[COMMENT] Allegations that Sunday Times associate editor Ranjeni Munusamy had her car paid for out of a crime intelligence slush fund raises a lot more questions than what appears to be an isolated case of an allegedly unethical journalist. [Munusamy was not working for the Sunday Times at the time.]
Munusamy, by the way, has strongly denied the allegations that arose during a hearing at the Zondo Commission into shenanigans by members of the crime intelligence unit so only time will tell where the truth lies. She claims a close family friend settled her car debt, amounting to R143 000.
The story does raise the question of media ethics in South Africa, particularly with regard to gifts, freebies and widespread pandering to journalists by the corporate sector and political parties. [The South African National Editors Forum has launched an independent inquiry into media ethics in South Africa.]
With more and more companies in South Africa clamping down on what their employees can accept in terms of largesse from suppliers and members of parliament having to list everything they are given in great detail – right down to a box of chocolates – some media houses continue to let journalists accept all sorts of things.
Admittedly, some media owners have clamped down and forbidden editorial staff from accepting gifts but there are still issues of wanton munificence that seem to be accepted as the norm.
For example, unlike in the United States where travel journalists have their trips paid for by their companies, South African travel journalists travel the world for free – not having to pay for air travel, cruises or hotels.
It is argued that if they didn’t get this gratis they would not be able to write about anything because of the impecunious nature of a travel or any other kind of journalist. And, of course, the refusal by the majority of media houses to pay for these trips. Tight budgets and all that.
However, there can be little doubt whatsoever that these ‘freebies’ do influence travel writers to be positive about their experiences.
After all, when last did you see a negative write up in the travel section if your newspaper? Very rarely, if ever.
It is the same with motoring journalists, who are courted by motor manufacturers and treated as royalty as they travel the world to car launches and events. Some, admittedly, do include the bad with the good but journalists who criticise cars are few and far between.
The majority fall over themselves to say nice things about cars, particularly those working for smaller circulation magazines who really don’t want to lose any advertising.
Even financial journalists are charmed by the corporate sector with all manner of freebies and there is no doubt this largesse does influence their attitude toward those corporates with whom they are in constant contact.
As a former financial journalist myself, I can vouch for the number of free golf games I attended, receiving free shirts, free golf balls and really great prizes. On an almost weekly basis.
The PR community, of course, does all it can to influence journalists with all manner of largesse in an effort to gain positive publicity for their clients.
So, just where does one draw the line? And is it necessary to draw a line? After all, it has been proved consumers love travel articles and car tests, even if they are always glowing. Consumers also don’t care whether editorial is paid for or not, as long as it is of good quality.
Does one simply look at all these freebies as part if a salary package in order to get the job done?
It’s an interesting conundrum because, for starters, without the PR community, the business media would get less than half of their stories.
Banning all journalists from accepting any sort of freebie would see an end to all travel journalism and would put the motoring and travel media completely out of business.
And is there any difference between a journalist having a car paid for by a government slush fund and a business journalist giving a glowing report on a company after being fêted with an overseas trip or a succession of golf games?
And it can’t be argued that the government slush fund was public money because money that the corporate sector uses for bribes and spreading largesse ultimately adds to the cost of the product that company is selling – which is to all intents an purposes public money as well.
Chris Moerdyk (@chrismoerdyk ) is a marketing analyst and advisor and owner of Moerdyk Marketing with many years of experience in marketing and the media as well as serving as non-executive director and chairman of companies.
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