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February : Extraodinary Media oversight dampens public morale

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18 February, 2020

"Extraodinary" Media oversight dampens public morale 

Most media outlets neglected one of the most important political and economic stories to come out of South Africa in the last few months: President Cyril Ramaphosa's plans to get to grips with the country's massive energy crisis, says political analyst JP Landman.

The Harvard-trained analyst called this oversight "most extraordinary" from both a media, and government news flow point of view. The lack of media coverage and subsequent public debate has had a negative effect on social morale.

It comes in the context of "media in every country being so focused on negative issues that we miss out on the many positive things that are happening," Ann Crotty, the highly regarded Business Live writer at large, told the Dolphin Bay Brief. "This tendency seems to be greater in South Africa than most countries."

Writing in Nedbank Private Wealth's Investment Notes, JP pointed out that on December 18, Ramaphosa published his plans in the Daily Maverick under his own name. Almost no other media followed the ground-breaking announcement, and vital public debate was not stirred up. 

This followed a week of stage six load shedding during which the president said there would be no more power cuts before 13 January 2020. JP called this a "very weak" initial response to the crisis and said the cabinet should have provided much more detail. However, several days later things changed dramatically.

Ramaphosa delivered a wide-ranging response, stating that energy users would be allowed to generate power for their own use; applications would be fast-tracked for industry and business to produce and use their own electricity; and the purchase of power from independent producers would be accelerated. He also said some renewable energy projects would be connected to the grid earlier than planned; a power purchase programme would be launched; and a new transmission entity, wholly owned by Eskom, and able to buy power from a range of sources, would be established.

"Here is the extraordinary thing: no other news outlet carried this announcement by the president," wrote JP in Investment Notes. He searched for further coverage and could not find anything other than a senior Business Day journalist mentioning it in a tweet.

"Talk about hiding a light under a bushel ... most extraordinary," he added. "The Eskom saga has now spun so out of control that rational discussion is almost impossible. Speculation, conjecture, dark theories, even darker predictions, and fake news are all presented with the certainty of the newly converted. It may be more helpful to read what the president said his cabinet decided.

"Our social morale is shot, and one can see it in low confidence measurements and other opinion polls," said JP in an interview with the Dolphin Bay Brief. "Whether one can lay that at the door of the media is debatable. If we are not fully informed it is really our own fault - the info is out there. But most of us are fairly lazy."

Asked why he thinks there was little coverage on the president's plans, he said: "It could be the time of the year when the whole of SA has closed down; could be professional jealousy where one publication does not want to copy another's story; could be the constant pressure that newsrooms are under."

However, he acknowledged that the media did manage to cover a large number of important stories, including in his field. "They may not cover them correctly - for example, two weeks ago there was the narrative that Ramaphosa is on his way out which then turned out not to be the case at all - but they do cover them."

Asked what could be done to improve things, he said government should communicate better, as the article by the president should have been in all the major media. Journalists should also get more help in doing their work as they are under enormous pressure due to disruption by the internet and "relentless cost-cutting".

Ann said the media's focus on the negative went back to the days of apartheid, in her view. Missing out on positive news meant some significant progress made by the Ramaphosa government had been overlooked. 

She said a much more effective PR system was required by government if it wanted to overcome the "jaded cynicism" of South Africans who may have been exposed to too many "big plans".

Source: Dolphin Bay Chemicals