Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
10 January 2011

Charm or intimidate?

For some reason today I thought about a former Director General of the SABC, a guy called Riaan “Koedoe” Eksteen. He  used to be friends with then State President PW Botha before they had a falling out. The big clash came when the Reverend Alan Hendrickse resigned from PW Botha’s cabinet after he went for a swim on a “whites only” beach in protest at the remaining “petty apartheid” still enforced by the then National Party government.

Hendrickse was the leader of the Labour Party who was the majority party in the “House of Representatives”, the so called “coloured” House in the laughable tri-cameral Parliament, and as a gimmick PW Botha had included Hendrickse in his cabinet to try and show that his “reforms” were not cosmetic.

But after Hendrickse went for the swim, PW Botha (not a man with an even temper) lost his cool. He was even more incensed when he watched the eight’o clock news that evening (in those days the SABC’s main news bulletin was at eight in the evenings) and saw that Hendrickse had resigned. In fact, Botha claimed that he had fired Hendrickse before he could resign.

Botha then phoned Koedoe Eksteen and ordered that Botha’s letter in which he fired Hendrickse be read out no less than three times during the half hour news programme. Poor Freek Robinson, who was reading the news that night, was then told to do as Botha had ordered. Robinson first refused but he was told it was a management decision and he then proceeded to read that letter three times.

Six months later Robinson was “moved” to London, something many SABC watchers at the time interpreted as punishment for his initial reluctance to follow the orders of the President. Botha claimed at the time that he had not ordered the letter to be read but merely requested that it be read — three times, of course!

Now we live in a constitutional democracy and the SABC is supposed to be a public broadcaster that serves the entire community — not only the governing party. Although the SABC is more of a state than a public broadcaster and has a pro-ANC slant, as far as we know the blatant interference in the editorial content of news programmes are a thing of the past. Whether the head of the SABC Board or the Chief Executive Officer still receive phone calls from politicians to instruct them what to air and what to censor is unclear, but if it still happens, the new guys clearly are not nearly as brazen as PW Botha who ensured that the SABC was nothing else but a plain propaganda arm of the National Party.

Compared to the SABC in those years, the broadcaster is now a paragon of objective and responsible journalism.

But what about our print media? Do journalists and editors at our newspapers also get angry phone calls from politicians and if they do, is this appropriate?  I have been reliably told by one political journalist that he used to be woken up at the crack of dawn by angry phone calls from a certain opposition politician who angrily denounced his reporting and demanded some form of correction — until the journalist complained to other members of the party about her actions and pointed out that this kind of intimidation was unacceptable.

Would it be acceptable if the President or some other important ANC leader phoned up the editor of the Sunday Times to complain about a news report, to issue threats or to demand retractions or a change in the tenor of the reporting of the newspaper? If so, when? If not, what other course of action is available to political parties if they are aggrieved with the reporting of a newspaper? And what about phone calls to the owners of the Sunday Times?

Would it make a difference if the politician was from an opposition party and not the governing party?

Maybe because I lived through the Koedoe Eksteen era and because I have always been a passionate supporter of freedom of expression, I lean towards the view that it is not appropriate for political leaders to phone up editors or journalist to complain about the tenor of that newspaper’s reporting as this can very easily be seen as an attempt to intimidate the free press.

Politicians can, of course, ask for a right to reply in the opinion pages of the newspaper or they can write a letter to the newspaper putting across their view. And if they feel that the newspaper has breached the Press Code they can lodge a complaint with the press ombudsman. If a mistake was made (as was the case in the story published in the Sunday Times about the alleged sale of the ocean next to the Waterfront) the editor will surely publish a correction.

But facts are slippery things and need to be interpreted. Usually the way independent journalist interpret the facts differ from the way politicians interpret those same facts. Usually reasonable people (of which some may even be politicians) could disagree about the interpretation of the facts and then there should be no room for a politician to try and change the newspaper’s interpretation merely because the story is unflattering to the politician or the party he or she belongs to.

But maybe I am being unrealistic? Maybe newspaper editors field calls from angry politicians each day and what is required is for the editors to have a strong backbone and to resist any attempts at intimidation by politicians (and to protect their journalists from this kind of intimidation, of course).

If I were a politician I am sure I would often have disagreed with the way the newspapers reported on matters affecting myself or the political party I belonged to. But I suspect I would have tried a different approach than the one set out above by cultivating journalists and trying to charm them. Often the difference between obtaining an “A” or a “D” on the Mail & Guardian’s cabinet report card hinges on whether the cabinet Minister is a media savvy person who tries to charm and impress journalists or whether the Minister acts as if journalists are his or her enemies that have to be fought tooth and nail.

Let’s face it, even today, after so many years some of us shake our heads and remember that PW Botha was a reactionary bigot and an unconscionable bully, while Pik Botha – who served in the same cabinet for many years – is rather more fondly remembered (or at least not remembered as a monster).

It would be interesting to hear what readers of this Blog think about these questions.

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