Let's Think

What is it with political leaders and the media?

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It would seem that the conventional wisdom that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” holds true in the relationship between media and political leaders.

The premier of the Western Cape and leader of the main opposition party, Helen Zille, has just again confirmed this by the tiff she got herself involved in with the Cape Times.

Examples of this love-hate relationship between politicians and a free media, to be distinguished from state-controlled media, can be found all over the world and throughout history.

In the case of the history of modern democratic South Africa, this narrative goes back to the late 19th century when mining and business tycoon Cecil John Rhodes was the prime minister of the erstwhile Cape Colony.

Despite the fact that Rhodes acquired shares in the Cape Argus and the – wait for it, Cape Times – his relationship with the papers was acrimonious when it came to matters political, of policy and of state.

When he in 1895 believed he could use his influence to overthrow the Boer government in the then South African Republic (ZAR) by supporting the infamous Jameson Raid, in what would later become the province of Transvaal, things went horribly wrong.

Not only was the raid a spectacular failure, but his own brother, Col. Frank Rhodes, was jailed in the Transvaal, convicted of high treason. It would eventually also trigger the Second Matabele War (1896/97) in the then Rhodesia and the Second Boer War of 1899 to 1902.

Back home in the Cape Colony it was especially the reaction in the Cape newspapers that forced Rhodes to resign as prime minister.

Maybe it was scant consolation to him, but he was not the only one in this saga that had “media problems”. Up in the ZAR President Paul Kruger had his own problems with the editor of Land en Volk (‘Country and Nation’), the celebrated Afrikaans author, naturalist and lawyer, Eugène Marais.

Marais and his paper sided with a faction that opposed Paul Kruger and came to be labelled the “Progressive” camp. Importantly, once the chips were down after war broke out, Marais – like the legendary General Koos de la Rey – demonstrated his loyalty to his country. Among other things he smuggled weapons across the Mozambique border for the men fighting the war.

Surprise attack

The attack by Premier Zille on the Cape Times came as a surprise, especially considering her own background as a journalist. This verbal attack, the instruction to officials to cancel subscriptions to the paper and her choice of words in a radio interview were all strategically ill-advised.

Not only does it undermine her party’s stance to date as defenders of a free and independent media but she had to realise that in the broader media the principle of “an injury to one is an injury to all” applies.

She and her cabinet should not be surprised that the SA National Editors' Forum (SANEF) condemned these moves.

In a statement it rightly pointed out that if “… the Western Cape government has an issue with the quality of content in the Cape Times, they should address it with the editor of that newspaper or through complaints to the office of the Press Ombudsman, and not by effectively calling for a government boycott of the Cape Times”.

Her choice of phrase in an interview with chat show host John Robby of “I couldn't give a damn”, never mind the context, also conveys an arrogance we have come to expect from the ANC.

Not a surprise

What did not come as a surprise was the way in which the ANC opportunistically used the opportunity to try and attract attention away from its own questionable relationship with a free media. It declared its “shock (at) the shameless actions of the DA to censor the Cape Times by not renewing the Provincial Government's subscription to the newspaper.”

If the ANC thinks that this will cause journalists and members of the public to forget about planned legislation restricting media freedom and of reports on plans to “starve” newspapers it regards as hostile to it of government advertising, they are sadly mistaken

Lifeblood and a friend indeed

What happened to the good intentions with which our democracy started off in 1994 when Nelson Mandela declared: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.”

Legend has it that when Rhodes once complained to an editor about criticism directed at him, the editor replied that he should be grateful for a free press which could inform him when he made mistakes.

In their relationships with the media politicians of all stripes should keep another old wisdom constantly in mind: Wise leaders surround themselves with true friends – friends loyal enough to tell them when they are making fools of themselves.

And, above all, the media’s loyalty should first go to the country and its citizens.

by Piet Coetzer

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