This week there’s been a huge debacle in the South African media world after Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance (DA) party federal leader and Western-Cape Premier, publicly announced that the Western Cape government will not renew its subscription to the Cape Times. Her reason for doing so: It’s clear that the Cape Times not only plagiarised another article, but she implies that they may have even made a whole story up, given that they absolutely refused to provide her any details of their sources and confirm the story.
The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) kicked up a fuss about it, saying that it finds it “appalling that the executive committee of the Western Cape government, led by a former journalist, Ms Helen Zille, interferes at this level in the affairs of provincial department heads, who should have the freedom to choose which news mediums they find useful or not.”
Mediaonline.co.za has a nice summary as well as The Daily Vox. All sorts of commentators have had their say. And, to be quite honest, as a journalist (these days I focus more on my books and ghostwriting, but I still do journalism when the opportunity is right) I can’t say I’m very happy with the way others in my profession have slated Zille and completely ignored the plagiarism issue. This is a serious issue of professionalism and the media is shouting about apparent affronts to “media freedom” and saying zip about the Cape Times publishing something that may not have even happened?
Unfortunately, this is not a case of media freedom but a case of media impropriety. Perhaps SANEF have a point that Zille can’t tell everyone else in her government what they must subscribe to, but is she doing so? They’re welcome to subscribe in their personal capacity, of course, but the government has decided not to subscribe. Would anyone be complaining if the government had a subscription to some other lesser-known publication (or even my blog?) and then decided to cancel it? I’m pretty sure SANEF wouldn’t care. I suspect the real problem is that Zille publicly showed that the Cape Times plagiarised without lodging a complaint with the newspaper and / or SANEF first, and for some reason that’s a problem for an organisation that supports an “open society”.
Also see the irony in this statement from Independent Media’s Lutfia Vayej:
“All the editors in the Independent Media stable are open to engagement with its readers and subscribers. It is a pity that Helen Zille and her officials did not use this opportunity before embarking on their decision, which we believe goes against the promotion of a free press.” (Source: City Press.)
In other words: why didn’t we talk behind closed doors first?
Unfortunately, I’ve been even more disappointed by the way others in my profession have reacted to all this. Verashni Pillay of the Mail & Guardian, who I respect, published Eight times Helen Zille made journalists’ lives hell – an emotional and rather personal response to the debacle that I felt was out of place for the platform. Had she published it at her own blog or blog-like site, I would have had no problem with it, but having it published at the Mail & Guardian is too sensationalist-like for me.
I’ve no doubt that Zille has probably snubbed Pillay and other journalists and treated them (very) badly at times, as I know they have treated her badly at times. But I’m asking: So what? This comes with the territory of being a journalist. Sometimes journalists feel as if they’re meant to be untouchable – everyone else can be scrutinised to the nth degree, but journalists must be left alone because they’re doing their job and are squeeky clean, because they defend the public and ensure we have an open society. Sure, journalists should be treated with respect – I have been treated badly myself. I’d like to see more respect in every profession. But I expect people to be defensive when I’m about to publicly publish their lives. I’ve been watching how some journalists have been responding on Twitter and they’re not looking defensive about society but more about themselves. In fact, some are just looking arrogant and even overly-dramatic, not professional.
I also disagree with Eusebius McKaiser’s analysis who calls the plagiarism issue a “red herring”. No, it’s a critical issue. He asks: “If I am wrong, can anyone sympathetic to this DA decision explain why they did not take the newspaper to the industry watchdog?” I ask: So the plagiarism should have been dealt with behind closed doors? I’m not convinced, given the state of our media in general, that our watchdog is doing its job properly either, to be quite honest.
I expect to hear someone (or two) at the Cape Times got fired. But I suspect we’ll hear nothing of it. Plagiarism is an unpardonable offense in this profession. I’ve had to be part of firing someone once for doing it. There is no excuse for it and the Cape Times, at its level, should pay a fine.
I suppose I need to put in a disclaimer: I don’t support the DA as they’re too liberal for me. I like Mmusi Maimane though.