Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 20 May 2013

Dear spindoctors, dear journalists, let’s talk frankly…

That there is an overall negative narrative about government in the media is undeniable. However, to lay the blame for this solely at the door of journalists is disingenuous. Both journalists and politicians are responsible for this narrative.

Dear spindoctor and journalists,

The debate on the racism in the media between top spindoctors and editors last week failed to  isolate the culprits. It cannot be generalised. This is the only gripe I have with the arguments of Panyaza Lesufi and Lumka Olifant, both very competent government communicators. Similarly, I have a beef with anyone who wishes to deny that there is an overall negative narrative in the media about government and, when this is pointed out, accuses, as Ferial Hafajee has done, those who make this point of being bullies.  I believe, nevertheless, that if any editor were to venture into summarising all government communicators as incompetent and aloof  I will, equally, take umbrage. Let’s be frank, to sum up all black editors as puppets is simply not true. Fortunately, we know these editors and do not have to rely on Lesufi’s judgement alone to make up our minds. We met some of them, such as Jovial Rantao and Makhudu Sefara, when the likes of Panyaza and I were junior spokesman in the late 90s. We worked with them in getting our stories out there and they worked hard to be at the helm of their publications today.  It would be very strange if some of them suddenly stopped thinking and resigned this attribute to their white bosses.

Yes, indeed, some of them have taken questionable decisions and it is those decisions that we must take issue with and not sweeping generalisations about all things “black editor”. Nor should we excuse them from their editorial decisions by blaming their white bosses. I know that some people may be under the illusion that some unwritten mandate may exist, from somewhere, about attacking the media to excuse all the terrible coverage that our movement tends to attract. I am quite sure that no such mandate exists. The reality is that as we deal with the narrative that appears in our media we need to be sober about identifying the root of such a narrative so that we can deal with it firmly and effectively. A wrong diagnosis of where this narrative comes from will lead to a wrong decision about what to do about it.  My view is that both journalists and politicians are responsible for this narrative.

A number of newsrooms are a still haunted by Apartheid, as is the case with all parts of society. We can expect, therefore, that some of their stories will be influenced by this, as pointed out by Olifant. There is still a lot of work to be done to transform the newsroom, including the transformation of ownership of the media. If the ownership is not changed we cannot really hope for more investments in the newsroom to deal with the second issue I want to highlight in that regard: capacity, or more specifically, the lack thereof in the newsrooms. Gone are the days of specialist journalists who knew their subject matter thoroughly. These days journalists have to double up as specialist in broad subject matters such as the economy or politics – stuff that has numerous categories of comprehension. Detailed features by journalists, say who are specialist in education, are few and far between. It is clear that a bad narrative is therefore a result of a combination of factors, not just racism. Incompetence in the newsroom is hardly written about because the platform is owned by the selfsame people who would have to point this out and, sadly, communicators, both private and public, do not bother to take up issues regularly where journalists are not doing their jobs properly for fear of coverage victimisation or placing their companies on the spotlight of a journalist scorned. What we saw this week was a rarity.

The role of communicators in placing their story out there must also be blamed for the poor narrative against their organisations or, more specifically, their government. Very few now take the time to reach out to journalists in a consistent and thorough manner. Of the 3,000 public sector communicators, very few influence the opinion pages of the more than 30 newspapers that exist. Editors don’t have their doors broken down with offers of well written and argued pieces that place the perspective of the ruling party in these pages regularly. This is more the preserve of the opposition parties and their spokespeople, who bore us to death with their perspectives. A narrative of the successes of government is not the responsibility of the journalist in the main. It is the responsibility of the government communicator, who must wake up every day ensuring that the good news of success occupies the free space that is given out there in numerous papers across the country and the world. The tactics of well-placed adverts and advertorials as part of the arsenal of unmediated communications is also key, but less sustainable than the grind of media relations that will result in the media carrying your perspective regularly. This is not an exact science but the recent emerging tendency where attacking the media with generalisation seems to be preferred is not helpful at all.

The role of politicians cannot go unnoticed. Communications and, therefore, a good narrative, follows good action. The government reacted well on the Gupta scandal eventually. This has made communications on this mitigate what was a bad action – allowing this plane to land at a wrong airport in the first place. No amount of spin can fix wrong actions by politicians such as corruption and maladministration or even pure cluelessness. The narrative of corruption in particular is not an invention of the media. It is the making of the corrupt and the media cannot be expected to ignore this. At the same time the media must be challenged always to see the actions of the government against corruption. But, if we are honest, we will agree that the reality is these actions are few and far between. Try and find someone who has lost his job over corruption, even against a damning report of the Auditor General G that 95% of municipalities are dying of corruption. Frankly, you will struggle. You don’t have to be a so-called “clever black” to agree with this. Three years ago the AG pointed out 2,000 civil servants who were caught doing business with themselves. Name one who is in prison for that? This is the narrative that is not the fault of the media. The media is not a PR arm for anyone; it is up to those who are in PR to wake up and ensure they can use these platforms effectively by doing their work of communicating the message of their organisations.

I like my friend Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya and I am angry that he has left City Press. There are things that Media 24 must look at to create a conducive environment for journalists. But I am not about to write off the entire crew at City Press – we need to be circumspect in lumping entire institutions because of  incidents  we don’t like. Similarly, I like Panyaza Lesufi but I am not obligated to agree with all his arguments about the media and his belief that there is a racist conspiracy in all newsrooms against all that is black, ANC or government. Because I know for sure there are card-carrying members of our movement who are journalists, yet they too are equally frustrated at the poor communications that comes out of many government departments even where good stories can be told.

Is there racism in the news room? Yes, as there is in any other corner of our society. Is there a policy of racism in the newsroom where journalist in general are asked to go and find only negative stories about government? No. Are all black editors puppets? No, not even by a stretch of revolutionary thinking. I am sure if we look hard enough we may find some lacklustre editor, but I would never paint editors with a brush like that  – at least not the current crop. Is there a need for a thorough transformation in the press? Absolutely. The ownership leaves much to be desired and the content needs more and more improvement.

The debate is important but, more importantly, there is a gnawing need to build bridges between the state and the fourth estate in order that both can see the errors of their ways and commit to fixing these. The tensions are, however, healthy and if balanced can take us all forward as we build a new nation. So, come on dear spindoctors, dear journalists, let’s reach out one to another.

Yours frankly,

Onkgopotse JJ Tabane DM


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