Tickle our tummies, hear us purr

The SABC’s newsreader purred like a pussycat when she announced last year that the government was giving itself a Christmas present: nine military transport Airbuses at a cost of R1-billion each.

The tone of the report was celebratory. The soundbite was from the contracting minister, public enterprise’s Alec Erwin, who praised the deal.

Then, it was on to the next item. No attempt was made to give the story its due journalistic treatment: to dissect and interrogate a huge purchase that followed closely on the heels of post-apartheid South Africa’s R57-billion arms deal, a political and economic headache that refuses to go away.

The countertrade figures attached to the big arms deal, some threefold in excess of the purchase price, have proven to be the pipe dream that many critics predicted. Job and investment figures have been wildly inflated; the local arms industry is unimpressed with its contracts; two of the contractors are behind schedule. The new Airbuses are also being bought on countertrade. Still, the reporter purred.

The SABC has been domesticated — with a few notable exceptions, there is little public broadcasting journalism going on. Clearly, the managing director of news, Snuki Zikalala, interprets public broadcasting as informing the public of the government’s agenda. It is not the odorous propaganda of Cliff Saunders, but neither is it the independent public broadcasting of our dreams.

It is not just the SABC that failed in its journalistic duties over the Airbus deal — coverage in the rest of the media was also of the pussycat variety.

While we may enjoy a globally competitive media freedom, our enemy lies within because there is nothing like a corps of journalists who tame themselves, who do not ask tough questions.

In December, the Mail & Guardian was given a heads-up on the Airbus deal and began investigating. Questions were put to the government.

The government spokesperson, Joel Netshitenzhe, put the spanner in the works by releasing a press statement the afternoon before we came out. I tell the story not because I have sour grapes, but to illustrate another point.

He did so because the Cabinet had been deliberating for months on how to break the Airbus news to what he expected would be a cynical, news-hungry body of journalists. He need not have worried for all he got was purring approval.

Never mind that juicy angles beckoned: What will R9-billion do to the budget deficit; how will the countertrade be structured? Is it true that we are only now buying the stuff we really need? The Airbuses will be essential to African peacekeeping. The submarines, fighter and trainer aircraft we bought the last time around are just pretty toys to show we’re big manne in Africa.

It is ironic that it was the same Netshitenzhe who last year told a South African National Editors Forum gathering that the greatest threat to media freedom lies in the obsession with the bottom line. With local media also part of a global media slump, newsrooms have been cut to the bone, there is little investment in training, little brilliant political reporting happening, he pointed out then.

What he did not point out, but has subsequently become clear, is that this is just the way he likes it. How else does one read an article he wrote in The Star last Friday?

Earlier this year arms dealer Richard Young invoked access to information laws to get hold of draft reports of the investigation into the arms deal to compare them with the anodyne final version. They revealed substantial tampering to alter tone and downplay criticism. The story was covered in Business Day and the M&G, nowhere else.

Presenting the two newspapers as handmaidens of Young, Netshitenzhe penned a wordy account of why he would say nothing. It ended in the killer punch that revealed his taste for a pliant media. “Media theory has it that the flight of a story does indicate its worth. There is the flamingo, steady in its trajectory, propelled by facts. Then there is Icarus who ventures dramatically close to the sun and hits the ground with a thud.

“And so, from the Friday fanfare in two newspapers, to reference in one title on the Sunday, to attempts by Young and his supporters to keep the story alive on Monday and Tuesday … by midweek the story was as good as dead.” Netshitenzhe sounded as smug as the proverbial cat who got the cream.

This highlights the need for the local media to sharpen their claws. The Young story may have foundered on the reefs of petty rivalry, but there is still the Shaik trial and the battle for the Presidency — both closely linked to the arms deal. The government desperately wants to bury the arms deal and its fallout. It is not the job of a free media to act as pall-bearers.

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