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Black Tuesday

23 November 2011

Yesterday was “Black Tuesday”, when we were asked (by whom?) to wear black as a protest against the Protection of State Information Bill that was passed by parliament yesterday.

I didn’t wear black (though I suppose I could have gone round in  a cassock all day, which would probably not have counted, as few might recognise it as a protest). Not that I altogether approve of the Protection of State Information Act, but I think that those who are calling for protests against it too often overstate their case.

Cobus van Wyngaard has written a throughtful blog post about it at Was #blacktuesday dalk te maklik? | die ander kant, and if you don’t read Afrikaans, Pierre de Vos makes some similar points in this piece Who can we trust? – Constitutionally Speaking.

Cobus makes the point (I hope I’m summarising it correctly) that we too easily assume that national sovereignty is everything, but that all too often those in political power in particular countries are themselves manipulated by transnational economic forces. I recently wrote about an instance of this in Notes from underground: Greek mythology. Cobus notes that the Protection of State Information Act will make it easier for politicians to conceal the ways in which they are beholden to these economic forces.

One of the things that concerns me, however, is that Black Tuesday may itself be a manifestation of the same phenomenon.

We hear a great deal about how the Protection of State Information Bill was a threat to “media freedom”. And that is because the media never tire of telling us this, because their own self-interest is at stake. So the media are getting their collective knickers in a knot about it.

But what do they do with their freedom — the freedom they have enjoyed since 1994?

Last Sunday I read two newspapers, The Sunday Independent and City Press, and most of the “news” was scandal stories about celebrities, including the political news, which treats politicians as celebrities. It was all about who’s in an who’s out, and who’s plotting against whom, mostly in the ruling party, but occasionally in other parties as well. The impression is created that politicians are solely absorbed by jockeying for position, and stabbing each other in the back. It is entirely about personalities, and there is little or nothing about policies.

Now it may well be like that, and it may be that that is the main concern of the senior members of the ruling party — that are mainly concerned with who is plotting against them, or whose downfall would be most likely to benefit them personally. If that is true, what a sad contrast it makes to the concerns of the ANC between its unbanning in 1990 and its coming to power in 1994. Then it was all about participation, transparency and openness. Glasnost and perestroika, as they said in Russia in those days. We don’t hear much about glasnost and perestroika today.

But I think it is also true that the media plug these stories because they believe that there is most profit in them, and that this is what their readers want to read. Entertainment is the name of the game, and the politicians are not there to run the country for the benefit of the citizens who elect them; as far as the media are concerned, their main purpose is to provide entertainment for their readers so that the media can increase their profits by selling stories about political celebs.

In other words, the media are subject to precisely the same economic forces as those that hold the politicians in thrall, and the media are no more trustworthy than the politicians. Bishop Nick Baines gives some more examples of this trend here, but also gives some examples of the good and honest journalism that is needed.

So I wonder whose idea Black Tuesday was, and, as always, cui bono? — who benefits?

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