/ 19 March 2015

Helen Zille has assaulted press freedom

Backchat: Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille loves the media – when it suits her.
Backchat: Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille loves the media – when it suits her.

Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille used to be able to get her own way with some Cape Times editorial staff. She sulked when she couldn’t and ostracised those who resisted her bullying. I guess she obsessively believed she was the editor-for-life and editorial commander-in-chief of the Cape Times.

Her cabinet never assessed the quality of the Cape Times, or any other newspaper, to see whether it was up to her government’s standards. Shoddy journalism was not an issue for as long as the Democratic Alliance got good publicity. Her party once banned a Sowetan reporter from its mailing list because she disagreed with the DA. Utter hypocrisy.

The quality of journalism in The New Age was not a factor for Zille. She readily agreed to appear at its breakfast events – until it was revealed that taxpayers’ money had been unjustifiably used, through dubious parastatal sponsorship, to support the paper.

Zille doesn’t mind appearing on SABC TV or radio (some of her party aides actually demand coverage from the SABC), despite her reservations about the quality of journalism and political interference at the public broadcaster. She adores live coverage on SABC TV, despite “the SABC allowing itself, once again, to become the tool of the ruling political party”.

It was a shocker, then, and came across as duplicitous for her “full cabinet” to decide and instruct all her administration’s departments not to renew their subscriptions to the Cape Times – because of “shoddy journalism”. What does her cabinet know about quality journalism? And why do politicians get involved in fights about this?

Ah, how could I forget? Journalism has gone to the dogs since Zille’s days at the Rand Daily Mail. Journalism in South Africa has never been the same again.

The only good reporters left are those who see the world through Zille’s political prism. She didn’t find anything wrong with practising journalists secretly applying to become election candidates for her party.

Her fury at the Cape Times this past week was triggered by what she believed was plagiarism in the report about fetal alcohol syndrome.

Plagiarism and shoddy journalism must never be tolerated. If it’s true, the Cape Times reporter who plagiarised another’s work must be harshly disciplined. The editor must fully account to his bosses and readers or, if he’s complicit, must be shown the door.

It’s not easy to police plagiarism, though. It creeps into the pages of even the most prestigious, quality newspapers. We are not immune. Editors have the enormous responsibility of exposing and dealing with it. Yet plagiarism doesn’t warrant a full cabinet sitting.

I don’t believe Zille’s reasoning when she argues that the decision was taken “by the consumer”, purely on commercial grounds. It was motivated by political differences with the current editorial managers of the Cape Times after she lost her imperial influence at the paper.

If the editorial managers’ conduct is unethical or unprofessional, she has the right – and I encourage her to use it – to raise it with the press ombudsman or call the managers’ bosses.

She used to make a lot of early-morning calls to my former bosses to complain about my and my team’s “shoddy journalism” when I was group political editor for Independent Newspapers. But her administration never unsubscribed.

Editors, including those of the Cape Times, must not be allowed to abuse their power. It is for this reason that their conduct is regulated by professional bodies, common law and legislation, their company policies and the social contract they have with the readers. The last will punish them by voting with their wallets.

I agree that consumers, including governments, have freedom to choose which products to consume, and newspapers are no exception. But Zille is more than a consumer.

That is why her power and executive authority are strictly regulated by the Constitution and by administrative law. They ensure that her decisions are neither irrational nor motivated by party-political considerations.

The motive for her decision is irrational. It’s an abuse of her power, being used to punish a hostile newspaper. Her action is no different from the ANC government’s when it threatened to withdraw advertising from unfriendly media.

Governments are free to decide where to advertise and subscribe. Such decisions must be informed by sound financial interests.

But when ideological, political and other differences with editorial staff become the motive, then that’s interference with the editorial independence of the newspaper. When taxpayers’ money is used as a tool to interfere, it’s bullying and corruption.

It is also a threat to freedom of the press because politicians, with taxpayers’ money at their disposal, can choose to reward their praise singers and punish those who are critical.

We must not only embrace and defend these constitutional freedoms when they serve the interests of our media friends. True democrats will fight and defend the rights and freedoms of their worst enemy.

Moshoeshoe Monare is deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian