can do in
working towards an RDP that is both by communications and for
First, there is a coalition cabinet and a
commitment to national reconciliation, which restricts government ability
to effect a radical reorientation of public or private media.(3) Secondly,
the regulation of broadcasting is independent of government, even if the
power of the purse is still there to be wielded. Thirdly, there is the
government's commitment to a mixed economy, which limits the extent of
government involvement in private sector communications. Fourth, there is
a bill of rights which also prohibits the government from interfering in
freedom of expression in that sphere. So government could not, even if it
wanted to, simply take over the existing communications apparatuses and
point them in different directions.
Nor, fifthly, can government
seriously set up a rival or parallel system: there are scarce resources,
and with the maxim of maximum impact at minimum cost, there is no way the
government can (or should) afford to take on the challenge of getting into
the mass media business.
There is another danger to government
entering this field, as is borne out by experience in other countries.
During the years of the Brazilian dictatorship, the authorities took over
a system dating since the 1930s where all radio stations had to give
government use of the airwaves between 7 and 8 pm. The President received
10 minutes use, ministries got 20 minutes between them, the congress and
courts got 30 minutes. The result: extremely low listenership ratings
(Pierce, 1979:48). Similarly, the second Peron period in Argentina
commandeered an hour of broadcast time for nation building. The public
verdict was that the programming was boring (ibid:21). The communication
It may be asked whether this result was intrinsic
to the situation. It may be, for example, that communications experts,
whether contracted in or functioning as state employees, could have done a
better job. Yet still at stake is the question of credibility: at the end
of the day, the power of information depends on its credibility. The South
African government is a credible and legitimate government. To some extent
the country's media, though independent, probably lacks some credibility
due to its historical compromises, white-orientation, sometimes poor
reportage and sensationalism. Even so, it would be a mistake for
government to think its credibility is inexhaustible. Positive coverage
from an independent, albeit hitherto slightly blemished, media is likely
to count for more than positive coverage directly sponsored by the state.
This is a lesson that the advertising and PR industry know all too well.
It appears then that government has its hands tied: what can it
do? The answer is that it can adopt and promote the right to communicate
as a central policy thrust, and it can, and should, also come to terms
with the mass media. These are elaborated upon below. Before that,
however, it is valuable to consider some general points about government
5. GOVERNMENT AS COMMUNICATOR:
government communication? Simply, government-held information can:
improve understanding of the political system and democracy;
people with information that upgrades their quality of life (social
welfare, legal and health and safety information);
economic activity (Macauley, 1995:1/2)
Every government has a
responsibility to communicate: that is not in dispute. The question is
how. In addition, it is worth asking who drives the process: should
government simply tell the public what information it holds and how to get
it, or should it simply pump out as much as possible? The modalities these
matters in the South African situation clearly need to be considered.
A planned comprehensive government communication strategy needs
the following ingredients:
- clear objectives
identification of diverse audience groups
- careful message design
- choice of channels
- monitoring and feedback (Fraser and Villet,
Focusing on just one point here, it can be argued that
the choice of objectives informs the entire strategy, and provides its
rationale. In the case of South Africa, these can - in general terms - be
divided between informing/educating people by providing them with
information on the one hand, and empowering them as communicators on the
other. Such objectives thus help determine whether a government embarks
upon a push-model of communication (supply-side driven), a pull-model
(demand-driven) or some kind of (potentially interactive) mix. In some
cases, a synergy between these may be possible: eg. using ANC structures'
communication capacities, or taking out advertisements in the community
press, in the build-up to local government elections could fulfil both
Linked to objectives, government communications also
need to distinguish between ongoing or routine communications (including
media liaison) on the one hand, and specific communication campaigns on
It is also pertinent here to note the complex character
of the issues: there is communication by government, and communication by
state agencies. In each case, there is also communication on behalf of the
institution as a whole (government/state) and communication on behalf of
sectoral components (president and ministries/civil service departments).
In addition there is communication by the legislature, and the judiciary.
Finally, there is also ongoing regular communication, and special
communication instances such as elections. Another important facet touched
on earlier, and discussed further below, is the government's
There are also different
categories of information, which Macauley has usefully described as
- unrestricted AND publicly available (eg. news releases,
major reports, regulations)
- unrestricted but not easily available
(eg. minor or parochial reports, statutes and acts)
information - the kind of information exempted by a Freedom of Information
Act (eg. military secrets, police investigations, commercial information).
For a government to act as a communicator in
the light of all the above, it requires a national communication policy, a
legislative framework and a set of institutions. The latter can
conceivably include a policy unit, and various service providers of
research and media production (1995:28).
With these elements in
the bag, a government is ready to roll as a communicator. One of its first
priorities has to be internal communication. It makes no sense to work on
external communication policies and strategies, if the internal is not in
order. Coming up quickly behind this, however, and indeed one of the
spin-offs of better internal communication, is the need for governments to
relate to mass media.
6. GOVERNMENT AND MASS MEDIA: THE PROBLEMS.
That this conference on Government Communication and Media Policy
has come about is, in part, an indication of a problem between government
and mass media. That is not necessarily an unhealthy or unnatural thing in
a democracy. But clearly, some kind of resolution is hoped for, at least
on the government's side. This is of course a conference convened by the
office of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who is on record as being a
frequent critic of the state of mass media in South Africa, judging it
from the standpoint of government objectives in transforming this country
(see inter alia Mbeki, 1995:28). Many others in politics have expressed a
similar viewpoint, and the frustrations with the media have increased in
proportion to growing frustrations with the slow pace of transformation in
society and the implementation of the Reconstruction and Development
Government complaints about the mass media cover both
omission and commission. There is unhappiness that government affairs are
ignored, underplayed or inadequately reported. There appears to be some
substance in this. As Mathatha Tsedu, political editor of The Sowetan, has
noted, for instance the parliamentary press corps simply cannot cover all
the activities taking place within the legislature. Even apart from staff
shortages, existing staffs are very poorly trained (1995:78). And, as US
journalist Joe Pierson (1965), once put it, reporters covering government
- the patience of a fly fisherman
- the mathematical genius
of Einstein (to interpret budgets and spending).
- a law degree
diploma from a Dale Carnegie Course (on how to make friends and influence
sources). (Cited in Hage et al, 1983:190).
Such features are hard
to find in journalists anywhere, let alone South Africa.
Compounding this problem are the demographics of much South
African journalism (and indeed professional life in general). Most media
owners are still disproportionately white, most journalists are still
disproportionately white, most experts cited in the media are still
disproportionately white. Little wonder therefore that there is a lack of
sensitivity to different life concerns and experiences in much of the
media - in contrast to the new situation in politics. There is escalating
change in this unfortunate situation, even though not fast enough for many
- including the government.
The media then is vulnerable to
criticism of the quality of its coverage. In the light of all this, of the
problems of having one section of the community trying to report on
concerns alien to their experience, not to mention vast array of extremely
complicated and specialist kinds of information, a question arises. Could
not government experts themselves, then, do a better job than the journos?
Perhaps so. Yet it is also precisely the value of the journalist as an
experienced communicator that needs to be fostered, rather than bypassed.
Thus, although officials prefer to see stories in the press on
their own terms, there is value in their handing over control to
journalists. "It is the responsibility of the reporter ... to translate
the activities of the agency into pertinent information for the reader."
(Hage et al, 1983:187). The example is given of reporters having to
translate terms like "comprehensive modalities of treatment" into simple
English like "a range of methods" in a story on health issues (Hage et al,
To play this role properly, to enhance reporting
expertise, requires investment in training and more attractive staff
conditions. But the media industry, like many other industries in South
Africa, has so far shown itself slow to recognise this - and in my view is
unlikely to do so in the short term. What can be done here? Nothing direct
by government, I believe, except perhaps to develop a national training
policy with incentives for all forms of industry to upgrade staff
On the other hand, and presenting the media point of
view, some of the blame for poor press coverage must also be laid at the
door of government as well. Even with existing journalists, government
could secure far better coverage in areas where the problems derive from
its side. Inefficient and slow press liaison, like unstructured rambling
press conferences, press statements issued on Friday afternoons, poor
access to political figures by the press - these are all areas about which
journalists could talk a lot.
It would also help if government's
expectations of the mass media were tempered by knowledge of how the media
works. News, by nature, is often negative. This is not because journalists
are inherently disagreeable individuals or anti-ANC. It is rather because
negative news interests people - not surprisingly seeing that it deals
with events that impact on them adversely. Good tidings are a bonus to
people's lives: bad news can mean an irrevocable setback. For these
reasons, it is more important for the public to hear about corruption in
the school feeding schemes, than when the same scheme is running smoothly.
And the importance of bad news is that it may at least provoke action to
halt a worsening situation, which is often a more urgent priority than
simply alerting people to improvements. Negativity deals with
subtractions, which in life tend to be more significant than additions.
Negative events are also characterised typically by other key ingredients
of news: drama and conflict. These are the part of the language of
(admittedly Western-style) journalism - a mode of communication to which
the public has acquired a taste, and which it will buy (directly or
indirectly). Most significantly, drama, conflict and negative journalism
has historically held a key place in a democracy. From the point of view
of the press, then, government needs to understand and accept these
A further point sensitising government to the
media is the need to be clear on the distinction between criticism by the
press itself, and reportage of public criticisms. To blur the two is to
begin to blame the messenger for the message, and to embark on a strategy
in which the logic is to deal with the manifest symptom, while ignoring
the more profound causes.
In addition, a further necessary
distinction is between the press's responsibility for what is carried, and
the part played by the source of that content. If the RDP sends
contradictory signals by saying on the one hand that it is not a pot of
gold, and on the other hand presents Presidential projects which suggest
that there is money to dish out, the press cannot be blamed for public
Finally, government would do well to understand why the
media operates generally with a libertarian political philosophy which
entails an element of adversarial relations with government. This arises,
of course, out of an international history, combined here with the special
circumstances of fighting the extreme authoritarianism of the apartheid
The riposte to this might be, and Thabo Mbeki has said as
much, that the adversarial attitude is anachronistic today, given that
there is a government elected democratically and committed to deepening
democracy. There is some truth in this - and yet, world-wide experience
admonishes journalists to be sceptical. This is reinforced by their
experience on a host of post-election issues (ranging from the Defence
Ministry's infamous attempt to block articles on the Directorate of Covert
Collection in the Weekly Mail and Guardian in 1994, through to gagging
orders given out by the courts as in the Dorrenstein case).
Government officials thus need to understand the roots of the
adversarial tendencies in the press, and realise that this does have real
foundations. "Democracy," as Adv Mojanku Gumbi
has said in a slightly
different context, "should not depend on the benign nature of the rulers
we have." (1995:29)
The significance of all this for government
communication? If you understand who you see as your adversary, you find a
basis for co-operation even if not partnership.
7. USING THE
"Government communication has a basic public relations
function: to demonstrate that government is functioning well and deserving
of popular support," writes De Wet (1988:85). In his view, "the fact is
that the modern democratic state is necessarily and inescapably the
propagandist state." (1988:86) The aim is the management of public
opinion. To this end, governments need a policy of "news media diplomacy",
which is the "tactful and artful management of the national and
international news media by Government officials through give-and-take
processes." (1988:89). While people may object to De Wet's cynical and
reductionist views of the aims and nature of government communication, his
remarks on "news media diplomacy" are spot on.
To the extent that
a government is in an adversarial relationship with the press, it does of
course have the right to fight - hopefully with civilised methods. It can
"try to withhold information, have secret meetings, to distort information
for its advantage, to have its favourite reporters and reward them in
various ways, to deal in disinformation and other propagandistic
techniques, to subpoena journalists, and restrict their activities in
various ways" (Dennis and Merril, 1991:23). Not all these methods are
quite by "gentlemen's rules", and some could well rebound to government
There are less extreme ways of dealing with the
media, of course, though not all are without controversy. For many years,
the British prime minister's aides have practised a "lobby system" of
twice daily off-the-record selective briefings to the press. The result is
content attributed to "sources close to the PM", or "senior Government
However, several papers have protested against what they
regard as press manipulation, and the system has been boycotted by the
Independent, The Guardian and the Scotsman (Hart, 1991:99).
good bit of advice to frustrated governments, and given originally to the
Apartheid regime, is worth repeating. According to De Wet, "Government
should "stop shouting at the news media and start whispering to increase
the newsworthiness of that which is to be conveyed" ( 1988:89). This is
certainly the case in the USA.(4)
Certainly, in Western Europe,
political leaders and parties are increasingly adopting strategies of
sophisticated media management and attempted public opinion control
(Blumler et al, 1990:271). This entails an adaptation to the norms and
logic of the media, some of which were touched on above in the discussion
of the characteristics of news. Sigal (1973:143) points out that
"(o)fficials want to disclose the information they want, when they want,
and in the way they want." Success, however, depends on an astute
understanding of things from the media point of view.(5)
danger of government and state officials seeing things purely in
adversarial terms is that it can lead to efforts to circumvent the press,
and to the blind alley of getting directly involved in the communications
business, i.e. to bypassing the problem instead of tackling it (Dennis and
Merril, 1991:24). It makes sense rather to acknowledge that the media is
not adversarial all of the time: sometimes it may even be a friend (Dennis
and Merril, 1991:25).
The adversary role, typically described as
watchdog, looks for improper conduct. But there is also, at least, the
media role of performance monitor - where the verdict is not necessarily
negative, and also the role of service provider where simply useful
information about government and state is supplied (Hage et al, 1983:185).
In this regard, government can do well to ask how much reactive
and how much proactive media liaison it performs. Government may berate
the press for a lack of coverage or the prevalence of negative coverage:
that is a different question from whether officials are doing the kind of
sustained press outreach and liaison required to provide their news to
increasingly overstretched (and undertrained) journalists? The potential
for success from proactive media liaison is high: South Africa resembles
the situation in the USA, described by Sigal as being such that "news
space is still more readily available to high administration officials
than it is to spokesmen of any other organization or institution in
Government and state can also gain better
coverage in the media by increasing access to officials. Government
communication needs a policy definition about the level at which
information can be released. Holding briefings or issuing statements is
usually the prerogative of senior officials or public information
officers. But as Sigal warns, lesser people banned from speaking to the
press may resort to anonymous leaks, notwithstanding all manner of
controls and surveillance mechanisms (1973:144/5).(6) Maximum access may
be the more advantage policy for the interests of both government and
media. This situation prevails at present with the SA Police Services who
allow each police officer to speak to the media (provided he or she takes
responsibility for what is said), seems preferable. Such a policy is
strengthened when effective internal communication with government and
state empowers all levels of officials with an understanding of the
issues. One wonders at present how much communication there is with South
African civil servants about the RDP, public service and press relations,
the Bill of Rights, and so on and whether an audit of this would not be
useful research. It should not be that, as in the USA, officials have to
look to the media to tell them "what their boss wants, who has power, and
'who's got the action' " (Sigal, 1973:136).
Whatever the level of
access and openness, to use the media effectively requires training for
relevant specialist officials. And this is not just training in efficient
operational skills, but in understanding the nature of news and deadlines,
and the social value of an independent press even when the relationship is
an adversarial one. That means understanding that the media are not free
agents, but institutions limited by things like their need to be topical,
news values which include impact and drama, the dependence of news on
events rather than processes. And it means acknowledging the distinct
social functions played by government/state and mass media.
CO-ORDINATING GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATIONS.
rationalising government communications is of course a desirable goal.
Instead of ending up with simultaneous campaigns for Masakhane, the
and registering for the Local Government
elections (inevitably with diluted effect for each), a staggered approach
could be used. Media buying could be centralised, so as to gain better
Co-ordination requires capacity. The United Nations
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has advised Mali to set up a
parastatal, operating on commercial lines, precisely to provide such a
service. Such an agency should be financially autonomous "at least in
part", and should have a marketing plan to sell a range of services to
government (and others - like NGOs, commercial firms), it said. These
services would include field research, situation analysis and formulating
media strategies, production of media materials, and media skills training
(Fraser and Villet, 1994:28). In South Africa, SACS might fulfil some of
this role, and the idea of it operating on self-financing lines has merit.
On the other hand, this country - unlike Mali - has a well-developed
private, NGO and educational sector which can be contracted in to fill
certain functions, instead of establishing or maintaining an expensive
9. GOVERNMENT AS ENABLING CIVIL
A model philosophy that this government could
consider emulating, albeit on a modest scale given our relative lack of
resources, as discussed above, draws from the Swedish position. At root,
this holds that government exists to boost social capacity. In the field
of communication, this takes the form of media subsidies amongst other
things (eg. prosecution of journalists who do not protect their sources!).
To see government's role in communication simply as empowering itself as a
communicator is to undermine the thrust of the Reconstruction and
Development Programme, which is for people-driven development. In this
light, the government should see a large part of its role as being
providing capacity to the masses, providing horizontal communication
linkages (within communities), and vertical linkages (citizens with higher
authorities) - and making all these capable of real communication: i.e.
dialogue and feedback.
Both money (grants and loans) and
management training is crucial here, and a credible, independent body like
the Independent Media Diversity Trust could easily play the role of the
RDP's proposed democratic information trust, and a lot more. Within this
general picture, SACS regional offices might become community media
centres, rather than state mouthpieces. Fostering different permutations
of ownership is possible: religious and labour media, for instance.
Government could enhance NGOs capacity to communicate things like the RDP.
A facilitative, enabling mechanism, like sponsoring space for RDP coverage
- without producing or controlling such coverage, in the way the
Independent Development Trust has pioneered, is worth considering.(8)
10. THE RIGHT TO COMMUNICATE AND THE INTERNET.
for possible government involvement in communications, and which deserves
special mention, is the Internet. At present, Internet communication in
South Africa looks like a medium available to the information rich. But
there is not a Chinese wall between the information rich and information
poor. Traffic on the information highway enters and exits off countless
slip roads, and there is no reason why these cannot increasingly be
government offices, schools, factories, trade union offices, libraries,
clinics, spaza shops - and ultimately anywhere there is a phone
(land-based or cellular). After all, how many years' of telephone books
alone would be saved by investing in a Minitel-style system like France?
If trends in other countries are typical, the Internet can only
expand exponentially.(9) While initial infrastructural costs appear high,
amortised over time there is no doubt that the Internet offers the "lowest
cost publishing medium in the history of civilization" (Gulker, 1995; see
also Lawrie, 1995).
The Internet as a medium has, in addition, the
potential to be enormously user-friendly in offering audio and visual
capabilities as well as text. It is interactive - providing easy two-way
communication between participants, and it is user-driven. The medium is
made for consumer and citizen empowerment. If Mangosuthu Buthelezi has
pure propaganda on the Home Affairs Home Page, a person can tell him what
they think ... and move on to the Mail and Guardian database to read a
profile of the minister. If a pension seeker finds the Department of
Social Welfare and Pensions has a hopelessly difficult or useless Home
Page on its WorldWideWeb site, you can be sure that the Black Sash will
set up a far better alternative. A student needing a loan might call up
the Public Protector who will guide them to their MP's e-mail address to
complain about the slow pace in setting up a national bursary system. The
MP can reply at the touch of a button. This dialogical communication means
empowerment of citizens vis-.-vis government, vis-.-vis each other and
ultimately vis-.-vis their political, economic, social and geographic
Macauley makes the interesting point that publicly
available information is typically of a fairly general nature, and
therefore likely to be less valuable than more detailed and narrowly
relevant information which is not widely distributed. In his view, the
challenge is to make this latter more accessible: easier to find, search
and extract, in a way that is cost-effective - and here the Internet comes
to the rescue (1995:4). In South Africa, general information like the RDP
documents could be in demand on the Internet, as well as specifics like
which official in a given area is responsible for the housing subsidy.
For government at all levels, the Internet makes possible
unprecedented internal and external communications. It also means rather
than pushing information at people on the basis of what it believes they
need to know, the system operates on a pull-mechanism. It is
demand-driven, and hence puts government communication to the competitive
test - whether it really meets people's needs for information, education
and entertainment. What is striking about this model of communication is
that it is almost inherently democratic. In the USA, the government has
spent 80 million dollars responding to Freedom of Information requests,
while paying two billion on public relations style communication. "The way
I translate that is that the government was spending two billion dollars
to tell the public what the government wanted the public to know while it
was only spending 80 million dollars on letting the public know what it
wanted to know." (Pearlman, 1995:270). It is in the character of Internet
that it is access-oriented: receivers pulling messages, rather than a
sender pushing them at them. Conceivably, government computer operators
could figure out a way to distribute government messages ad infinitum to
every Internet user in South Africa, whether they particularly want them
or not. Yet even this scenario would not be a serious as a government, for
instance, spending tons on unwanted leaflets, because the cost is far
less, and more vitally, the receivers don't throw away the medium because
of the message. They use it to read, respond, react ... and roam, all
according to their own agendas.
A final consideration for
government communication and media policy is not only that the Internet is
low cost, but information can be archived and sold. This can still work be
very cheap for each individual purchaser, but amount to significant sums
when everything is added up. Whereas in the past, a lot used and unused
government information was a valueless asset, now it can earn enough to
help cover some of the costs of the system (Macauley, 1995:7).
Providing government information on the Internet is not a
substitute for government dealing with the mass media. But it is
preferable to government trying to muscle in upon the mass media, or
government trying set up its own mass media. And in the medium term, it is
the future medium. Government would do well to be in at an early stage,
urging it along. This means massive investment in telecommunications,
dissemination of personal computers and development of graphical-audio
interfaces suitable to low-literacy non-English speakers. It means that
South Africa can leapfrog over the models of government communication and
media policy that exist elsewhere, and make real the philosophy of the
right to communicate.
How does government
increase its communications capacity, without chasing the chimera of a
national communications policy, without treading on the toes of the mass
media, and yet also without trying to set up its own costly mass media?
How does government not simply communicate to citizens, but with them,
enabling them to be communicators in their own right.
As may be
expected, drawing up a policy is the comparatively easy business.
Implementing it systematically is where the test really comes. The test is
not how well or loudly the government can speak, but how much it can
develop the dialogue coming from civil society - especially from those who
are historically marginalised from media power. (10)
has argued for a model that could see the South African government
strengthening state communications and strengthening civil society
communications (simultaneously in the case of the Internet). This is a
model that does not yet fully exist within the international scene. But it
is one whose time has come. This country has a unique government open to
improving internal communication within the state, and wise enough to
develop good media liaison capacity. It is also a model on the agenda in a
unique historical period, a time when Internet and South Africa's first
democratic government are firmly introduced to each other.
1. Some would argue that what the government
wants is more cynically to promote itself and the ANC. It would be naive
to assume this dynamic does not exist, but most people would probably
credit this government as also having the genuine aim of empowering the
citizenry through communication. What really needs analysis is whether
this noble aim extends to empowering people not only with information, but
2. Some people would argue that it is not
desirable for a government to have a national communications policy, on
the grounds that this amounts to a centralising practise which empowers
the state at the expense of society. What business, critics would ask,
does a government have interfering in sectors of communication which it
does not own? Certainly, many revolutionary movements and governments see
the mass media not as a separate institution, but as a tool to achieve
goals of the revolution (Pierce, 1979:123). This is a perspective
enunciated by, amongst others, Eastern Cape public works MEC Thobile
Mhlahlo. But, impressionistically, I do not think this is the dominant
view in government. Nor do I think the South African state is strong
enough (at least today) to successfully overcome resistance from non-state
interests to any move it might make on the mass media (public or private).
The present power stakes aside, however, and looking at reasons of finance
and democratic desirability, there is a strong case to be made for
preference to be given to self-regulation (as opposed to state regulation)
where possible. The potential damage that can be caused by criminal use of
a centralised system has been all too graphically illustrated by the
apartheid regime's total strategy for communication control. Certainly, a
benign regime could use the same concentrated power for immense social
good rather than ill. But this argument would seem to be outweighed by the
longer-term consideration that a centralised system by definition may lend
itself to doing greater damage than a more decentralised one.
Even independent public broadcasting initiatives face this limitation, as
evidenced by the resistance to SABC introducing SAFM and the corporation's
4. Interestingly, British politics are
more closely tied to establishment networks with direct person-to-person
communications, and there is therefore less imperative for British
politicians there to use the press to circulate information than, say, is
the case in the USA. (Sigal 1973: 133)
5. A (slightly)
charicatured of media manipulation is recorded by Gaber who describes the
case of a major speech by a party leader: "Several days beforehand
judicious leaks from 'sources close to the leader' (not infrequently the
leader himself) will start to spin - 'watch for the vision thing' or
'he'll be stamping his authority on the Party' are two well-known
refrains. On the day before the speech his press secretary will brief the
media officially about the text, and sub-text, of the speech; after the
official briefing new lines will emerge in one-to-one conversations. After
the speech, which the journalists would have been following with the aid
of an advance copy, but before they will have had time to consider and
reflect upon it, they will have received yet another briefing, either from
the leader or his aides, at which the spin will have been re-spun, the
nuances re-nuanced, and the whole message re-packaged." (1994:78/9)
6. President Eisenhower once confided to a person that he wanted a
no-leak administration: the remark was leaked. (Sigal, 1973:145).
7. A caution should be expressed here: The Argentinean Telam
service acted as a central placement bureau for all government and
parastatal advertising - and used this as leverage to get publications to
use the Telam government news service. (Pierce, 1979:48). South Africa
would be well advised to avoid such a situation.
8. I owe some of
these suggestions to Dr Temba Masilela. There are a host of other
mechanisms that can be considered that particularly make possible entry
into the print arena, like VAT reductions on newspapers, duty-free imports
of publishing equipment, reduced telephone and postal charges. In India,
for instance, small newspapers are treated as a priority sector for
low-interest loans. (Cohen, 1993:2).
9. The number of Canadians
using the Internet for e-mail at least has increased by three times over
the past year, meaning that 12% of the population (3.5 million people) are
on line (Macauley, 1995:4).
10. There is also something journalism
can do. Rosen pertinently notes that US journalists describe their service
as "informing the public" and acting as a vigilant "watchdog", but are
unable to articulate what attaches the journalist to the citizenry. He
suggests a commitment to public journalism: to provide active
encouragement for people to be active as citizens. (Rosen, 1994: 11)
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delivered at Conference of Communicators, Arniston 25 - 27 August