Is advertising pressure eroding editorial independence?

ImageThe American journalist Abbott Joseph Liebling (1904 –1963) is known for his famous remark:  “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money.”

Of course no media house, unless community or public, is not driven by crave for profit. But the media also have a fundamental role to play. It is the reason the media exists. To be the voice of the voiceless, to advance the cause of democracy, to promote human rights.

When America ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, the crucial role of the media was captured in Amendment 1, which clearly stipulated that Congress would make no law prohibiting the freedom of speech and press. The basis of this was that the media served as a cornerstone in building democracy, especially by checking the powers that be.

Independent media, especially in Uganda, has had its fair share of run-ins with the government. Closures, like was with The Monitor, CBS radio, revocation of operating licences (NTV) and outright threats by government functionaries is not new.

But as the media watches over its back, wondering what the government and its operatives could be up to, is there a newer threat they are not paying attention to; the advertisers?

In most of the 1990s, Ugandan newspapers largely depended on revenue from circulation. It perhaps explains the great creativity we witnessed then as newspapers fought for the market share. However, with the liberalization policy of the NRM government taking root in the late 1990s, a host of private multi-national corporations came knocking.

From the Celtel of then, to Stanbic replacing UCB, hundreds of private players have entered the market. Whereas the government employs less than one million Ugandans, the private sector from banking, telecoms, media, hotels, transporting currently employ the bulk of working Ugandans. This naturally means the private sector players probably have greater control on Ugandans’ livelihoods and if so, the media should be placing them under stricter scrutiny than even probably the government—but is this happening?

From my own interactions with journalists and editors, I have gotten the impression that the cash factor is increasingly hampering discharge of their duties. Here is what a friend, who was assigned to the court beat of one of the major newspapers, told me about his experience.

“I came across a case in court where a Black employee of a big oil/soap manufacturing firm was suing his Asian supervisor of abuse. The employee had accused the supervisor of treating them like dogs. He would beat them, spit at them, and do all manner of strange things. Being in court, this meant the information enjoyed qualified privilege and I could write the story. I did precisely that.”

He added: “I did not know I had opened a can of worms. The moment the story was published (as a brief), the company called our managing director. They accused me of all manner of things, including outrageous claims that the cleaner (plaintiff) had paid me. Of course I made my defence but they then pulled the masterstroke. The case was coming up for hearing but if we published the details of the hearing, then we could be sure their advertising, which ran in the millions, would be suspended.”

The above experience perhaps illustrates just a tip of what many reporters, whose work leads them in the path of big advertisers, go through. The burden is even heavier on editors. Every week, they are informed of what the big revenue stream of their media is. They are told who will be paying big advertising money that week. This information is a polite way of saying: “Let this big spender not be written about negatively.”

Editors today are even assigned commercial targets. It is not uncommon to see an editor besides being asked to sell a certain number of copies, to also initiate “money-making” projects for the media house. So, beyond being bogged down with the pressure of delivering good stories, editors must think about special projects/supplements/activations that will yield that extra revenue for the paper.

In her paper, “Editorial Independence; an outdated concept?” Australian journalist Michelle Grattan observes that the problem is not in demanding profit but “the profits being demanded are huge”. Uganda’s top media houses; Vision Group and Monitor Publications Limited, have in the past decade been raking in increased revenues every year. The pressure to better last year’s performance means editors and journalists working extra time to ensure higher sales, more copies.

This has meant media getting into bed with those it should be checking. Big advertisers demand prime space in newspapers, they fault the media when critical stories are run, they compromise journalists and do everything within the book to ensure only positive coverage happens.

An editor I spoke to sums it this way: “There were times when we feared the government. Today, it is riskier to criticize a private advertiser than the government. You can insult the President but will have trouble criticizing a CEO of a top company. We have been taken hostage.”

Even the government seems to have realized that money is mightier than molestation. Government agencies when unimpressed by media coverage also cite the financial implications of rubbing them the wrong way. When Uganda’s Parliament hosted the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2012, a certain media house ran a couple of stories critical of the procurement processes ahead of the conference.

Parliament had been running weekly adverts in this media house and when the stories cropped up, the advertising was halted. No reasons were offered although the general thinking is that parliament was unhappy with the criticism.

Journalists and editors find themselves in the tricky position of balancing the commercial and editorial objectives of their media houses. Is this possible or must one be sacrificed for another? This is a matter I will return to in a short while.