Public support best protection for press freedom

AS A YOUNG journalist living in Hanover Park many years ago, it was always difficult to write stories about my community. Part of the problem was that you knew almost everyone you would write about and, in cases where stories were not complimentary, it was easy for them to track you down and confront you about it.

Once, I did a story about the goings-on at one of the local high schools in which a certain SRC member came off badly. The next day, he arrived at our house in Solent Court with his mother, demanding I publish an apology. My mother took exception to these people bringing their problems with my professional conduct into our house, but I managed to speak to them and, after I explained the story, they left without expecting an apology.

The mother's biggest problem, it appears, was the humiliation of seeing her son's face on the front page of the newspaper. She had not bothered to read the article.

Listening to the ANC once again raising the spectre of regulation of the media at their national policy conference this week and, after the incidents at the homes of respected newspaper editors last week, got me thinking about this incident of years ago. I asked myself how much had changed in the decades since then.

I suppose it must be difficult to be a politician or a senior employee at a state-owned entity at the moment, waking up every morning not knowing whether you'll be the story based on e-mails you happened to have sent to a politically connected family, asking for favours.

Whenever politicians realise that they could potentially be embarrassed by revelations in the media, they start talking about media regulation.

When I taught media relations to senior people in the government and corporates, I told them that, if they did not want their dirty linen to be aired in public, then they should not dirty their linen.

What this means is that, if you have done wrong, you should expect the media to pick this up, sooner or later.

Throughout history, and throughout the world, journalists and politicians have always had a strange relationship.

Politicians like journalists to write stories about the good things that they do, but they always take exception when journalists point out bad things.

But politicians need journalists as much as journalists need them.

Politicians need to develop a thick skin and learn to live with a vibrant media that carries out thorough investigations. This is one of the lessons that they could learn from democratic South Africa's first president, Nelson Mandela, who knew how to manipulate the media in a positive way to achieve the objectives of his government and political party.

Mandela, who had an elephant's memory for names, always greeted journalists by their first names and knew personal things about them, such as if they'd recently had a baby or acquired a dog. He realised the best way to handle journalists was to engage with them, showing he was a human being and then maybe they would start reporting on him like a human being.

I remember how he would call cartoonists to ask them to send him copies of cartoons which could have been considered derogatory. But he was also not shy to point out mistakes to journalists and would often call editors early in the morning.

The intolerance that has been shown from certain quarters to journalists - and I refuse to name them because they have received more than enough publicity already - should not be allowed to continue. There are platforms on which to engage with journalists and that does not include visiting them at their homes and threatening them and their families.

Politicians will soon discover journalists are a strange breed, in that we will vigorously defend each other's right to practise our craft. We have realised that, if you allow attacks on one journalist, without defending his/her rights, you will soon have attacks on other journalists whose views might be closer to yours.

I believe we must have as many views as possible expressed in the media. It is important to know what right-wingers are thinking, just as it is important to know what left-wingers are thinking.

Ultimately, most journalists are driven by a desire to bring the truth to the public. Journalists are, in the main, loyal to their profession and to the public they serve. This includes their readers, listeners or viewers. Politicians and political parties quite often do not form part of this public or community.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I am not yet too concerned about threats to the media, even though last week’s invasion of private homes could be considered a new low.

But we need to remain vigilant and we need to make sure that we always have the support and confidence of the public. The public needs to know and understand that any attack on media freedom is an attack on their freedom. This protection, by the public, is probably the best protection anyone in the media industry could enjoy.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 8 July 2017)