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.
This was first published by Media 24 on June 23. http://www.news24.com/Opinions/When-good-journalism-defeats-bad-leadership-20150619
And on Mediaonline: http://themediaonline.co.za/2015/06/when-good-journalism-defeats-bad-leadership/