(Un)subscribing to Zille's stance on Cape Times

2015-03-17 15:08

The Western Cape Cabinet’s decision to instruct heads of departments not to renew subscriptions of the Cape Times does not bode well for media freedom – don’t be fooled by the explanations offered by Premier Helen Zille.

It is a decision as “draconian” as it was aptly described by the national editors’ forum SANEF.

Still, it is expected of the Zille cabinet, as the custodians of the province’s taxpayers’ money, to make sound decisions on spending. Therefore, it is commendable that they are mindful of (or sensitive to) “fruitless expenditure”.

That’s setting a much-needed example.

However, I could not help wondering how such a small matter – subscriptions to a newspaper – end up on the agenda of such an important meeting: that of Zille's provincial cabinet.

Understandably, the media must be of special interest to Zille, a former journalist who is now a powerful politician with the responsibility of running a province. But surely the heads of departments could have made the determination on their own that subscribing to newspapers - while newspaper cuttings are also delivered daily - constitutes “fruitless expenditure” … and not wait for a cabinet directive on the matter?

Perhaps the serious business of the cabinet meeting ended earlier than expected and the honorable Premier and her ministers had some time to spare for tea and coffee and …discussing friends and foes in the media.

The letter from provincial DG Advocate Brent Gerber to the departmental heads is dated 9 March 2015 and it reads: “Cabinet has discussed with concern the on-going decline in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times. As we get newspaper cuttings every day, Cabinet considers it to be fruitless expenditure to renew Cape Times subscriptions. You are therefore requested not to renew or initiate further subscriptions.”

The devil is in the detail of the first sentence.

It does not state that cabinet discussed the general fruitless expenditure of subscribing to newspapers while newspaper cuttings are also delivered – and paid for by Zille’s own admission on 702/CapeTalk. It also does not state that cabinet has therefore decided to put an end to all subscriptions of all newspapers for which clippings are delivered.

Or that they have resolved that media groups should be encouraged to deliver newspapers for free in return for the income they generate out of government advertising, a lá The New Age.

Instead, the sentence states that the members of the provincial cabinet of the Western Cape “has discussed with concern”, at their important cabinet meeting, “the on-going decline in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times”.

That, then, is the real issue…

Having established that, the question arises: What is the DA-led provincial cabinet’s definition of “quality reporting”? How do they measure it – or, in corporate governance speak, how do they monitor and evaluate the quality of reporting? Or is the concern over the paper’s “decline in the quality of reporting” actually, as one suspect, political sugar coating for what is really at stake here, namely the content of the reporting?

It is certainly no secret that Independent Media boss, Dr Iqbal Survé, is a close ally of the ANC. It is also not unknown that the Independent’s titles have started taking an increasingly stronger stance against the DA provincial government – in other words, and rightly so, holding them to account in the same way that the media is expected to do with the ANC-led national and local governments.

That is something Premier Zille and her Cabinet is not used to. Over the years she has succeeded in turning news angles in her favour, which says more about the media and their "quality of reporting” or ability to "handle" certain politicians. Those who ended up on Zille's wrong side would be rebuked and lectured on Journalism Practice 101. Or they would be accused of having an ANC mentality.

Zille’s explanation of the Cape Times decision comes in the form of a serious accusation against the editorial standards at the paper, painting everyone on the editorial team with the same brush: her government is “tired of plagiarism and factually inaccurate reporting”, she told Redi Tlhabi, and will no longer use – note the choice of words - “government money” to support the paper.

The more important question one should be asking is whether government subscriptions (and advertising) are dependent on a paper’s “quality of reporting” or on government’s obligation to support free enterprise with taxpayers’ money it manages – not “government money”, as Zille says – and to keep the public at large informed?

Media freedom is too critical for a healthy democracy to have a different set of rules for different newspapers and different governing parties.

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