Helen Zille: When you need a crisis to manufacture, any issue will do

2015-03-22 15:00

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The Western Cape government opting not to renew its Cape Times subscriptions had SA asking if the DA walks its media-freedom talk

Let’s be clear: what many people were saying this past week is true. Media freedom in South Africa is under serious threat.

It is also true that there is a major scandal relating to the Cape Times. It may even warrant the label “unprecedented”, as Independent News & Media, the newspaper’s proprietors, reportedly described it this week.

But neither the threat to the media nor the Cape Times scandal is the cause of the fact that the Western Cape cabinet decided not to renew its subscriptions to this title (as the general hysteria over the past week would have us believe).

Nor has this “unprecedented” crisis got anything to do with National Treasury’s 2013 circular to provincial governments requiring far-reaching cost-cutting measures, including the injunction that “all newspaper and other publications for employees should be discontinued”.

In the Western Cape, we responded by reducing our subscriptions, but not cutting them entirely. Some officials no longer receive any subscriptions; others receive fewer titles. And, because we subscribe to a press cutting service, most subscriptions are redundant anyway.

When we do actually subscribe to newspapers, we are increasingly discerning about accuracy, relevance, factual reporting and insightful analysis.

Of course, this constitutes a crisis for some editors and journalists, many of whom believe they are above criticism, and anyone who challenges factual inaccuracy, misleading headlines or even outright inventions and plagiarism is attacking media freedom.

Such editors demand “special-product status” for their titles, and reject the idea that readers are customers who have a right to choose from different products.

It is time to face a simple fact: media freedom means writers can write what they like (within the law) and readers can read what they like.

What’s more, readers have the right to complain about shoddy reporting and breaches of the press code – and stop subscribing.

None of those actions constitute a threat to media freedom.

In fact, consumers who use their power can contribute to long overdue improvements in the quality of some titles – or their demise – whichever comes first.

The old adage that no one should quarrel with journalists because they “order ink by the barrel” is well and truly obsolete. Every citizen can now publish whatever they choose on platforms that attract far more readers than any newspaper ever has.

They can also fight back when they are misrepresented and misquoted. That is one of the key reasons newspaper sales are declining and why some editors and writers are in a panic.

In government, we look for publications that can be relied upon to produce articles – critical or otherwise – that are accurate, topical, relevant and staffed by journalists with integrity who understand readers are consumers with choices.

We have deep respect for the many excellent journalists and publications out there, and we read them diligently.

But the days are long gone when readers had to tolerate the kind of replies to correspondence that they receive from editor of the Cape Times Aneez Salie.

Here’s one example. Recently, the Cape Times ran a seriously misleading front-page headline, Schools Win Closure Fight, above an article that was, in parts, also seriously misleading.

It dealt with the long-running saga of the Western Cape education department’s attempts, over three years, to close 17 underused or dysfunctional schools. After several court hearings, the department finally won a unanimous judgment in the Supreme Court of Appeal on 16 out of the 17 closures.

After this resounding victory, the department decided to re-examine the cases of a few schools where the circumstances had changed. This led to the Cape Times’ misleading headline and story.

As a result, the media officer for the Western Cape minister of education wrote to the Cape Times editor to ask for the right of reply in an op-ed within the same week.

She received an extremely rude rejection note, which included this little gem: “An accident of birth is no longer a passport to the front of the queue at the Cape Times.”

This is not the only example of the editor’s use of the race card or rudeness to his readers. We have a dossier of examples. Nor is his attitude confined to politicians and their staffers.

Take the scathing letter Salie sent to an engineer, John Carver, after he wrote a short letter to the newspaper enquiring: “How is it that a Cape Times reporter happened to have his camera ready at the exact moment a University of Cape Town student threw poo on Rhodes’ statue?”

Salie wrote back in a ranting letter, which ended in the following sentence: “We’ll just assume you are part of a racist campaign against the Cape Times – and we will deal with you.”

It is surely reasonable to ask why any reader should continue subscribing to a newspaper that treats its readers (customers) in this way.

But for us in the provincial cabinet, the final straw (on top of the editor’s persistent rudeness and racism, and the newspaper’s persistent, tendentious, misleading and inaccurate reporting) was a story we believe was a mixture of plagiarism and invention.

It involved a baby called Thomas, allegedly born with foetal alcohol syndrome to an alcoholic mother called Rose (no pseudonyms). Thomas was apparently leading a miserable life, having fallen through the cracks of the province’s social welfare and education system.

Furthermore, the article alleged that the notorious and illegal dop system (which involves part-payment of workers in alcohol) was still operating on farms in the Western Cape’s Wellington area.

Our request for further information, without the Cape Times revealing its sources, to enable us to find and support the child and prosecute farmers breaking the law, elicited a one-word answer in capital letters from the editor: “NO”.

Despite all these examples, we have never advocated withdrawing advertising from the Cape Times. Adverts are, and will, continue to be placed by an agency with a mandate to target appropriate readers when placing advertisements. We have also never advocated a boycott of the Cape Times.

In fact, we have never even cancelled a subscription. We have only taken a decision to allow subscriptions to lapse when they have run their natural course.

What’s more, we did not make this decision public. It only appeared in the media because someone saw fit to leak it to a newspaper with the clear intention of manufacturing a bit of “outrage”.

I can imagine the discussion in some newsrooms.

“For weeks we have been covering the Nkandla scandal, the Eskom crisis, the spy tapes and the 783 charges against President Jacob Zuma, the illegal attempts to fire the head of the Hawks and a commissioner of the SA Revenue Service.

We need a bit of balance. What has Helen Zille done lately? Oh, wow! She and her colleagues decided not to renew a newspaper subscription!”

When you need a crisis to manufacture, any issue will do.

And once the pack believes there is a crisis, they all start baying for blood.

The growing tendency by the media to manufacture outrage (and sometimes even entire stories) is indeed a crisis for the media, and the SA National Editors’ Forum should be concerned about it.

I am waiting with interest to see whether they will say something about it, following the rapid release of their statement condemning the decision of the Western Cape government not to renew a newspaper subscription.

But let me return to the real crisis for media freedom I mentioned at the start of this article. It is the “capture” by the ruling clique of the governing party in South Africa of large sections of the print and broadcast media to serve their interests.

We have seen it in the front ANC cadre Iqbal Survé has provided for the purchase of the ironically named “Independent” Group of newspapers, in part using public funds from the Public Investment Corporation, for the ridiculously high sum of R2?billion.

We have seen it in the outrageous and unlawful subsidies paid by the state to the newspaper run by President Zuma’s close associates, the Gupta family, in the form of commercially unjustifiable advertising revenue, free television airtime and sponsorships from state-owned enterprises (despite the fact that most are in financial crises themselves); we see it in the inept and clumsy attempts by President Zuma’s close confidante Communications Minister Faith Muthambi to turn the SABC into a party political broadcaster.

This is indeed a crisis that warrants the label “unprecedented”.

Even under apartheid, the use of taxpayers’ money to subsidise newspapers in the interests of a political party constituted such a scandal that it led to the downfall of a president (John Vorster) and his minister of information (Connie Mulder).

Muldergate seems like a pretty minor act of corruption by current standards.

So the media are in crisis.

And part of the crisis is that many editors and journalists do not recognise this crisis for what it is.

They need to wake up to the fact that it is not a crisis when readers speak the truth to powerful editors (and their journalists) who believe they are above accountability – except to the publishers who provide a “fig leaf” as a cover for “state capture”.

That is the crisis all South Africans have to face – and do something about. Otherwise it will be one of the factors that helps to destroy our democracy.

Zille is premier of the Western Cape

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