Media: Who leads who?

NEW Information minister Chris Mushowe yesterday had his first meeting with editors of the country’s mainstream media organisations to interact and exchange notes on the state of journalism amid renewed tensions triggered by President Robert Mugabe and his publicists’ recent hostile outbursts against the private press.

Prior to that, on Wednesday, Mushowe had summoned media houses’ proprietors or their representatives to engage them on the same issues, although the discussion was at a different wavelength compared to that with the editors.

The Wednesday meeting, according to those who attended, was full of tensions as the minister sought to read the riot to private media companies about their commercial agendas and reportage in the current political milieu.

Mushowe reportedly complained about the coverage of mainly political issues, particularly Zanu PF’s internal power struggles centred on Mugabe’s succession battle, and even attempted some content analysis of stories published by the NewsDay and Daily News since he came into office last month in a bid to prove that the private media had developed a certain pattern or trend of agenda-setting and partisan news coverage against the ruling political elite.

Of course, the irony of so-doing was lost on him as he presides over a hopelessly partisan state-controlled media empire.

In the absence of private media owners themselves, the minister appeared to have had an easy ride, although it said there was some resistance. The feedback was rather discouraging as it pointed towards a looming showdown between the minister and editors the following day.

However, yesterday’s meeting was a different ball game. The minister and his officers started the ball rolling and after that there were rather hesitant and incoherent exchanges as both sides tried to settle down on what and how to engage in a meeting without a formal agenda.

After some initial remarks, issues started arising, but there were no serious exchanges until the arrival on the scene of presidential spokesperson George Charamba who — as usual — tried to flex his muscles and raise the stakes by taking the game to the private media editors. Some robust exchanges subsequently ensued, but it immediately became clear we were faced with the same old problem: the uneasy relationship between politicians and journalists.

There was nothing particularly clear about what was the issue beyond the dynamics of the nexus between politicians and journalists which sometimes explode against a backdrop of hotly-contested political issues in wider society. Politicians and journalists, like big business and politics, are inseparable but uneasy bedfellows.

For centuries satirical novelists have dramatised how politicians and journalists have always been locked in a love-hate relationship. It is one of smiling hostility, moderated by socialising together sometimes and overlapping interests, grudging respect and the shackles of mutual dependency: information traded overtly and covertly for publicity.

Relations between local politicians and the media have been characterised by ups and downs. Before 2000 the relations were easy-going because the society was still less politically polarised. Following the emergence of the main opposition MDC, things changed as the state-controlled media dug in, supporting the ruling Zanu PF, while the private media by design or default backed the MDC.

Of course, the relationship between the state media and Zanu PF is different from that of the private media and the MDC or opposition in general, but the dichotomy and attendant contestation of ideas and sometimes polemics has been fuelling polarisation. However, the bottom line is that there is a large degree of interplay between politicians and the media, as shown by previous journalistic and political communication research.

Journalist-politician relationships are governed by certain variables — especially mutual trust and control — as well as interests and recognising the importance of professional norms.

Actors on both sides require manoeuvring space in which they can create and maintain a balance of power in the relationship. The interplay between the two groups results in cooperation or divergence, depending on the environment and what is at stake.

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