Vuyo Mvoko | Media face challenging election

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With 40 days to go before the May 8 election, political parties and the media are readying themselves for the final push, in what is going to be the most contested election ever.
With very limited access to private donors’ largesse this time around – certainly for those used to big budgets, like the ANC and the DA – getting as much media exposure as earthly possible has never been more important.
But unable to secure the ideal media coverage, parties have resorted to desperation, raising with that a number of issues, chief among those being the role and significance of the media in an election.
At a meeting with representatives of one major political party on Thursday – following one with another leading contestant – I was at pains to try to explain the difficulties I believe are facing all newsrooms in this country ahead of the poll.
Just like the political parties, media organisations have to do more with fewer resources, albeit for different reasons.
In a rather precarious economic environment, companies are feeling the pressure from shareholders and investors, and therefore are not so keen to easily and generously give to political parties.
Add to that the exposure of the criminally-run businesses that gave to some parties, largely to grease palms or curry favour in return for state tenders or legislative concessions.
Revelations about the Guptas and the Bosasas of this world have not only led to fears, but also to tight fists from those that operated just like them but are yet to be exposed.
Small parties, of course, have always had to endure even greater difficulties, making do with little or no budget, and hardly any media exposure.
But there, too, are perhaps some invaluable lessons to learn.
There’s a record 48 parties taking part in this election.
Why? Who must pay for or sponsor – through private funding or airtime – the often egotistic desire of many new entrants to just be leaders of political parties, without offering anything different from what is currently out there?
What responsibility do the components of the broad mass liberation movement – like Azapo and the PAC – take for haemorrhaging their own parties by fighting among themselves, leading to the splits we’ve seen over the years?
It’s an open secret that the biggest newsroom on the continent, the SABC, is still waiting for a bailout from the government so it can meet some of its commitments, like paying workers’ salaries.
Following the looting and plundering that took place there, not to mention the carelessness and stupidity that characterised some of the decisions of previous boards and executives, the national public broadcaster, which shoulders huge public service obligations, is in even more of a precarious position.
Most politicians watched, others had a hand, as a crucial public institution was allowed to fail.
The same politicians now want the rest of the newsrooms to take the enormous responsibilities that are supposed to be the SABC’s, largely.
Yet these newsrooms aren’t necessarily in much of a good space either.
All have to do more with less, while advertising and sponsorship revenues continue to decline.
Yet, we are in the most demanding news period the country has ever been in ahead of an election.
In fact, not since the 1994 watershed poll has there been so much to write about and broadcast ahead of an election.
That was while the internecine wars, the so-called black-on-black violence, a people grappling with finding one another amid huge levels of mistrust were great and required massive investment from news organisations.
Newsrooms at the time were comparatively big and fairly well-resourced, with all-servicing news agencies like Sapa in the mix, and could therefore cope.
Since then, and as with any other industry in this country and around the world, no news organisation could sustain that level of resources.
And what that practically means, 40 days before the most contested poll since 1994, is that journalists who would ordinarily be solely devoted to elections now have to cover three commissions of inquiry, they have to follow up on numerous other big stories coming out of those inquiries, some unprecedented intra-party shenanigans and the big court cases they have brought about, to name only a few.
While the clamour from major political parties for increased coverage is understandable, forced as things may be by the situation both political parties and us the media may be finding ourselves in, perhaps an opportunity has arisen for all of us to think anew.
For the media, less is more and is the new normal.
Creativity and innovation is the only way to stay alive and relevant, but it’s going to come at a price, and that price will include hate and harassment from political players.
The reality, though, is that no media organisation will survive if it’s going to please politicians.
That applies to the national public broadcaster, as it does to any other media organisation.
But if there’s a lesson politicians will hopefully learn in this election, it’s that it’s best to actually connect with the voters, than to be seen to be connecting with them.
And they don’t need the media to do that.
Just give the voters what they want and they’ll be yours without the media’s help.

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