When good jour­nal­ism defeats bad lead­er­ship

CityPress - - Voices - Janet Heard voices@ city­press. co. za

Live tweets of Omar al-Bashir’s pres­i­den­tial plane tak­ing off from Air Force Base Waterk­loof gave us a mem­o­rable jaw­drop­ping mo­ment on so­cial media. The tweets were posted at about the same time as gov­ern­ment lawyers were as­sur­ing judges that the Su­danese pres­i­dent was still in the coun­try.

Me­dia24 re­porter Erika Gib­son 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”. She placed her­self on a lit­tle hill on the other side of the high­way from the base.

Gib­son kept tabs “on the right peo­ple at the right spots” from her home, co­or­di­nat­ing the op­er­a­tion the mod­ern way – with her cell­phone. Their eyes trans­fixed on ac­tiv­ity at the in­fa­mous airstrip, the rest of the media were far away, crammed into a court­room in Pre­to­ria.

On Mon­day morn­ing, tweets about 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 old­fash­ioned jour­nal­ism: spe­cial­ist re­port­ing, not fol­low­ing the crowd and break­ing a leg to be in the right place at the right time. Some­times, this means tak­ing costly chances, like go­ing on a fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion and risk­ing com­ing home with­out a catch. These prin­ci­ples ought to be ring-fenced as news­rooms glob­ally shrink un­der the ev­er­watch­ful eye of 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, PR com­pa­nies 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 in Par­lia­ment, a hot­bed of ac­tiv­ity these days. This means cov­er­ing the rowdy par­lia­men­tary sit­tings from the up­stairs gallery and not re­ly­ing on the par­lia­men­tary tele­vi­sion chan­nel in Joburg. It means tak­ing the over­sight work of port­fo­lio-com­mit­tee meet­ings se­ri­ously, although 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 mul­ti­party meet­ings are har­mo­nious af­fairs, when in fact ro­bust dis­sent is usu­ally the or­der of the day. Their re­ports are gen­er­ally rub­ber-stamped 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 sends its 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 its 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, that 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 drift away from the pack, just as Gib­son – and Pre­to­rius – did so splen­didly this week.

Heard is Me­dia24 par­lia­men­tary editor

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.