Editors and senior journalists have publicly censured the self-proclaimed the National Press Club of South Africa. The top press people said the organisation formerly known as the Pretoria Press Club is disingenuous in that it is creating a perception that it has a mandate which is way beyond its reach. By MANDY DE WAAL.
When the self-styled 'National Press' Club of South Africa (emphasis by Daily Maverick), managed by a couple of Pretoria-based public relations practitioners, announced its Newsmaker of the Year for 2012, South Africa’s press fraternity cringed.
Brendan Boyle, editor of The Daily Dispatch, echoed the sentiments of many journalists and editors when he penned his editorial “Marikana is before rhino”.
“WHEN the rhino was announced on Friday night as South Africa’s newsmaker of 2012, many thought it a joke, while others reacted with utter disbelief,” wrote Boyle in his op-ed. “The National Press Club said its decision to declare the rhino the newsmaker comes after the slaughter of 668 of these animals in South African parks last year. Their plight trumped, among other news of national importance, the killing of Lonmin mine workers, the plight of thousands of children affected by the Limpopo textbook saga, President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home controversy and Julius Malema’s expulsion from the ANC Youth League. The Daily Dispatch would like to place it on record that the NPC, a self-mandated entity founded as the Pretoria Press Club, does not speak on its behalf and this newspaper does not agree with its bizarre decision to name the rhino as the newsmaker of 2012.”
Speaking to Daily Maverick from East London, Boyle called the press club’s choice for Newsmaker of the Year absurd and questioned the professional ethics of the organisation that made it. “It was a ridiculous choice and one that I object to. My response is: ‘Not in my name.’ The press club might call itself ‘national’ but there is no national mandate given to it by the press - it is merely a sectoral group.”
The editor of the Daily Dispatch said that the assumption in the reader’s mind was that the word “national” implied the inclusion of the province. “It was important to point out to our readers that the National Press Club didn’t have a mandate to speak on behalf of the Daily Dispatch. We wanted to ensure that our readers, if they heard about the newsmaker decision, didn’t think we had any part of it, because it was such an absurd decision,” Boyle added. Then there’s the matter of ethics that irks this editor. “The press club in question is sponsored by a group that offers insurance on rhinos, so the whole thing is highly unprofessional,” said Boyle.
On Friday 18 January 2012 the press club announced: “The South African rhino has been named the National Press Club-Aon South Africa Newsmaker of the Year for 2012”. In a statement, the press club’s chair, Antoinette Slabbert, declared: “Rhino poaching has been in the news consistently the entire year and has evoked strong emotions.”
Global insurance and risk management company, Aon, got headline billing in the press club’s statement. In what must present a clear conflict of interest, Aon have material interests in the rhino sector through an insurance solution aimed at covering the risk of rhino poaching. The joint press release with Aon quotes Aon South Africa CEO Anton Roux: “Aon South Africa is proud to be associated with the fight against rhino poaching with our own insurance programmes. The fact that the rhino is now our newsmaker of the year further demonstrates just how urgent this fight is.”
By doing this, the club, managed and run by PR practitioners (and which has a large base of communications managers in its ranks), broke a cardinal press rule – that of independence. Any press worth their salt pledge to keep editorial decision-making impartial from advertising or sponsorship interests.
“I am very unhappy about the fact that a particular group of people have styled themselves as representing the press in South Africa. I think SANEF is the right place for us to take this up and to see if there is anything that we can do about this particular club. The Pretoria Press club is quite frankly a luncheon type club, and having them speaking on behalf of all journalists when they choose a national newsmaker is, plainly speaking, offensive,” Boyle said.
Editor of Media24's investigations team, Andrew Trench, said he too had an issue with the press club’s mandate. “I find it vaguely insulting that an organisation should call itself a national press club without having any semblance of any kind of democratic structure to suggest that it had a mandate that gives any credibility to this title. I think that when these ill-advised things happen, like the rhino nomination, for the ordinary person on the street this comes out under the banner of an organisation calling itself the national press club, and it creates the impression that all journalists and the media are strangely detached from the realities of our country. It is damaging and I think that journalists and editors should challenge the claims this organisation makes. This press club certainly doesn’t represent me, and some of the statements they put out are damaging to journalists, so I think that we should stand up and challenge them, and what they stand for.”
Nic Dawes, the Editor-in-Chief of Mail & Guardian, said he didn’t have a problem with the principle of press clubs, but with the mandate that was assumed by the ‘National’ Press Club. “Press clubs can play a valuable function in this regard, but it is important to understand that they are not representative structures of the press, and that they don’t have a mechanism for getting a mandate for the views of the press either on questions of media freedom and press regulation, or on news issues,” said Dawes. “They have a role to play, but it is not the role of being a union for journalists or representatives of the press.”
Likewise, Sazi Hadebe, editor of the Zulu morning daily, Isolezwe, questioned how the press club could assume to speak as if they were nationally mandated to do so. “They don’t speak on my behalf, and I am not a member. They haven’t contacted me or asked me for my opinion about what was the main news for last year. They can’t represent to claim those who are not members. If they claim to speak from a national platform they should have contacted journalists and editors on a national level to obtain a representative sample. They are creating misperceptions.”
Assistant editor at City Press and author of Zuma Exposed, Adriaan Basson, said the problem with the National Press Club was its name. “The problem with that particular organisation is its name, really. It is because it changed its name from the Pretoria Press Club to the National Press Club. And no, the National Press Club doesn’t represent me, and I don’t think they should pretend that they speak for any journalists beyond their members.”
Hearing how peeved influential members of SA’s press were, the general manager of the Press Club, Ben Rootman, said it was a pity that the media was upset. “We are a club that is open to everyone and we have free association. Our name comes from the time when we were called the Pretoria Press Club and we were thinking of changing our name. We did some research and discovered that press clubs in other capitals, like the Washington and Canberra, were called National Press Clubs. It is kind of the thing where it (the press club) is situated in the capital of a country,” Rootman said, and added that the change happened twelve years ago and he was surprised that people were only taking issue now.
Of course, Pretoria is not a sole capital of South Africa.
When Rootman’s not posing with newsmakers of the year, he’s busy with his day job at a Pretoria PR practice, Junxion Communications, that he runs with his partner Martin van Niekerk, who also doubles as the treasurer of the press club. One of Junxion's clients is Absa Bank, which is also a sponsor of the press club and sits on the executive committee along with the pair of spin-doctors. The PR for the press club is also managed by the duo, who put out statements supporting press freedom or expressing outrage at the government.
“It was never our intention to speak on behalf of people who are not our members,” said Rootman. “Obviously we have a mandate from our members. There is no way we are trying to be offensive and speaking on behalf of others. It is a voluntary club so you have to have the will to run the club. We have 500 members, and believe that this is a mandate and we will continue to assist with media matters as far as we can.”
The problem is that the press Daily Maverick spoke to, both on and off the record, don’t want any help from this Pretoria PR crew, or the legion of communicators who make up much of the press club. The press of South Africa doesn't care about the fact that the club's membership is open to everyone. The overwhelming feeling is that the club should stick to its luncheons and not make a meal out of a precarious press environment, by making strange pronouncements to feed blatant self-interest.
And what about the Daily Maverick itself – where do we stand? As far as the Daily Maverick is concerned, the 'National Press' Club is completely free to choose whoever, or whatever, as Newsmaker of the Year. It could be rhino, it could be Zuma, it could even be the Club manager's aunt's poodle. This is a free country, after all.
But when the group of people, who we never asked to do so, puts this country's hard-working journalists’ reputation on the line and makes arbitrary calls in our collective name – well, then we have to draw the line.
'National Press' Club, it is time for you to change your name.
Please stop ‘representing' us. DM