Lonely guardians of the truth?

2010-02-10 00:00

THE most dangerous thing about the article penned by Stephanie Saville titled “The new censorship” (Witness, February 3), is that, precisely because it is written by a reporter, it carries a certain authority which it does not deserve.

Not only is it filled with gross generalisations and is overwhelmingly subjective, it also, rather unfortunately, concludes by urging public servants to break the rules and regulations of their institutions by leaking stories to the media.

The government, like any other organisation, is a source of news for the media. Communication 101, suggests that the role of the media is to inform, educate and entertain. It is the understanding of the government that media practitioners have a right to practise their trade without any undue hindrance because, by doing so, they help carry out a Constitutional imperative of informing the public and engendering a culture of transparency and openness.

At the same time, the government understands that its interaction with the media is a sensitive matter that should be handled carefully lest it yields unintended consequences. To this end, in 1996 the cabinet approved a framework which came to be termed the Comtask Report which guided the government’s interaction with the public, including media liaison. Stemming from this, all departments were urged to appoint media liaison officers (spokespeople) who would speak with the media on behalf of their departments.

As the new government worked to consolidate itself and deal with the teething challenges of running an efficient and effective administration, the weakness of having too many spokespeople was identified as undermining the ability of the government to interact unambiguously with the public. As a result, a decision was taken that not all public servants would communicate with the media but only those designated to do so. This would help streamline government communication and avoid mixed messages. This is not a ploy to shut up certain public servants but to ensure that the government as an organisation is coherent in its communication.

One understands that journalists operate with very strict deadlines. Indeed, they must be unrelenting in pursuing the best possible turnaround times in getting a comment from the government. Their environment dictates as such. However, the government has a responsibility to safeguard its interests and ensure that what ultimately reaches the public is correct information.

No deadline is more important than the truth. It is also important to note that the reason most communicators prefer that questions be written is because they have, more often than not, suffered the misfortune of being misquoted. Now, any one who has dealt with newspapers would know that getting a retraction printed in a newspaper is akin to attempting to draw blood from a stone. Even when it is published, in rare instances, it is printed so small that you can barely notice it, let alone that it is deliberately tucked away inside the paper.

In an age where the standards of journalism are slumping at an alarming rate, where newsrooms are facing the challenge of juniorisation and where tabloidisation, and its attendant poor-quality journalism, is the flavour of the month, Saville and the media in general would do well to sweep their own back yards.

We must admit that there exists room for improved professionalism on both sides. While the spokespeople have an obligation to carry out their duties with due diligence, so must media practitioners be professional and also understand that theirs is not the only important job in the world. A call from the media should not mean that life stops for whomever the unlucky spokesperson is. This must be a symbiotic relationship. This symbiosis does not mean embedded journalism but a state where there is respect for one another’s profession.

Much as Saville would differ, it is an established fact that in any organisation worth its reputation, communication is a strategic function that, like any other trade, should be practised by people who understand its intricacies, the same way cars should be fixed by people who have studied mechanical engineering. It is instructive that in her article Saville accuses only the government of streamlining its communication, yet global trends show that all organisations, both in the public and private sector, adopt this approach.

Even The Witness of which Saville is part has to delegate someone to talk to the media if there is something that needs to be communicated. Just because you work for a company and are an expert in a particular discipline, does not automatically qualify you to speak on the company’s behalf.

Also, what is worrying about Saville’s highly subjective analysis is that it panders to an untested axiom that communicators, particularly those who work for the government, are merely employed to sugar-coat the truth and “real” people who should share information with the media are muzzled because of unreasonable bureaucracy. Such a penchant for preferring the easy route of generalisation with scant regard for the nuances of the subject matter at hand has, unfortunately, become a defining feature of the engagement between the media and the public sector.

The media have a right to engage vigorously with any subject matter and government spokespeople must respond timeously to media queries. On the other hand, communicators of all organisations have a responsibility to ensure that their organisations are correctly represented in the media. All that needs to happen is for the two players, who need each other, to respect each other’s bona fides and, most critically, to adhere to the highest standards of professionalism. Both sides can improve in this regard.

• Harry Mchunu is the chief director of communication in the KZN Department of Economic Development and Tourism. He writes in his personal capacity.

Stephanie Saville responds:

I AM pleased that my piece has generated this kind of debate and respect Harry Mchunu’s counterarguments.

While the media understands that queries of an investigative nature take time to respond to, answers to basic queries like why the electricity is off in a certain suburb and when power is likely to be restored there, should be easy to access. A principal should be able to answer questions about his or her school and a matron or hospital manager about the hospital they run. They bear the responsibility, so should be trusted to speak to us.

Mchunu says that I urged public servants to break the rules and regulations of their institutions by leaking stories to the media. I merely saluted them because they come freely to us with their stories of fraud, corruption and inefficiency. I believe they have the right to be heard.

While I did refer to the corporate sector in my article — citing corporate employees who are among those who are gagged — there is the fact that they are not public servants, unlike those communication officials who are employed by the government and are remunerated with the taxes our readers pay.

Our main frustration is that we often cannot reach the designated spokesperson when we need to. Voicemail messages saying the person is not available and that his or her message box is full are far too often what we contend with.

Mchunu says a call from the media should “not mean that life stops for … the unlucky spokesperson”, implying that calls from the media to the designated official are a bad thing. That figures.

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