Government spokespersons need to decide if they are civil servants or publicity officers for politicians.
Three weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian sent media queries to the nine provincial departments of education, asking about their interventions in preparing matriculants for their final exams. The queries were for a series of articles this newspaper is running about the high cost of matric, for both teachers and schoolchildren.
As has become the norm, most of the queries went unanswered. This was despite following up on the questions that had been sent. The journalist did not even get a courtesy email, WhatsApp or call from those who had been sent the questions.
This week, when the journalist again contacted the representatives, one asked that the questions be re-sent, but via WhatsApp because he does not check his emails. Another said he was instructed by his boss not to respond to the newspaper’s queries. Others simply blue ticked the journalist — showing that they had read the questions.
When journalists send questions to government spokespersons, they do not do so because they are bored and have nothing to do. They do so because they want to inform the public and hold those in power to account. This is a crucial task. Information is what enables people to decide how to navigate the world around them and who to vote.
Information about education ensures that we question the processes and decisions involved in moulding the people that will, one day, run our country or move into other areas such as education, business and research.
It is the job of communicators in government to share that information with the public.
But if things continue as they are now, where journalists are frustrated by government spokespeople who disregard our job, then we need to have a serious conversation about the role of these representatives.
We have had some poor examples recently of those tasked with sharing the state’s information — all-too-often spokespeople take their job as being one of a public relations exercise lauding the work of their principals. Those exercises come in the form of endless press statements and videos sent to WhatsApp groups. These so little more than present the government spokespeople and their bosses in an unblemished, overly positive light.
This does not improve our democracy. So we need to ask: If a spokesperson is unable, or unwilling, to provide information to journalists, then what is their job? What are they paid to do?