It started with an emailed statement from the African National Congress in the Eastern Cape. In it, the party’s provincial secretary pointed to rumours of a well-known journalist being linked to the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary list process. This, said Lubabalo Mabuyane, was a serious concern that not only tainted the Sunday Times, but political journalism as a whole.
“Information at our disposal is that a certain senior Sunday Times journalist was approached by the DA to be in its list of potential Members to Parliament,” the ANC said, adding that the journalist sent his CV to the DA and that it was later withdrawn. “Submitting a CV to a political party is a clear sign of questionable objectivity in reporting because a journalist linked to such political lists nails their colours to the mast and can never give other parties fair reporting and analysis as required by the Press Code,” Mabuyane said.
Business Day then reported that Sunday Times executive editor, and former editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London, Brendan Boyle, had been suspended by editor, Phylicia Oppelt. The story also named another editor, some journalists and a columnist as being targeted by the DA ahead of next year’s general election.
Boyle, while not able to fully comment on his situation at present, said he is not now, nor has he ever been, a member the DA or any other political party.
So what is the position on journalists belonging to political parties? After all, any number of government spokespeople, working for the ANC and the DA, are former journalists as are the DA’s own Helen Zille, Dianne Kohler-Barnard and Marian Shinn.
“We cannot stop journalists joining any political party as it would put us in conflict with the constitution, but we prefer that they do not,” says Mike Robertson, managing director of the Times Media Group’s media operations. “We expect journalists to abide by the SA Press Code which states: “The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism.”
Dr Glenda Daniels, senior lecturer at Wits Journalism, says journalists should never let their integrity be compromised. “Journalists don’t have much – not much money, no tenders, and properties etc. but when we do have integrity, we’re meant to guard it jealously,” she says.
Commenting on the Business Day story, which said the DA brushed off “speculation that top journalists were among those vying for positions on the DA’s parliamentary list for next year’s elections”, Daniels said, “Firstly I was rather stunned about ‘vying for position’, or running for office? Are they sure this is the case with the named journalists? There is no problem with journalists belonging to political parities or voting. But you really can’t be working members of parties and journalists, in my view. You have to choose. It compromises your integrity as a journalist. How can you be fair and as unbiased as possible?”
She believes the journalists in question should be given a voice. “Do they really harbor political ambitions?” she asked.
Robertson is clear. “Brendan informed the editor that he had been involved in talks with the DA about becoming a candidate. Given the position he held on the paper she [the editor] decided it was appropriate to suspend him,” he says.
Robertson says Times Media Group has a set of internal guidelines for editors that “make it clear that we expect them to be independent. They read: ‘The (newspaper title) is a newspaper which is not bound to the programme or principles of any particular political party’.
He said all staff are expected to be conversant with the press code and internal codes. Regular briefings are held with the Press Ombudsman.
The ANC, in its statement, called on the Sunday Times to “come clean to the newspaper reading public and political parties registered with the IEC about the details of this matter because having a Journalist harboring silent ambitions to represent a political party in parliament while criticizing and writing about other political organisations creates an environment favorable to potent (sic) bias reporting”.
Robertson says wryly that the thing about “silent ambitions is that they are silent”. “We can only act when we become aware of something,” he says.
Daniels says she agrees with the ANC that the incident has been embarrassing for the Sunday Times. “I think there should be a guiding policy, so that everyone is clear, and there is less grey murky area for journalists, and this way we don’t have to land in this situation,” she says. “I wonder if this is happening because there are retrenchments taking place in the media industry and journalists don’t know where to find a home? “
Editor of The Citizen, Martin Williams, also mentioned in the Business Day report, did not respond to questions from The Media Online at the time of posting.
Note: Story updated with Boyle comment.
IMAGE: Brendan Boyle