A fresh start

2008-04-17 00:00

“‘Awards are like piles, eventually every asshole has one.’ That’s what Glenda Jackson said and that’s really what I think about them,” said award-winning

television documentary producer, Jessica Pitchford. “They are important for the wrong reasons and sooner or later everyone really does win one because everyone does a good story some time.”

Pitchford was in the city recently to speak at a fundraising breakfast for Hospice sponsored by The Witness. Pitchford has family and friends in Pietermaritzburg and is a frequent visitor to the city.

At the event she announced that she is moving from the SABC3 investigative current affairs programme, Special Assignment, to the opposition — M-Net’s Carte Blanche. She takes up the position of managing editor at the beginning of May.

Commenting on her move, she said: “I have been with Special Assignment for eight years and at SABC3 for 18. I need a career change and a new challenge. I now find things too easy and I want to go to an environment where I can learn something

different.

“At M-Net I will have to manage people and take responsibility for a programme, which will be new and stimulating. I have always avoided management and having to be responsible for other people and the details of their lives. I am better equipped for this now as I’m mellower and more mature. I no longer get upset by things that used to upset me. I’m no longer trying to prove anything like I was in my 20s. However, I will probably always feel I could do a story differently and probably

better, so it’ll be a challenge to mentor and manage people who cover stories I would love to do. It will be hard to give up the excitement of researching stories.

“Losing my contacts will be a big wrench too. I will have to give them all up, all the people who call me to tell me what’s going on. It’ll also be hard to give up the pile of juicy stories on my desk for others to pursue. That will be hard.”

Commenting on what gives her pleasure in her work, Pitchford said that as a public broadcaster the SABC is expected to do “development journalism”, or record people’s experiences and promote dialogue between the government and the people.

“This meant we got results from programmes we did, which was very rewarding. I am amazed by the power you have as a television journalist. You can make people scared of you or really angry and rude if they are hiding something. For television, the ruder the better for the visuals! This power allowed us to empower people to make a

difference in their own lives. Seeing change happen because of stories we did gave me great joy.

“It was amazing to see the relief in people’s faces when we arrived to do a story, particularly people who have no access to government. Being able to tell their story on television forced the government to acknowledge an issue and act on it. Otherwise the authorities would not act.

“Doing updates was an important part of this process. I would always go back to a story six months later and report back on what, if anything, had happened. This made people think ‘Yes, they do care’ and made the government act too.”

Pitchford, who is mother to Hannah (5), commented on the challenges of being a working mother.

“It has been very difficult because at times I had to disappear for a week to the back of beyond to research a story. I used to organise a roster of friends to fetch and carry Hannah. Sometimes I had to pay someone — a friend’s au pair — to do this. It was a real challenge.”

Pitchford grew up in the Eastern Cape and studied Journalism and Media Studies, and Speech and Drama at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

She began her journalism career in 1986 at SABC radio and then worked as a television news reporter, covering township violence in the run-up to the 1994 elections.

“That was really harrowing — guns and blood and guts and violence. I moved into parliamentary and political reporting after 1994 because I thought it would be an exciting place to be, but it wasn’t. It was tedious and boring reporting speeches. I hated not having the time to illustrate what was going on in Parliament by finding out what the public was thinking about it.”

She won awards in the CNN African Journalist of the Year competition in 1997 and 2005. In 2004 and 2005 she was named Webber Wentzel Bowen’s Legal Journalist of the Year and was a category winner in the Vodacom Journalist of the Year in 2003 and 2005. In 2007, she won the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s John Manyarara Investigative Journalist of the Year competition for a programme entitled Guns For Sale.

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