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18 March 2018 23:33 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: Politicians vs. journalists in the age of public Twiticism

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

You know it’s election season when political parties and governments start getting extra testy in their dealings with journalists. Social media now offers a whole new stage for public figures to go to town on those who’ve earned their displeasure. Over the past week, representatives from both the City of Cape Town and the DA have expressed targeted – and, in the case of Helen Zille, deeply personal – criticism of individual journalists in a public manner. Is it fair play? REBECCA DAVIS takes a look.

On Monday, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille and her chief of staff Paul Boughey – who previously served as the DA’s director of communications – unveiled the City of Cape Town’s new logo and slogan to journalists. To put it frankly, the event was a bit of a damp squib, due to events which began last Friday.

On that date, the Cape Argus published a version of the logo which, it said, three City insiders had confirmed was the design shown to them at a managers’ meeting by De Lille. The Argus had also previously run a story suggesting that the new logo could cost “hundreds of millions” to implement.

The story circulated rapidly and with outrage among Cape Town’s chattering classes, the majority of whom seemed to take great exception to the logo design, the fact of a change in logo at all, and the purported cost of the change. Boughey took to Twitter at pace, tweeting that the leak of the logo was the “wrong version” and that journalist Anel Lewis had undertaken “irresponsible reporting”. Boughey subsequently escalated this to accuse Lewis of “appalling journalism”, which was “what happens when you undermine [City] Council processes and rely on leaks”.

When the real version of the logo was unveiled on Monday, however, it was virtually identical to the version published by the Argus, differing only in certain shades of colour. De Lille opened the press conference nonetheless with a disapproving lecture about the “misguided speculation and ill-informed comment” around the logo. “The net result of this reliance on leaks, anonymous comments and gossip has done a great disservice to the people of Cape Town,” she claimed.

Before and after the media briefing, Boughey again took to Twitter to berate Argus journalist Lewis over a number of tweets, suggesting that her “conduct” had done “great damage”, that she had “distorted public perception”, and that she should admit to having “made mistakes and let down your readers”.

Apart from having printed the wrong version of the logo, Boughey’s contention is that Lewis misled the public about the associated costs of the change. De Lille stressed that the City would not spend hundreds of millions of rand on the implementation, but would rather brand items like uniforms, stationery and vehicles only when they were due to be replaced anyway. But the other root of anger seems to be that the Argus printed the logo without giving the blurb as to the corporate vision it espouses, or the identity “filled with layered meaning and depth”, to quote De Lille.

In other words, because the Argus simply printed its version of the logo without any spin, readers simply judged it on its aesthetic merits – which were found lacking. The real version is sufficiently similar that few people are likely to have drastically changed their minds on the matter. One might argue that a logo should be able to speak for itself without a lengthy side-explanation as to its meaning and symbolism, but that’s a topic for a marketer or designer to take up.

In many journalistic circles, despite its inaccuracies, the Argus story would be considered a great scoop. It provided a major discussion-point for citizens, the kind of subject that talk-radio hosts love. Public interest in the issue was clearly very high, even if the question of whether the story was in the public interest was rather more blurry. The newspaper would have had serious egg on its face if the real version of the logo had been substantially different to the old one – but it wasn’t. The contested Argus story quoted a source exaggerating the costs of the logo’s implementation, but we’ve yet to hear a firm figure of how much the logo will cost to implement.

Does the City have a right to level harsh criticisms about unprofessional journalism in a way possibly detrimental to an individual journalist’s career, or is it simply a case of sour grapes because the newspaper’s gun-jumping meant that the City lost the opportunity to spin the logo to the public in the way they’d planned?

The City’s spokesperson Priya Reddy insists that the Argus reporting on the matter was highly problematic. “The result of the Argus reporting… is that citizens were misled, in that they were presented with an inaccurate representation of the logo, no context as to the strategy which informed it was provided, and they were provided with the wrong figures related to the cost of implementation,” Reddy told the Daily Maverick. “In particular, there was no reference to the pay-off-line which underpins the strategy.” (The City’s new pay-off line is “Making Progress Possible. Together.”)

“The public debate has now been soured by the actions of the Argus which showed a lack of respect for Council processes,” Reddy said.

Respect for Council processes does not appear to be specified anywhere in the South African Press Code, however, just as it doesn’t explicitly prescribe respect for the proceedings of Parliament, government, or any political party.

Journalists should rightly be called to account for unethical reporting, but presumably it should be done evenly. When the Public Protector’s provisional report on Nkandla was leaked to the Mail & Guardian last December, for instance, the DA slammed the ANC’s “bid to de-legitimise the Public Protector’s investigation and report by latching onto the fact that the provisional report was leaked to the Mail & Guardian”.  When a draft report by the Public Protector investigating a DA communications tender was leaked to Sunday newspapers in May 2012, however, Helen Zille called the leak “highly irregular”, stating that it it “prejudice[d] the administration of justice and compromise[d] our rights”.

Not many people can deal well with criticism, and South African politicians from across the spectrum are no exception. In election season, it’s clear that skins are thinner than normal. A relatively new innovation, however, is the use of social media for political players to launch personal attacks on individual journalists, as Zille did this weekend to lambaste City Press journalist Carien du Plessis and the Sunday Independent’s Shanti Aboobaker.

Du Plessis got the worst of it from Zille, being the subject of almost 24 hours of critical tweets at time of writing, including a suggestion that Du Plessis’ reporting was influenced by her paranoia about being white, that Du Plessis was a “seriously biased journalist desperate to curry favour with the left because of her background”, and that Du Plessis was “so desperate to be politically correct”. Zille threw in an invitation for Du Plessis to sue her.

When asked what Du Plessis had done to set her off, Zille replied “Just the usual, nothing strange. Misreporting and distorting. Every week.” On Sunday, City Press ran a front-page special on three major parties’ election manifestos – EFF, ANC and DA – under the headline ‘Game On’. Du Plessis wrote the section about the DA, in which she focused on the party’s allegedly undecided approach to land reform.

In the article, Du Plessis wrote that the DA’s manifesto “doesn’t mention land, except from promising that a DA government would allocate an extra R10 billion to ‘speed up land reform, and provide training and support for emerging farmers’.” Zille commented on Twitter: “I wrote the section on land reform myself. And then her article said our manifesto said nothing about land reform!”

A look at the DA manifesto reveals that the truth is somewhere in the middle (Du Plessis did not say that the manifesto said nothing about land reform). The manifesto devotes just one page to land reform per se, but it does include a few plans that Du Plessis neglects to mention – like releasing state-owned land, increasing funding for collaborative reform models and committing to the principle of willing buyer, willing seller.

Aboobaker, on the other hand, appears to have earned Zille’s ire for a Sunday Independent piece claiming that there were tensions within the DA’s leadership over the preferential funding given to Mmusi Maimane’s Gauteng premiership campaign. Aboobaker relied for her piece on sources speaking anonymously “for fear of retribution”, which is particularly what seems to have angered Zille. The South African Press Code does allow for the use of anonymous sources in situations where “there is no other way to deal with a story”, though it warns that “care should be taken to corroborate the information”.

In many tweets explaining and elaborating on her anger towards Du Plessis in particular, Zille repeatedly said that she felt journalists were immune from criticism and that she had the right to attack when she was attacked in turn by journalists every day. It’s easy to see that it must be frustrating for political figures to feel that they have no recourse to respond freely and immediately to inaccuracies, when journalists are given varying degrees of freedom to tweet opinion (Du Plessis, for instance, tweets in an engagingly personal manner).

This frustration must be doubled when the alleged inaccuracies are carried by weekly newspapers with a wide reach at a critical period before elections.

But there are also obvious differences between journalists and politicians, which perhaps it’s harder for Zille to acknowledge because she’s been on both sides. One is that journalists must abide by the South African Press Code, and that if they do not, there is a clear process to bring them to account involving the Press Ombudsman.

Helen Zille’s spokesperson Zak Mbhele – soon to be an MP, as he’s number five on the DA’s Western Cape party list – didn’t respond to a question from the Daily Maverick on Monday as to whether Zille had indeed laid a complaint against the journalists in question at the Press Ombudsman. A trawl through the Ombudsman reports, however, suggests that the DA has approached the Press Ombudsman infrequently over the past year.

Mbhele approached the Ombudsman about an April 2013 New Age article published under the heading “Zille fails race test – White males still dominate top jobs in the DA province”. Mbhele claimed that the headline, sub-headline and certain aspects of the story amounted to a distortion which did not accurately reflect information given by Zille in a press conference. The Ombudsman dismissed the complaint that the content was inaccurate or a distortion, but did find that the journalist in question failed to verify certain information and misleadingly stated that the story was based on more than one source.

The DA’s most high-profile barney with a media outlet last year was again with The New Age, who published a series of articles in January grilling Zille for alleged deceitfulness and hypocrisy for having participated in one of the newspaper’s Business Briefings despite being aware that it was sponsored by a parastatal. The Ombudsman dismissed a number of aspects of the DA’s complaint, but upheld others, directing The New Age to publish a front-page apology.

In general, the Ombudsman is called upon fairly frequently to referee complaints from political figures across the spectrum. In June last year, for instance, the Ombudsman dismissed a complaint from former Communications Minister Dina Pule that the Sunday Times had acted unethically by handing over information about Pule to the DA’s Dianne Kohler-Barnard, who in turn passed it over to Parliament’s ethics committee. Slightly less significantly, the Ombudsman also dismissed a complaint in April from the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi that the Sunday Times’ Hogarth column’s habit of referring to Buthelezi as “Not Gatsha” – poking fun at Buthelezi’s stated desire not to be referred to by his nickname – was disrespectful and inaccurate.

In other words, it is generally accepted that the Press Ombudsman is the major appropriate channel for political parties to express concern about reporting, although they also tend to use other media: press conferences, as Patricia de Lille did on Monday, statements, op-eds, and good old letters to the editor.

It’s easy, even for journalists with a stake in the game, to see the temptation of social media for politicians to take on individual journalists immediately – especially when, like Zille, you have over 380,000 followers hanging on to your words. (That’s more than twice the circulation of City Press, by the way.) Zille’s argument is that this can enhance, rather than stifle, media expression in this country, by forcing journalists to take more care to corroborate their information rather than risk being called out on it straight away in a humiliating public way.

But it also ignores the fact that politicians have power and status in a way that journalists do not – and that simple fear of being exposed to a both personal and professional savaging, in the way that Du Plessis has, could certainly incentivise journalists to take far fewer risks in investigative reporting in particular, which is often by its nature a risky game.

This isn’t Du Plessis’ first rodeo. In 2010 she brought charges – and won a settlement – against erstwhile ANC Youth League spokesperson Floyd Shivambu after he referred to her in an SMS as a “white bitch” and “stupid”. Is Zille’s tweet campaign against her, with its own racial insults, any less designed at intimidation? DM

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Photo: The DA leader Helen Zille (Sapa)

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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