Top radio journalist Stephen Grootes explains the real relationship between the media and government is not as it seems in a story first published by The Media magazine.
It’s easy to get depressed about the state of relations between the media and the ANC at the moment. ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu was at his best when he said at the launch of the Press Council’s commission to investigate media regulation: “If you get a group of eminent people to investigate media control with specific reference to your favoured mechanisms, they will be nothing more than the playboys of Sanef and PMSA (Print Media South Africa).”
The playboys he was referring to include former Chief Justice Pius Langa and Archbishop Thabo Mokgoba. Then there’s Jimmy Manyi, who claims the media has “cartel-like tendencies” and can’t understand why it is so “hostile to government”. It’s enough to make you just want to cry with frustration. Surely we don’t have to fight all the time.
But day-to-day, it simply isn’t like that. Mthembu on a one-to-one professional basis, when chatting on the phone, or even in the aftermath of a press conference is all “broer” and “boet”. A radio reporter who needs a bit of space to work after a presser may even be offered some space on his desk.
For those who know the people running the ANC communications machinery well, you can almost feel as comfortable in their office as in your own. You know everyone, there are in-jokes galore and the sort of jibe you get in a properly functioning newsroom. And Mthembu felt a strong need to call into Redi Thlabi’s programme on Talk Radio 702 to talk about his own family’s fight with drug addiction. Hardly the act of someone who wants all independent media closed down.
Press conferences are the same. There is generally some laughter before, during and after a major session. That’s mainly because ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has a clever little habit of introducing himself to everyone in the room before it starts. Imagine being a lowly intern and shaking hands with the (by some measures) most powerful man in the country. And then there’s his use of humour to deflect attacks. As a political ploy, it’s more effective than the sheer aggression of his younger colleagues.
So why the public attacks, where do they come from?
For a start, it really does depend on who you’re dealing with. Manyi’s less-than-friend, former Finance Minister and now Minister in the Presidency in charge of the National Planning Commission, Trevor Manuel, gets frustrated with but knows the role of the media. Somehow he always ends up arguing with at least one reporter in every conference he gives.
Usually out of sheer frustration, rather than malice. Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula is all fire and brimstone, but has great colour, and knows it too. As you would expect from a Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan is far more cerebral, and has been known to answer questions before giving a speech, with the assurance: “don’t worry guys, I won’t say anything else, you can go if you need to”.
But President Jacob Zuma is different. He is not comfortable with the media at all. He doesn’t enjoy it. In July last year, while giving a briefing on a Cabinet Lekgotla, he was asked about movements in the Presidency. It was a very honest question, with no ulterior motive. He leaned forward at the lectern and lectured: “The problem with you guys is that you discuss matters that are not relevant to you; the discussions are confidential; we should end the matter there. Don’t go to speculation, even though that’s your right.”
The mask seemed to slip off and there was a glimpse of Zuma, angry. It is easy to understand why this is so. On his version, the media was against him in the run up to Polokwane. Perhaps, just perhaps, if the Sunday Times hadn’t run the story about the rape charge laid against him, he wouldn’t have had to endure the hurt and humiliation of his rape trial. And then there are the Zapiro cartoons that haunt him to this day. Maybe, just maybe, the roots of the anti-media feeling start here.
A party’s relations with the media tend to ebb and flow with election periods. Any political hack knows election season is a wonderful time to harvest phone numbers. People who normally wouldn’t give you access and contacts, willingly urge you to call them. And the late night craziness of it all does bring people closer. It’s only at 3am that you’ll find politicians and journalists swapping Nokia cellphone chargers for iPhone plugs. So this could explain why, Mthembu’s recent bombast aside, there’s been a lull in hostilities.
Behind the scenes there have also been discussions. You won’t find people talking about that but even at the height of the lunacy over the Protection of Information Bill, communication channels remained open. It is important to distinguish who is playing what role in the ANC and thus in government.
Manyi is the frontline hit man, the person who goes out to bat with the message from government that the media is the enemy. His boss, Presidency Minister Collins Chabane, couldn’t be a more different figure. Calm and friendly, he’s a minister not afraid to come over and chew the fat with any old hack. And if asked a tricky question, even one most definitively not on the subject at hand, say about Bheki Cele at a Cabinet Lekgotla, he gets it. And don’t forget Chabane is the one with political power, not Manyi.
So what this is really about is different personalities. Some understand the media. Some don’t. Some, like Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti write thoughtful letters to the Business Day newspaper about the art of journalism. Others just think we should be shot on sight.
Is this a war without end? The short answer is of course yes. Sometimes it will be hot, sometimes cooler. But all of that is not going to matter because everyone is about to be distracted anyway. There are four massive political conferences next year. Us scruffy dressers are going to be the least of their worries. That is, unless they have something to hide.
Follow Stephen Grootes on Twitter @StephenGrootes