It is easy to support freedom of speech for views one is comfortable with. The test of tolerance and openness, though, is whether we can live with views that make us uncomfortable. So should we be trying to stop the broadcasting of the Gupta television channel ANN7, or is this an attack on freedom of expression?
Those who are calling for pay-TV hosts Multichoice to act against ANN7, or at the very least to stop paying for it, are adamant they are not doing it because they don’t like the channel.
They say it is not a genuine news channel, but an unethical purveyor of fake news designed to poison our political debate; it has been illegally and improperly funded by the diversion of public funds; or that Multichoice should not be subsidising an instrument of State Capture.
They argue that they are not shutting it down, as it can find other ways to broadcast and fund itself, but they want Multichoice to stop paying for it.
The problem is that this can look like the silencing of a dissenting voice, however unpleasant and harmful that voice may be.
Let’s be clear: fake news, the deliberate and malicious dissemination of false and harmful information, is a real and present danger. Some of it is politically motivated, by those who want to distort our democracy, and some of it is profit-motivated, just an easy way to make a quick buck.
Either way, we cannot sit back and allow it to poison our political debate, as it has done elsewhere. We have to face up and deal with the fact that the Internet enables the wide dissemination of harmful and dangerous material, including by purveyors of racism and hatred.
But how do we do that without silencing dissent and killing off our free media – and the democracy that depends on open debate?
Let’s start by clearing a few myths. It is not unusual for Multichoice to pay for content, and it is healthy for them to carry a diversity of news channels. What raises eyebrows is the leaked information that ANN7 asked Multichoice to treble their payment from R50-million to R150-million per year, and remove any clause in their contract that would enable Multichoice to cancel the agreement if ANN7 did not meet their standard requirements. Multichoice denies that they agreed to this, and on commercial terms there would be no reason to meet such demands from an amateurish, fringe station that commands only about 8% of the news channel audience. (Full disclosure: I am a former editor-in-chief of the rival channel, eNCA.)
We do know, though, that ANN7 owners have clout with government, and Multichoice and its owners, Naspers, are dependent on their pay-TV licence and therefore vulnerable to political persuasion. If the ANN7 owners could lean on government, as we know they are able to do, and government could lean on the regulator, which we also know they are able to do, then Multichoice might be inclined to quietly go along with it. For them, billions are at stake, compared to the few hundred million that it might take to buy ANN7’s support.
I think there is a better approach to the problem of how to deal with fake news and bad, unbalanced, unethical and potentially harmful journalism. Those who are uncomfortable with ANN7s coverage should monitor it closely and report inaccurate or unfair coverage to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and to Multichoice. If a record of serial misconduct is built up, the BCCSA and Multichoice can be pressured into doing something about it.
At the same time, let’s challenge ANN7’s fake business model, which is to sell their time to government departments and parastatals in exchange for soft, uncritical coverage. Some of these parastatals – like Eskom and, amazingly since it is a competitor, the SABC – have been prepared to pay vastly inflated amounts to ANN7 and their sister newspaper, New Age, as part of this deal. But this has been exposed – and such action to prevent the abuse of taxpayer’s money can be stepped up.
Let’s rather shame ANN7 into improving the standards of their coverage and expose those who think it is acceptable to use public money to buy friendly reporting and undermine the quality of our journalism. DM
Anton Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University