As journalists, we like to imagine we'd be pretty good at running the government. Truth is, we'd probably suck at it, but we never have to put our grand theories to the test. Conversely, governments around the globe have long played out their fantasies of running the media. In South Africa, the government has just announced that it'll be launching a monthly newspaper, Vuk’uzenzele. But, just as journalists do not a good government make, governments make lousy journalists.
Journalists love to think they could run the government. Underlying our work is often a quiet confidence that, if we were in charge, we would never be as short-sighted, corrupt, venal or downright stupid.
Which is nonsense, of course. Journalists would make terrible governors. For one thing, journalism is the most short-term and reactionary profession in existence. We report on what happens. We never have to make anything happen ourselves. Our skill with words and keyboards is not matched by skills in urban planning, energy management, rural sector development or any of the myriad specialist areas in which a government is expected to have expertise. We could, of course, weigh in our thoughts on any of these areas (in 1,000 words or less, with a punchy headline), but we could not do the job ourselves. And, as anyone who has spent any time in a news room will attest, journalists are certainly not immune from venal and stupid behaviour.
A government run by journalists would be an unmitigated disaster, which is why we choose, for the most part, to keep ourselves above the fray in our ivory towers, happily shouting down well-crafted insults at the politicians below.
Governments need to learn the same lesson. Journalism is a specialised skill. Just as we can’t govern, they can’t report. Of course, this has not stopped governments throughout history from trying. State-run media have a long and sinister history, particularly in Africa where much of the continent’s media remain under the direct control of the government. The latest government to step into this trap is South Africa, whose embattled spokesman Jimmy Manyi announced last week that the government would be setting up a state-owned and -run monthly newspaper called Vuk’uzenzele. And before the public has even seen a single edition, Manyi made it crushingly obvious that neither he nor the government knew anything about journalism.
Manyi’s first mistake: Pledging to publish in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages. It’s hard enough, and expensive enough, to publish in a single language. Publishing in a second doubles the complexities. Publishing in 11 languages... well, that’s just a nightmare. It’s not as easy as hitting the Google Translate button 11 times. Translating is a nuanced and delicate art, which requires replicating tone, feel and, crucially, length. Stories will be longer or shorter in different languages, which will change page layouts completely. Version control becomes a nightmare – if an editor makes a change on the final English draft, for example, that change needs to somehow be replicated across the other 10 versions. And vice-versa. New vocabulary will also have to be found for languages which do not have detailed technical vocabularies. This is a serious concern: News24, one of South Africa’s most prominent media outlets, is launching a newssite in isiZulu, and, despite the fact that isiZulu is one of the most developed indigenous languages in South Africa, the company still anticipates problems finding the right language, saying it will rely on crowd-sourcing solutions from colleagues in other isiZulu newspapers. Is Vuk’uzenzele going to go to the same trouble across all 11 languages? It will have to.
Manyi’s second mistake: Misunderstanding news priorities. Clearly, the he is unaware newspapers need to be interesting as well as informative. “Our experience with print media in particular is of the three pages of the press releases we give out to them you are likely to get two paragraphs reported on... print media would cherry-pick what they want and communicate those things they want to communicate using whatever criteria,” Manyi complained. “The challenge for us is everything we set out to communicate is important for the community to know, but we can’t depend on the editorial independence of the newsroom to communicate with Joe Public out there... Communities just see ministers driving in big cars, and see all the stories in the media about the ministers staying in fancy hotels and the community is not given the information about the work of government that constitutes 98.9% of what ministers actually do.”
It’s a fair point. Newspapers don’t report on everything that governments do. They don’t report every bullet point of the three-page press release. That’s because it’s boring. And nobody buys, or reads, boring newspapers. And it’s Manyi’s job, as government spokesperson and spin doctor-in-chief, to figure out how to get the important government messages out there. Incidentally, one hopes Manyi’s rigorously researched “98.9%” figure is representative of the commitment to impartial statistics the public is likely to see from the new publication.
Manyi’s third mistake: Underestimating the importance of distribution. If you don’t get the physical newspaper to the people, they can’t read it. Fact. And Manyi doesn’t plan to distribute through any of the regular channels such as subscriptions, shops, newsagents or street vendors. Rather, he is going to distribute through the government’s Thusong Service Centres, an ambitious project designed to be a one-stop shop for state information and services. But of the 2,100 planned service centres, only 180 are operational, leaving vast swathes of the country in which Vuk’uzenzele will be unavailable. And in which the people will have to rely on the traditional media to get the news to them.
So South Africans should not be worried about the imminent state control of information and media. Government incompetence will see to that. While Vuk’uzenzele is a complete waste of money, Pravda it is not. FAM