Monday, September 12, 2011

Televised Democracy.

Did you enjoy the Mogoeng Mogoeng show on television? I was riveted for the nearly two days of the live broadcast. It’s been hailed as a giant leap forward in democracy where the Chief Justice is grilled by his peers live on television.

But this form of governance, transparency and accountability may deserve greater scrutiny before we get too excited. The question is quite simply whether Television brings out the best in people. I have my doubts based on my own 30 years of experience in the industry. Television is primarily a peddler of impressions and perceptions rather than information and knowledge. After my first TV news appearances many years ago, a friend called to congratulate me on my debut.

“What did you think of the report?” I asked

“I can’t really remember, but wear a different tie next time!” was the response.

During one of the early broadcasts of the TV business programme “Diagonal Street” a mischievous panellists decided to bait our studio guest, mining magnate Joe Berardo. Sceptical of the mining group Joe had constructed, the panellist asked: “How can you put together a lot of nothing and call it a company?”

Missing the taunt, Joe replied: “Through hard work!”

“And you’ve done really well!” another broker panellist remarked, obviously trying to promote some relationship with Joe’s company.

A better known example of perceptions driven by TV was when Pick ‘n Pay’s Raymond Ackerman faced Clive Weil from Checkers in a TV debate that I chaired. Earlier, Weil had accused Ackerman of some dubious “confidentials” in dealing with suppliers. A livid Ackerman flayed into Weil and reduced him to a very contrite and apologetic figure. In the end there was overwhelming viewer support for Weil who was seen to be unduly bullied by Ackerman.

It is virtually impossible for people not to play to some or other gallery when the cameras are on them. It is one of the most seductive media we know and can transform people in an instant, sometimes permanently with repeated exposure into self-aggrandizing monsters. As sharp and as astute as ever, political analyst Adam Habib recognised this point and condemned the performers/actors on the Mogoeng show for being closed-minded from all sides. He said: “If they were at university they would all have failed.” But Cosatu’s Patrick Craven inadvertently highlighted the real problem with this relatively new form of public accountability and instrument of democracy. “They were too polite”, he wailed in a TV news report.

That’s it! We need and expect TV to be entertaining. Interviewees must squirm. They must be provoked until they lose it before you have a show worthy of any kind of ratings. What most will remember of the Mogoeng show is when indeed he did lose his cool and tarnished whatever dignity he tried to maintain in 15 hours of gruelling.

Today they call it “provocative” journalism. It’s a technique where old world courtesy is abandoned for emotional impact. But it’s nothing really new. As a cadet reporter I learned very quickly that you could ask a simple question in two ways for different effects: The first: “why are you investing in South Africa?” and the second “aren’t you being silly to invest in South Africa?” The content of the response will be the same, but the manner of reply different. The former is for enlightenment and the latter for effect.

At the same time, by including a subtle editorial in the question, the interviewer seems clever and knowledgeable. A few “buts” and a good dose of interruptions and abrasiveness make for even better viewing and self-promotion by interviewers. There are other, even more subtle techniques, such as intense lighting or camera angles that can make the subject appear threatening, friendly, fearful or shifty. These, I must concede are seldom if ever used by directors or producers worthy of that status.

We are still far from assessing the full social impact of the electronic revolution on human behaviour. We already know that Television plays a major role in shaping society. In the United States, for example, money and media win presidential elections. John McCain had little chance against the TV friendly Obama, whose real performance in office now overshadows his ability to win over TV viewers. But it’s a feature of modern life that clearly will not go away. We just have to be more discerning in the way we judge or assess people who either use or are abused by the broadcast media.

Then, far from opposing job interviews on reality TV, I would encourage its expansion. Why restrict it to the Chief justice? As important and as vital as that position is, there are many that can have an equal, if not greater impact on our lives as ordinary citizens.

Cabinet ministers for one should be subject to intense interrogation by a panel of both opposing and supporting politicians, and also from representatives of groups who have a vested interest in the portfolio.

Leaders of state owned enterprises should clearly be included. I cannot imagine poor judgment from a Chief Justice having the same impact on the nation as Eskom’s power black-outs had. Leadership issues undoubtedly played a major role in that event.

There is a compelling argument to include top business appointments in the loop. The sheer size and power of some companies today have made society very vulnerable to their behaviour – Enron and Lehman Brothers being two big international examples. It is a point often raised when executive pay levels are defended.

The argument for more public scrutiny in the appointment of people into top company positions is also supported by the greater emphasis on governance, transparency and accountability as in King III. Companies are quick to argue these days that they have moved their focus from a narrow shareholder interest to a broader “stakeholder” interest.

Then the panel of job interviewers should include customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, lobby groups, and government. The point is that like the JSC, it is not the final appointer – shareholders remain that. But the latter will be far better guided by this process than by some board driven by individual self-interest.

Who qualifies for inclusion as subjects can be easily determined either by company size or social impact.

I would be more interested in the questions put to incumbents to reveal their priorities and focus.

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