Opinionista Chris Vick 21 January 2013

Save the rhino? Someone save the Press Club.

The most surprising thing about some people being surprised that the National Press Club declared the rhinoceros as "newsmaker of the year" over the weekend is the fact that anyone is surprised. After all, if you were looking for an embedded, compromised and conflicted group of decision-makers, you wouldn't have to look much further than the National Press Club.

The NPC isn’t national, for a start. It’s based in Pretoria, and its members are primarily from there – even though it professes to represent people “from beyond Pretoria’s geographic borders”. There’s a press club in Cape Town that more accurately describes itself as the Cape Town Press Club. Durban hasn’t seen the need yet, nor have journalists in Johannesburg – but that’s probably because they have Rosebank, Sandton and Melville at their disposal if they need a drink.

Secondly, a large number of the National Press Club’s members aren’t actually press people – they’re press officers. More than a third of the NPC’s membership is made up of public relations practitioners, and its executive of 18 includes spindoctors from Proudly South Africa, UNISA, Crime Line, Lead SA and Absa – a sponsor. Yes, the National Press Club has sponsors.

Notable absentees from the NPC executive are anyone from SABC, Sunday Times, City Press, Sunday Independent, Mail & Guardian, Isolezwe, Sowetan, Cape Times, The Mercury, Daily Dispatch, ETV, Business Day, Bloomberg, Reuters, the Financial Mail or, of course, Daily Maverick.

To make things worse, the NPC’s treasurer and general manager are co-owners of a PR company called Junxion Communications, which also does the PR work for the National Press Club. Presumably, the treasurer signs off the payments to his own consultancy every month – and the phrase “conflict of interest” definitely doesn’t appear in their list of press club sound-bites.

There’s also a representative on the NPC exco from the government’s news agency, Bua News, and a chap named Frans Sello waga Machate who runs Pina News – the Progress Independent News Agency, in case you haven’t heard of it, based in Bloemfontein (in hindsight, I guess that also gives the club its national flavour). The last posting on Pina News’ website provides in-depth coverage of a women’s day celebration in Bloemfontein address by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2011. Needless to say, the event was sponsored by Absa. 

Are you joining the dots yet?

Many journalists were at pains to point out in social media over the weekend that the NPC should in no way be seen as representative of the view of “the media”, and that it was therefore wrong to see the choice of a rhino as being “the media’s” agreed choice on who or what was newsmaker of the year”. As Twitter revolted against the NPC’s choice, real journalists across the country found their voice, rejected the rhino in favour of Marikana, Mangaung and the text-books, and declared: “Not in our name.”

But that’s precisely the problem.

Firstly, because of the NPC’s name and its public posture, innocent people could be led to believe that the club does actually represent the collective view of South African journalists.

Take a look, for example, at a recent press release issued by the NPC, which urged members of the club to “continue being the voice of the media”. Look at its tendency to speak out on issues of press freedom, Black Friday, and the Protection of Information Bill. Clearly, it sees itself as representative of journalists and is not shy to pretend to speak on their behalf.

The second problem is that there isn’t much of a counter to the National Press Club. If you’re looking for a credible voice to identify an acceptable media choice for newsmaker of the year, or even a one-stop shop to articulate the views of “the South African media”, forget it. 

Journalists’ unions are either moribund or dead, so you won’t hear a collective voice that articulates the voice of media workers on ethical issues or matters of newsworthiness. 

Their bosses have their own club – the South African National Editors’ Forum, whose chairperson (former Sunday Times editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya, who resigned recently to write a book) is no longer an editor. SANEF, interestingly, has never said a word about the problem with press clubs, or the fact that they tend to present themselves as the collective voice of “the media”. SANEF, in any event, isn’t exactly what is says it is: a large number of its members are not editors, but instead are media academics, media trainers and people who edited newspapers before they reached retirement age. But, as far as I am aware, they do not have any sponsors.

The editors’ bosses also have their own club, which is equally inarticulate: Print and Digital Media South Africa or PDMSA (formerly trading as Print Media South Africa), which is essentially a collective of the cartel that currently owns newspapers or owns news websites (which is effectively the same people). PDMSA is currently running a rather questionable “transformation exercise”, having set up its own Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team, which is going to start conducting public hearings on how to transform itself (better known as turkeys avoiding voting for Christmas). The task team’s having a bit of a tough time, though, as so far it’s only got round to asking its own members to take part in the conversation – forgetting, somehow, to ask civil society organisations such as the Right2Know to make submissions, and excluding a whole barrage of academic and civil society formations from the discussion. Not to mention the rest of society.

So if you’re looking for something that professes to represent the “national” voice of “the media”, you could be excused for expecting that voice to be called the National Press Club. 

In the same vein, if you were the National Press Club and you were asked to identify the AON Newsmaker of the Year, you could be excused for choosing the rhino over Marikana, the ANC’s Mangaung conference, or the Limpopo textbook saga. 

Particularly if your newsmaker award was sponsored by insurance giant AON, best known globally for:

The $190-million settlement reached with the US government in 2005 after New York attorney-general Eliot Spitzer found rampant conflicts of interest in how AON paid commissions to agents.

The 5-million sterling fine imposed by the British Financial Services Authority in 2009 for AON’s “inadequate bribery and corruption controls”.

The $16-million penalty paid in December 2011 to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the US Department of Justice for violations of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

There’s also the not-quite-tangential matter of AON being South Africa’s only provider of insurance cover for rhino farmers. That’s right: your recently-awarded news-making rhino can get insurance cover from AON, thanks to its “Rhino Insurance” product, pitched to long-suffering rhino farmers as “an innovative insurance solution for an out-of-control problem”. For a small fee (and the de-horning of your rhinos) you can get a healthy payout every time someone snatches one of your herd to use your horns to make others horny.

Such economic opportunism is not too far removed from the NPC’s own mission statement, which outlines the NPC’s raison d’etre as follows: “To survive in an increasingly competitive international environment, being globally aware and locally relevant makes good business sense.”

“Good business sense”? From a Press Club?

The National Press Club shows no integrity in the constitution of its membership, its public statements on behalf of the media, or its handling of conflicts of interests. 

It makes a perfect bed-fellow for one of the world’s most corrupt corporate citizens. And its decision to make one of its sponsors’ key South African products the South African newsmaker of the year shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. 

Save the rhino? Someone needs to save the National Press Club. DM

Chris Vick runs Black, a communications consultancy. He wouldn’t touch AON – or the National Press Club – with a barge-pole.


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