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31 May 2016 03:55 (South Africa)
Opinionista Marianne Thamm

True colours shining through: Should journalists be draping themselves in party political colours?

  • Marianne Thamm
    Marianne-Thamm-new.jpg
    Marianne Thamm
The myth of the objective journalist has long been shattered. It never existed. Journalists are human and by nature gravitate towards specific ideologies and ways of thinking shaped by a myriad of influences and factors. We are not blank slates. Ultimately, however, our job is to monitor and to hold power to account – whatever its colours.

There was much black, green and gold in the streets of Cape Town this weekend as ANC leadership and supporters flooded into the city to celebrate the party’s 103rd birthday.

“We are going to paint Cape Town yellow. And if there is not enough room in Cape Town Stadium we will paint it yellower outside,” trumpeted Secretary General Gwede Mantashe at a press conference earlier in the week.

There was a time, not too long ago, when wearing these three colours or publicly displaying the face of Nelson Mandela risked detention and arrest. In the 1980s, the sudden appearance of a banned ANC flag during the endless mass funerals of activists who had been murdered by the state would provoke a profound feeling of defiance and inspiration.

Many journalists back then openly supported the United Democratic Front (UDF), regarded as the internal wing of the then-banned ANC. There were editors, including my own at the Cape Times, Tony Heard, who were sympathetic to the ANC. Heard eventually lost his job in 1985 after publishing an interview with Oliver Tambo, the then-exiled President of the ANC and who was a “banned” person in South Africa. Heard risked imprisonment in publishing the interview.

Many of us retain a deep emotional attachment to the colours of the ANC for this very reason.

But there were many journalists also – and almost all mainstream media owners – back then, who supported the status quo – i.e. the sham “two-party democracy" of the Apartheid state. The English- speaking media generally supported opposition parties while also reporting on the growing tide of resistance and concomitant state repression in the country’s townships. In 1987, veteran Cape Times columnist, John Scott, who was recently unceremoniously dumped by the paper, resigned as assistant editor to stand as a Progressive Federal Party candidate in Simonstown.

Black and left-leaning white journalists (many of whom later found a home at the Cape Times post 1994) who were sympathetic to the UDF and who covered the growing resistance in the townships often found stories either spiked or altered by editors and news editors. Motives would often be questioned for a particular angle, depending on who was working on the “desk” on a particular day or night.

But that was then.

This is now.

We live in a democratic, free South Africa where the ANC is the ruling party, the party in power. The supreme law of the country is the Constitution, which guarantees and protects the rights of all citizens.

You would either have to be Steve Hofmeyr or have been on a 20-year space mission if you claimed that South Africa is not a better country, unrecognisable from its pre-1994 political incarnation.

But it is precisely because the ANC is now in power that we should be cautious not to be swept away by nostalgia and the party’s cachet as a former liberation movement, once the moral lodestar of the struggle – with the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani as leaders.

We have a president who, since taking office in 2009, has been dogged by scandal and allegations of impropriety and corruption and a government increasingly concerned with establishing a specific “good news” narrative in the media in the face of visible failure in many areas. The Marikana massacre, a bloated and often incompetent civil service, the education and energy crisis, e-tolls, ailing parastatals, crime, corruption and an attempt by factions in the ruling party to capture the intelligence services as well as influence the judiciary. These are all sins of incumbency and a vibrant and independent media is vital in holding government and power to account.

While the country enjoys a free press, it is a space that is increasingly being squeezed, not only by laws such as the The Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill), the National Key Points Act, the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill and the now-on-hold Media Appeals Tribunal resolution of the ANC, but also through the diversion of government advertising to publications and media outlets perceived to be sympathetic to the ruling party. These include the Gupta family’s ANN7 television station, The New Age and, more recently, Independent Newspapers. The SABC is unashamedly a state and not a public broadcaster. The choice of stories it chooses NOT to cover, or the pro-government slant in all its news bulletins, is evidence of this. To say nothing of sympathetic board and other appointments.

Generally media objectivity is an illusion, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, and outlets globally serve government and corporate interests. But within this narrow room to manoeuvre there is always space for courageous, outspoken journalism that serves readers rather than these interests. Luckily the internet has provided a space for voices that counter those who sing from government or a business hymnal.

In 1994, Sir Tony O’Reilly bought The Argus Company, previously owned by the Anglo American Corporation, with promises to Nelson Mandela that the media house would be generally sympathetic to the aims of the new, democratic ANC government. While O’Reilly stripped the group of its assets, diminishing capacity and newsrooms, titles attempted to maintain a modicum of “objective” reporting of the dynamic, changing political landscape.

The Independent Newspaper Group, under its new owners with the controlling shareholding held by Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Consortium, has been particularly vocal in its support for the ruling party.

Since Survé’s acquisition of the group in 2013, a number of high-profile veteran journalists (some of whom admittedly could have been regarded as “dead wood” but many who were consummate professionals) were culled from the Cape Times specifically. These included Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois and veteran journalists Tony Weaver and Janet Heard. There were at least 12 other resignations, stripping the paper of its institutional memory and expertise.

While journalists have always privately harboured political sympathies or ideologies, in the past few, if any, publicly revealed these allegiances or nailed their colours to the mast. When Scott decided to stand for the PFP in 1987 he resigned from the Cape Times. He was, however, re-employed later in spite of this. But those were different times.

In April last year Business Report journalist Donwald Pressly was fired for seeking political office with the Democratic Alliance, a move which new Group Executive Editor, Karima Brown, described as “a breach of Independent Newspapers' editorial code of conduct and code of ethics and a breach of the trust that those readers place in our titles and the writers who put them together”.

Ja well no fine.

This weekend Brown and fellow veteran journalist and now Group Editor of Opinion and Analysis, Vukani Mde, posted pictures of themselves decked out in ANC regalia attending the party’s 103rd celebrations in Cape Town. Both Brown and Mde are experienced journalists who have covered the political landscape for several publications for many years. They both bring unique insights into the workings and troubles of the ruling party. But while there is a significant difference between standing for political office, as Pressly did, and donning the colours of a political party at a rally, one must question both these senior editors public display of their political allegiances.

Let’s frame it this way.

Would it be acceptable to Brown and Mde if a journalist in the Independent group, attending a DA federal congress or birthday party or an EFF event, posted photographs of themselves decked out in those party’s colours?

If not, why is it okay for them to do so?

While Mde and Brown did not report on proceedings, and in fact some of the titles in the Independent Group did come in for criticism from Mantashe at the weekend for their critical reporting, it would be in the interests of transparency for them to perhaps insert a disclaimer in the titles they serve alerting readers to their apparently unwavering political allegiances.

While the ANC and the tripartite alliance might once have represented our hopes and political aspirations and it is tempting to be caught up in past struggle nostalgia – today the party is firmly in government. As such it is subordinate to the Constitution of South Africa and the will of the people. This is what and whom we serve. If government – whether the DA in the Western Cape or the ANC in the rest of the country – threatens or undermines our democratic freedoms we must expose this without fear or favour.

Good journalism is about monitoring and holding power to account, whether it wears black, green and gold, blue or red. DM

  • Marianne Thamm
    Marianne-Thamm-new.jpg
    Marianne Thamm

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