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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Public interest is our lodestar

In the trenches and long-gone mahogany rows of the fourth estate, I have worked with anarchists, social democrats, neoliberals, centre-right conservatives, socialists, radical leftists and journalists of other ideological bents and quirks.
There have also been unethical fellows I would rather forget – notably crime reporter Craig Kotze, whom we suspected was a police spy in The Star newsroom in the late 1980s, and who confirmed as much later.
Extremes notwithstanding, a newsroom of journalists who represent the country’s diversity and don’t necessarily share the same world view is worth cherishing.
A clash of ideas and ideologies ignites a newsroom. It keeps journalists on their toes. It encourages balance – a sought-after and elusive quality.
Another must-have is a fired-up team that values its role as the fourth estate, with a news editor on a mission to get the best stories – good or bad. The news editor is not in place as a cheerleader for sunshine journalism or to slavishly execute the boss’ agenda – or that of their sources.
The goal is to seek the truth without fear or favour, encouraging reporters to generate their own ideas and yes, dammit, to dig in places that the rich and powerful hope to conceal.
Thanks to the ANC, the development of this culture of journalism was encouraged and South Africa has enjoyed 21 years of media freedom in a self-regulatory environment under a press code of conduct that is guided by the country’s Bill of Rights.
Certainly, “the media” don’t do enough to speak for the marginalised and there has been some cowboy journalism and abuse, but the recently strengthened ombudsman is in place to expose those who let the side down.
Yet, instead of nurturing this system amid a punishing climate of cost-cutting and shrinking newsrooms, there has been a lockdown of intolerance by the state, the threat of a media appeals tribunal ever-present.
And now, “the media” has been faced with an assault not only from government, but from within its own ranks. If nothing else, this gives the lie to the tired finger-pointing misconception that “the media” is a homogenous oppositional bully.
There is a patronising tone to this “big media debate” – cheered on by media-bashing politicians. An ugly divisiveness is building, putting pressure on journalists to make an artificial choice between being “for us or against us” in the name of patriotism and the “national interest” – the very same argument the Nats used to justify the draconian curbs on the media during apartheid.
Co-option is not peculiar to South Africa – it is everywhere. In an article on The Conversation website about the Australian media’s treatment of the Edward Snowden revelations, Deakin University Associate Professor Martin Hirst warns that when the media starts to put “national interest” before “public interest”, it is time to be worried. Hirst points out that when an Australian newspaper defended its government’s right to keep secrets from its people, it betrayed its fourth estate principles.
The guidelines that govern these principles are outlined in the soon-to-be-revised South African code of ethics for print and online media. The code enforces transparent, accountable journalism in a transformed and inclusive environment. When unethical rogues or amateurs transgress it, the concomitant consequences are publicly exposed.
Despite all the ideological differences within “the media”, there is surely a commonality – rallying around the craft’s code of ethics, safeguarding independence and putting public interest first.
This article first appeared in Media 24 titles and websites. 

Zuma must act in interests of Marikana victims

Even if you have no hidden agenda, it is quite a feat to accurately and comprehensively summarise an intricate report of a commission of inquiry that extended over a few years.
So it is perhaps no surprise that more than a month after President Jacob Zuma read out his short summarised version of the 646-page Farlam report on the Marikana massacre, new revelations continue to emerge.
But had retired Judge Ian Farlam been mandated to deliver the findings himself, as would be the case in a court judgment, we may have got off to a slightly less contested start. Gaps and misinterpretations have arisen from Zuma’s summation, thus aggravating understandable anger, especially that the executive had been let off the hook.
One of the crucial gems buried in the fine print is the commission’s finding that the “McCann principle” is part of our law, despite the SA Police Service’s contention that it is not. The McCann principle, according to the commission, “requires the planners of policing operations, where force may possibly be used, to plan and command the operations in such a way as to minimise the risk that lethal force will be used.”
It is this critical principle that the commission found had “been breached” due to the “defective nature” of the plan that was carried out and which led to the deaths of 34 miners on August 16 three years ago. This plan was prepared “in haste” without the benefit of input from the Public Order Police unit. It was not approved by the full Joint Operational Committee and not subjected to a challenge process. “It carried with it a substantially heightened risk of bloodshed,” the commission found.
The upshot of this finding, according to Accountability Now director Paul Hoffman who shone a light on its significance and other fundamental aspects in an article last week, is that a breach of the McCann principle is a sufficient basis for civil liability. In effect, the state would have no valid defence “to the merits of claims for damages arising out of the killing or injuring of miners in Marikana”.
Hoffman advises the state to accept civil liability and tender reasonable damages to victims without delay.
If not, we will be faced with protracted and costly legal battles and unacceptable extended pain and suffering for the families and victims of those killed and injured at Marikana.
Zuma described events at Marikana as a “horrendous tragedy”. Yet he has come under fire for a sluggish start, with apparent inaction so far over the recommendations that he himself outlined in his June 25 summary. Besides dealing with these, he also needs to act on his blindspots. He should do the right thing by accepting civil liability on behalf of the state and fast-track the process of compensating the hundreds of victims who are currently agonisingly preparing civil law suits against the state. 
Another blindspot is the fact that the commission had not cleared the executive entirely. The commission had an open finding regarding police minister Nathi Mthethwa and was unable to find positively in his favour due to lack of evidence.  The report points to a mysteriously missing memory stick and Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega being “distinctly evasive and unhelpful” during attempts to get her to answer questions about the role Mthethwa played .
These revelations, which arise from a close reading of the report, are likely to be welcomed by the commissioners, who have been dodging bullets of a different kind in the past month. Unsatisfying as the outcome may be, their task was to delve, not to be arbitrators or prosecutors. It is up to Zuma to urgently pick up where they left off in the interests of the families - and the public.
This article first appeared in Media 24 print and online titles. City Press

Sunday, August 2, 2015

When good journalism defeats bad leadership

Live tweets of Omar Al-Bashir’s presidential plane taking off from Waterkloof airforce base were a memorable jaw-dropping moment on social media. They were posted around the same time as government lawyers were assuring a panel of judges that the Sudanese president was still in the country in compliance with a court order.
Well-connected Media 24 reporter Erika Gibson had teamed up with plane spotters at various places early on Monday morning. Relying on Gibson’s insider wherewithal as a specialist military reporter, photographer Alet Pretorius was dispatched to Fort Klapperkop “with a lens the size of a cannon” to a little hill on the other side of the highway from the infamous base. Gibson kept tabs “on the right people at the right spots” from her home, coordinating the operation the modern way - with her cell-phone. Their eyes transfixed on activity at the infamous airstrip, the rest of the media were far away, crammed into a court room in Pretoria.
The Monday morning tweets of Al-Bashir’s convoy and his great escape spread around the globe. They made a mockery of the government, which finally admitted about four hours later that the Sudanese President had left the country.
This modern media moment summed up the principles of old fashioned journalism – specialist reporting, not following the crowd and breaking a leg to be in the right place when the shit hits the fan. Sometimes this means taking costly chances, like going on a fishing expedition and risking coming home without a big catch.
These principles ought to be ring-fenced as newsrooms across the globe shrink under the ever-watchful eye of powerful bean-counters who are concerned about profit margins over all else. As newsrooms have contracted and specialist reporters have become rarer, so too has there been a proliferation of public relations companies and masters of spin. In the US, there are about three PR agents to every journalist, and they are “better equipped and better financed”, according to a recent report in the Guardian.
Hoping to inveigle their way into the vacuum, PRs are in the business of setting selective agendas and putting a gloss over impropriety. That is why pesky reporters need to be on the scene to observe for themselves, to seek balance and counter the sophisticated spin that can land up as a very distorted first draft of history.
Old-fashioned journalistic principles also need to be nurtured at parliament, a hotbed of activity these days. This means covering the rowdy parliamentary sittings from the upstairs gallery, not the parliamentary television channel in Johannesburg.  It means taking the oversight work of portfolio committee meetings seriously, though with 25 portfolio committees sitting at any one time, journalists are forced to make agonising choices about what to cover and what to overlook.
A sizeable team from parliamentary communication services offer a media service. But judging from many of the releases they bash out, you could be misled into believing that these multi-party meetings are harmonious affairs when in fact robust dissent is usually the order of the day. Their reports are generally rubberstamped by committee chairs, hence they reflect the views of the ANC majority, not the committee per se.
Perhaps this is why the DA – which operates a relentless 24-hour PR machine – often send their own scribes to committee meetings to “cover” events and put their own spin on proceedings. The ANC has recently stepped up its media game, though their releases are all too often just another version of the parliamentary communication service releases.
All these services have a role, but they cannot perform a watchdog role to ensure that those in power are held accountable. They cannot replace the real deal - actual bums on reporters’ seats at committee meetings, which are the engine rooms of parliament and play a crucial oversight role to those in power.
In the same way, news teams should not be held back from taking the time out to dig for dirt and to drift off from the pack, just as Gibson - and Pretorius - did so splendidly this week.
And on Mediaonline:

The house that Zuma built

Nathi Nhleko shows a video of the fire pool to the media
President Jacob Zuma is right. There is an obsession with Nkandla Nkandla Nkandla. Discussing “the house of one man” as he puts it, has become tedious. It is a distraction from the myriad challenges that hammer the lives of millions of South Africans on a daily basis.
There has been no escaping Nkandla since the start of the fifth parliament over a year ago. The Nkandla lexicon sneaks into everything from the energy crisis and poor service delivery to meaningful debates about job creation and combatting corruption. It is the elephant in the room in both houses of parliament and even committee rooms. Over the past few weeks it has filtered into debates on the government departments’ crucial budget votes. 
Nkandla has split parliament in two – with the 62% majority party having a tough time deflecting the relentless – and sometimes infantile - attacks on their president.
Nkandla has been a trigger for the deterioration of parliamentary behaviour in the past year, with mutual disrespect and unhealthy anger building between the ANC and opposition benches. Last week, for instance, the house was rescued from chaos with the announcement of a 15-minute “comfort break” after DA chief whip John Steenhuisen accused deputy Trade & Industry Minister Mzwandile Masina of mouthing to DA MPs the words: “I will f***you up.”  Nkandla was not the spark, but the row over “the house of one man” has helped to breed this rough pub-like culture of foul mouths and rude finger gestures in parliament.
It is now 14 months since the ever-patient public protector Thuli Madonsela found that Zuma had unduly benefitted from the R246m upgrades to his private home. So like many Nkandla-fatigued, yet ever-optimistic South Africans, I was looking forward to a breakthrough in the impasse last week.
Here was a golden opportunity for police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko to determine an amount that Zuma owed for non-security features at Nkandla. A gesture would probably satisfy former ANC MP Ben Turok who warned months ago that the country was “sick to death” of Nkandla and accused his party of a lack of wisdom on the way it had handled the controversy. “I would say fair is fair.  … I would say, come on be a sport, pay something,” was his advice to Zuma.
Nhleko had an opportunity to put the embarrassing Nkandla scandal to rest, so that our multi-party parliament could get down to the serious business of building democracy together and tackling the growing jobs crisis which was brought into sharp focus last week.
Anticipation built up ahead of the 7pm Wednesday press briefing, with two reminder notices being issued to the media (like journalists would forget). The hype increased when the briefing was abruptly postponed for 24 hours, only to be shifted forward the following morning to 1.30pm.
Minutes before, news leaked on Twitter that Nhleko had determined that Zuma did not have to pay back a cent. The full farce of the 50-page Nhleko report unfolded in the Zuma-owes-Zero press conference, which included Wikipedia references and amateur damage control video demonstrations to the gentle backing track of the Neapolitan “O Sole Mio”.
Of course, Nhleko’s “f*** you” to the public protector, his announcement that the questionable features at Nkandla were actually security features and that more money needed to be spent to complete security at Zuma’s home should not have taken anyone by surprise. It was na├»ve to expect anything different from a Minister who had been tasked by his own boss to investigate the liability of - his own boss. 
Now, thanks to Nhleko’s whitewash, we can be assured of yet another season of Nkandla obsession in the house of chaos with the #paybackthemoney hashtag continuing to trend.
This article was first published in Media 24 publications on 31 May 2015