Helen Zille's Media Fight Back

2015-03-26 23:55

Helen Zille (CityPress)

One of the greatest ironies of Helen Zille’s political career is her antagonistic and often confrontational relationship with the media. Considering Zille was a journalist at one point, who famously broke the real story of Steve Biko’s death, one could be forgiven for expecting more deftness on her part. In light of the DA no longer enjoying a monopoly on Opposition column-space, the need for good relations is further accentuated.

Ironically, then, two of her recent weekly newsletters take to rubbishing the Cape Times. She has accused it of plagiarism, inaccurate reporting, and unreasonable obstructionism. The paper, together with the SA National Editors’ Forum, and other publications, have fought back equally strongly accusing Zille of bullying and despotism.

This may have been enough to silence anyone else. But not Zille.

She is playing a dangerous game. By potentially isolating platforms necessary for the party’s public image, Zille threatens to jeopardise the DA’s ‘air war’ campaign. This is dangerous considering that the air waves have helped it amplify its message disproportionately to its size.

Zille is undoubtedly taking a calculated risk.

By changing the narrative in which the media operates and making it seem like any other institution that must be accountable, Zille is forcing a wider conversation about the way in which news is crafted and consumed. Even if the Cape Times is a singular and isolated example, her efforts at damaging the paper will have a ripple effect on the uncritical way in which news is generally consumed. Her ‘‘mutual self-appreciation clubs’’ epithet is clear indication of her thinking.

And she is right to do so. The media plays a crucial role in a constitutional democracy: it is the primary way through which information is disseminated. But, despite its public service it is, ultimately, a private business answerable to corporate/commercial interests. Unlike politicians who answer to the public in general.

Coupled with the fact that reporting is coloured by individual journalists’ and publications’ biases means that it is in a powerful position to shape the way we think. And it often cloaks itself in ‘media freedom’ to repudiate attacks on that privilege.    There are, and will be, cases where it is undeserved. Prima facie, the Cape Times is one of them.

Whereas Zille’s government’s decision to roll back subscriptions to the Cape Times is may be hypocritical and/or a not-so-veiled threat to freedom of expression is open to debate. But one thing is certain: Zille’s efforts at making hay of the Cape Times – and others – has the potential to make us more conscious and critical consumers. The media can, and does, get it wrong. And there’s something very good in being able to call them out on it.

But Zille should be careful that her fighting back isn’t framed as fighting blacks – like the debacle with columnist Eusebius McKaiser shows. The one is meritorious, the other land-mine filled and meretrious. It is a difficult balancing act and she would do well to be careful.

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