They can’t stay out of trouble, can they?

South African tabloids are often accused of reactionary politics. Recently the Media Monitoring Project laid a complaint against the Daily Sun for engaging in xenophobic reporting (See my earlier post  here; I also wrote about it for The Media magazine here)  While some of the criticism amounts to elitism on the part of the broadsheet press and their publics, one sometimes wonders why you should bother trying to explain or defend tabloids at all.

Just recently, Jon Qwelane demonstrated clearly the homophobic attitude that South African tabloids have been accused of In his weekly column in the Sunday Sun on 20 July 2008. Under the heading ‘Call me names, but gay is NOT okay…’, Qwelane used the dissent in the Anglican church over its stance on homosexuality as a starting point to engage in anti-gay diatribe:

 

There could be a few things I could take issue with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, but his unflinching and unapologetic stance over homosexuals is definitely not among those. (…) Homosexuals and their backers will call me names, printable and not, for stating as I have always done my serious reservations about their ‘lifestyle and sexual preferences’, but quite frankly I don’t give a damn: wrong is wrong!

 

Qwelane went on to argue for amendments to the South African Constitution, which has been interpreted by the country’s Constitutional Court as allowing for the legal status of same-sex marriages. Qwelane, whose column was illustrated by a cartoon equating homosexuality and bestiality, said he would  “pray that some day a bunch of politicians with their heads affixed firmly to their necks will muster the balls to rewrite the constitution of this country, to excise those sections which give licence to men ‘marrying’ other men, and ditto women” .

The column was met with a furious and widespread response, ranging from Facebook pages protesting the “APPALLING homophobia in our midst” to protests outside Media 24’a (who owns Sunday Sun) offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as a petition ( to call for Qwelane’s dismissal. In the latter, reference was made to the dismissal of David Bullard, who was fired as a Sunday Times columnist on account of a racist column some months ago.

            The outrage against Qwelane’s unsubtle gay-bashing is understandable, and –similar to the debate that followed on the recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence –  an encouraging sign that a culture of public debate about issues key to post-apartheid democracy is emerging.  Such engagement with the media on the part of the public may be considered a sign that media consumers are claiming ownership of the self-regulatory system which aims to resolve complaints over media content between the media itself and its public, rather than through the more formal means of the courts and government intervention. However, the polarisation of media markets in the country, still by and large predicated on race and ethnicity (linked to class), might mean that such protests would not necessarily have an effect on the relevant media institutions. As Sarah Britten insightfully points out in her blog:

Judging by Qwelane’s pre-emptive defiance in the original piece, these protests are not going to induce anything resembling contrition in the gravel-voiced journo who was once fired from 702 for offending too many of their listeners. If anything, the protests will be positioned as the posturing of a largely white elite out of touch with the readers of the Sunday Sun, those LSM 3 to 6 taxi drivers and hawkers, the famous blue collar man.

 

Unless they take recourse to national watchdog bodies like the South African Human Rights Commission, the engagement by the public with the media might therefore also constrained by market forces. In the end such protests against media might only serve as a type of lightning rod to defuse the brunt of criticism against tabloids, leaving them to provide their niched market with homophobic and xenophobic content that have proved commercially successful.

The events of May and July 2008 indicate that the role of popular journalism and the construction of citizenship and nationhood in post-apartheid South Africa is an important topic for further research, which could have far-reaching implications for the relationship between tabloids and society.

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