/ 11 May 2012

Membership criteria need urgent review

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Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. (David Harrison, M&G)

The events of last Friday at the Cape Town Press Club have now gone viral. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was scheduled to address the press club a day after her budget vote speech.

Her appearance, she was advised, was to brief the media on nuances behind the speech.

On her arrival at the venue we found that in attendance was Pieter van Dalen, the Democratic Alliance MP who sits in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries portfolio committee. To our shock, we also learned that Van Dalen was there in his capacity as a member of this press club. In my capacity as adviser to the minister, I recommended that she should not address a press club where an MP was in attendance.

The message that Joemat-Pettersson had decided to leave rather than address a “press club” with politicians as members was delivered to the chairperson of the club, Donwald Pressly.

The club, in consultation with Van Dalen, agreed to release the latter rather than miss the opportunity to listen to a Cabinet minister.

<strong>”Story of the week”</strong>
But the horse had bolted already. By that time, I had decided that this was a matter that could not be left unchallenged. I could not understand how an organisation could call itself a “press club” but have all sorts of members, including members of Parliament &ndash; curiously, from the opposition party.

Pressly, whom I asked about this matter, went on a rant about how Joemat-Pettersson would become “story of the week” if she did not address the club. He reminded me of the tired mantra of her being a minister at the behest of taxpayers. Yet neither Pressly nor any other club members could answer my simple questions: Why is Van Dalen a member of a press club? Which part of “press” am I misunderstanding?

This brings us to developments thus far. What we know now is that the club is considering a review of its membership criteria. The National Press Club &ndash; no relation to the Cape organisation &ndash; has also weighed in on the matter, agreeing that politicians and political parties should not be members of a press club.

Two newspaper editors who have written on the matter also agree with our view.

The issue has gone viral on social media, with only Van Dalen, Pressly and their press club dissenting. But this is untenable. Let us for a minute forget about politicians, who in their nature can be paranoid and prima donnas.

<strong>Handle information with care</strong>
Is it wrong to assume that by addressing a press club a guest will be speaking to members of the media? Does this expectation not come naturally?

Anyone given a platform to speak to the media exclusively will tell you that it is also used to give insight into matters on which the media may not have much background.

Some of the information is revealed on an off-the-record basis, mostly with the source trusting the ethical bona fides of the media to handle the information with care.

Let us say it was not Joemat-Pettersson addressing the press club last week. Another minister would not have known who Van Dalen was and would have spoken confidentially to the “press”, compromising either state or party information.

No matter how you look at it, it is completely indefensible for a club to masquerade as a group of journalists when, in fact, it is no more than a social club of like-minded buddies who like to talk about current affairs.

<strong>Black members?</strong>
If this was truly a press club, as the name indicates, why are black journalists not members of this club? I am not making this a matter of race. The club compromises its image through its composition and it has inadvertently introduced a racial dynamic: black journalists do not want anything to do with it. Ask them if you do not believe me.

But, as I said, it is not only about politicians. Press clubs all over South Africa are constituted mainly by public relations people and the media. This, too, is wrong. Although, in terms of the practice of communication, public relations and the media need each other, they do represent different interests and should not relate through a press club.

If we do not find anything amiss about this, we are going to have to overlook hunters joining animal welfare organisations.

<em>Rams Mabote is a former journalist, an author, propagandist and a special adviser to Minister Tina-Joemat-Pettersson</em>