Media freedom is at the heart of every democracy. It means editorial independence, the protection of journalists and unrestricted public access to information sources.
The media also has a constitutional right to access and report the news without fear of being victimised or coerced by anyone. This doesn’t always seem to be well understood by political spin-doctors, who often want to dictate what is news and what isn’t (more especially when it casts their political parties in a negative light), by interfering in editorial procedures or processes.
These spin-doctors often go as far as arrogantly trying to dictate what angle you should take on your story – threatening that if you don’t do what they want, they won’t talk to you any more.
Two recent cases that have stuck in my mind was when The Citizen contacted a DA spokesperson and an EFF spokesperson for their right of reply on stories related to their parties.
The DA’s representative asked me directly: “What angle are you going to take?”; followed by “why is that a story?”
When this spokesperson was given an honest, though, to her, unpalatable answer, her mood changed completely and, without giving any comment, she said, “Bye, no longer willing to talk,” and hung up.
Just this week, the EFF’s spokesperson was also contacted for comment on a story that involved his party. Instead of simply giving the official view on the matter, he called and just started shouting.
He didn’t feel a Facebook post by one of his party’s ex-members was credible enough to be given any attention, and he declared that it wasn’t “news” (in his view) because we did not have a “real source”; he also added, for good measure, that “this is not how journalism is done”.
He threatened to report me to my editor and dropped the phone.
The party’s deputy president also took to social media to lambaste this publication for reporting negatively about the EFF. That, of course, is also his right and we reported his comments too, in the spirit of full transparency.
As a professional journalist, you’re not supposed to publish allegations about a person without giving that person a right of reply. This gives them a chance to defend themselves or set the record straight, if needs be.
The first tactic, sadly, is often to just ignore the journalist, though, and hope the story goes away. Obviously that never works. When you do finally hear from them (often after being forced to publish with the explanation that you are still waiting to hear their side of the story), shouting and hurling insults helps no one. Often, they’ll go to social media and cry foul about how they are being treated unfairly by the media.
It’s not obligatory for spin-doctors to reply to media queries. There are always a number of options. Deny, refute, repudiate, accept wrongdoing, just say “no comment” … or simply keep avoiding us. What you don’t have is the right to insult, shout or dehumanise any journalist because they happen to be raising unpalatable questions, or you don’t like their “angle”.
We need to remember the media is not a platform for anyone’s press releases. Our role is not to be nice, or to help the public relations of any political party. The media is a watchdog that plays an adversarial role when those in power (or who aspire to power) are supposed to account for themselves. The only way of knowing whether a “rumour” has any substance to it is to simply call the party in question and ask about it. And that’s what we’ll do, and will keep doing.
Just because I haven’t mentioned other political parties here, including the ANC (and an endless list of arrogant government departments and their swaggering spokespeople), doesn’t mean many journalists – including myself – don’t have similar stories about them and some of the smaller political parties too. The Presidency’s poor spokespeople have often been the hardest to get hold of for comment this year (wouldn’t you be, too, if you had to explain some of your boss’s behaviour every week, and your boss was Number 1?).
This is why all organisations should have their own websites and social media channels, where they can doctor and publish their views exactly as they please.
But the media has a democratic right to access and disseminate information without being threatened or harassed. It’s also their right to determine, without fear or favour, what may have news value.
Online, it’s mostly the public themselves who determine this by clicking on the stories that interest them and sharing them through their own social channels.
It’s amazing how often these very stories the spin-doctors tell you have no news value end up being the top-read story of the day.