I am no religious adherent to political economy approaches of media, contrary to what my previous post about Johncom’s bid to buy the Sunday Times might have suggested. I do think political economy approaches in their crude incarnations are often rigid and unhelpful if account is not taken of journalistic agency. Yet economic considerations, especially in highly unequal societies like South Africa, have to enter the equation constantly if one is to arrive at a contextually informed analysis. But these economic conditions also have to be viewed in terms of the social and cultural context. When commercial interests combine with religious fundamentalism, it can become really ugly: two weeks ago, the South African Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport appointed the controversial columnist Deon Maas (pictured) in the hope that he would stir up things a little (as he has already done at Rapport’s sister newspaper in the Media 24 group, Die Burger). But Rapport didn’t expect Maas to stir up things quite as much as he did when he wrote a column with the title ‘666 is just a number’ and arguing that in a free and democratic society, well, logically, Satanism also should be able to enjoy religious freedom and tolerance. The paper’s readers – the majority of whom will never stand accused of being free-thinking liberals – did not feel the love. They embarked on an SMS campaign threatening a consumer boycott (but reportedly also threatening to resort to more, uhm, old-fashioned methods like burning delivery trucks) if Maas was not fired. Which, merely two weeks after he appointed him, the editor Tim du Plessis promptly did. Said Du Plessis of his reason to close down debate (rather than, for instance, using the pages of his paper as a space for what Henry Miller called a ‘nation in conversation with itself’): ‘The decision changed from one about freedom of speech to one of commercial interests’. Did anyone say ‘economic determinism’?
Anton Harber provided another interesting perspective on his blog – pointing out how the threats from Rapport’s readers is an example of how new media technologies can also empower reactionaries. Looked at from that perspective, this was not a case of merely economic interests (although those were the bottom line by Du Plessis’ own admission) but also an example of the new interactivity between journalists, editors and readers made possible by new technologies. It is a valid point that underscores the importance of not viewing new technologies like emails and SMS’s only as a progressive force for journalism.
Whatever way you look at it, it was a bad turn of events.