Have they been wise?

2015-01-19 06:00

Journalists Karima Brown and Vukani Mde should be congratulated for their honesty in posting pictures of themselves in ANC regalia on social media last weekend.

These two – the group executive editor and group editor of opinion and analysis at Independent Newspapers – have caused a row about whether journalists should parade their political affiliations in this way. But at least they are being more honest than those journalists who try to hide their biases, histories and affiliations – usually unsuccessfully.

“We are ANC, we are committed, and we are proud. Take it or leave it,” is the attitude of the two key editorial policymakers at one of the country’s biggest newspaper groups – and it is a transparent attitude. Brown went online to say that she had given up her membership of the ANC when she became a journalist, that she would not apologise for being Left and a socialist, and that her reporting on the ANC “had never been anything but factual”. That last bit is, well, not quite factual.

There are, broadly speaking, three lines of thinking among journalists on the issue of political affiliation. The first comes from those who stick to the rather quaint notion that they can be truly objective. We are professionals trained to leave our personal views at the door and cast aside our prejudices, this group argues.

More common nowadays are those who say that journalistic neutrality may be elusive, even impossible to achieve, but – like perfect beauty – is still an ideal worth striving for.

One can see the virtue of such an approach in reporting routine news events, such as car crashes or court cases, where the main purpose is to convey a set of conflicting facts and allow the audience to form their own view. It is particularly valid in the age of social media, when the flood of rumour and opinion puts a premium on solid, trustworthy reporting.

The Brown-Mde position would be that we should stop trying to achieve the impossible or pretend to be what we are not. We should acknowledge that we all have biases and be open about it.

If the audience knows where one stands, they can consume one’s reporting with this knowledge and make their own judgements. This approach allows journalists to be engaged and passionate, rather than dispassionate and bland.

South Africa has had many well-known journalists with party-political affiliations. Think DF Malan, first editor of Die Burger and later prime minister. Most of the Afrikaans newspapers were so enthralled with the apartheid government that they failed dismally to cover the horrors of that system of government.

On the other hand, there are some journalists who doubled up in politics who have done fine work. One recalls Sol Plaatje and John Dube, both pioneering newspapermen of the early 1900s who also were the first president and general secretary of the ANC, respectively.

Most of the country’s best and worst journalism has come from those who identified with a political cause.

To be fair, neither Brown nor Mde are uncritical of the ANC, though they write from an “inside” perspective and their criticism generally falls within narrow parameters.

One is reminded of those Afrikaans editors who argued that they led from the front in the National Party, pushing for reform. They might have, but did they cover what they should have covered?

This is what matters at the end: the quality of their journalism – and it is not clear that this is determined by political affiliation.

A great deal depends on what kind of publication or broadcaster one works for. At a public broadcaster like the SABC, party affiliation should be out of the question, as their journalists need to be seen to answer to no political party. At smaller or niche, privately owned media, it is more common to take up advocacy as a way of carving out a place in the market.

There are complications, however, for more general, mass-market outlets. Brown and Mde represent not just themselves, but a major media company whose readers come from across the political spectrum.

Does this mean, readers might ask, that we should see the paper as a voice of the ANC? Will they block stories that might touch a raw nerve in the governing party? Are they too close to power to be critical?

Journalists at Independent might start to ask themselves if party support will help them get a promotion – the kind of attitude which has poisoned the SABC.

They will recall that senior reporter Donwald Pressly was fired last year when his name appeared on a DA nomination list. However, argues Brown, the issue with Pressly was that he kept it from his employer. She and Mde have never hidden their political views and are not standing for office.

But does Independent have a clear policy on these issues, consistently applied? If so, why are we not hearing about it?

Brown and Mde have been honest. But one may ask: Have they been wise?

Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University and chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute

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