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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 devised.


1. Methodological assumptions.
2. Is a national policy on communication possible
3. Guiding philosophies.
4. South Africa: communication and government.
5. Government as communicator.
6. Government and mass media: the problems.
7. Using the media.
8. Co-ordinating government communications.
9. Government as enabling civil communication.
10. The right to communicate and the Internet.
11. Conclusion


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.


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 play".

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.

1.2 "Communication"

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."

Although 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 on communication.

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.


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)

In 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, 1987: 277):

Media Department
Competition Trade & Industry
Industrial rels Employment

Radio & TV
General policy Home Office
Finance Treasury
Overseas services Foreign & Commonwealth office

Film Trade and Industry
Education and Science

Cable Home Office,
Trade and Industry

Satellite: Home Office
Trade and Industry

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.

Further complexity 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.

2.4 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.

In 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
Regulator-&-Structure Finance Technology Content

Cable TV
Satellite TV

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.

2.5. Research

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.

In addition, 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.

2.6 Implications

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."
(Seymour-Ure, 1987:270). As a result of the fragmentation there are major inconsistencies in British communications policies.

According to 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):
- How 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 financed?

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.

Communication 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?

Before answering 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 empowerment.

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.


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 of broadcasting.

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 communications.

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 exercise failed.

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 communication.


Why government communication? Simply, government-held information can:
- improve understanding of the political system and democracy;
- provide people with information that upgrades their quality of life (social welfare, legal and health and safety information);
- facilitate 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:
- research
- clear objectives
- identification of diverse audience groups
- careful message design
- choice of channels
- monitoring and feedback (Fraser and Villet, 1994:24)

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 functions.

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 the other.

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 internally-oriented communication.

There are also different categories of information, which Macauley has usefully described as follows:
- unrestricted AND publicly available (eg. news releases, major reports, regulations)
- unrestricted but not easily available (eg. minor or parochial reports, statutes and acts)
- restricted information - the kind of information exempted by a Freedom of Information Act (eg. military secrets, police investigations, commercial information). (Macauley, 1994:3)

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.


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 Programme.

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 need:
- 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, 1983:188).

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 competence.

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 characteristics.

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 confusion.

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 state.

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.


"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 disadvantage.

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 sources".

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).

One 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)

The 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 society" (1973:190).

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 and rationalising government communications is of course a desirable goal. Instead of ending up with simultaneous campaigns for Masakhane, the Constituent Assembly
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 prices.(7)

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 state-linked apparatus.


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)


One area 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 environments.

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)

This paper 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 as communicators.

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.

3. Even independent public broadcasting initiatives face this limitation, as evidenced by the resistance to SABC introducing SAFM and the corporation's subsequent backtracking.

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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Paper delivered at Conference of Communicators, Arniston 25 - 27 August 1995

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