City Press

Centenary Celebrations & Stockholm Syndrome

By Gavin Davis

Letter sent by Independent Newspapers to prospective advertisers

This glowing endorsement of the ANC, written on an Independent Newspapers letterhead alongside the ANC logo, was itself accompanied by an endorsement letter for the feature authored by ANC Chairperson Baleka Mbete herself.

In response, the Independent Newspaper Group Editorial Director Moegsien Williams denied there was anything unethical going on. “As a rule, there is a ‘Chinese’ wall between the commercial and editorial units of our company primarily to protect our editorial integrity,” he said.

It is too early to tell whether the advertising campaign – which is set to run once a month for the entire year – will influence reporting in the group’s newspapers. And it remains to be seen exactly how the feature will look and whether or not it will be clearly marked ‘advertorial’. What is apparent is that the newspaper group has engaged in a practice that could lead audiences to doubt its independence.

Perhaps even more troubling was the City Press’s campaign published in the newspaper and online to find South Africa’s most ardent fan of the ANC. It reads like this, in ANC colours:

Are you the biggest ANC supporter in the country? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us in an sms or email why you love the party or send a picture that shows your support. Great stories and pics will be published. SMSes charged at R1.50. SMS your name, followed by the keyword ‘ANC’ and why you love the party to 34580 or email your story (max 350 words) or pictures and contact details to web@citypress.co.za, Closing date: 28 December 2011.

Screen grab of City Press home page

If the call had been made for readers to send in their honest views of the ANC – whether good or bad – there would be little cause for complaint. The problem is that the City Press made no attempt to elicit any views on the ANC besides the overwhelmingly positive. It is doubtful that any feature published based on these vox pops alone could be anything approaching ‘balanced’.

When the DA raised questions about this, City Press Editor Ferial Haffajee went on the defensive: “Can the DA really dictate how the media covers the ANC centenary? I’ve had a threat for our call to find the biggest ANC supporter,” she tweeted. “Any media study will find the DA gets way more than its proportionate share of coverage,” she tweeted later.

But this misses the point. It is not the DA’s intention to dictate how the media covers the centenary. And we are not particularly concerned with how much overall coverage the ANC gets in relation to the DA either. If the DA punches above its weight media-wise, it is because the party works hard at getting its message across.

All the DA is asking for is fair and balanced reportage of the ANC centenary celebrations. This will mean recognising both the achievements and shortcomings of the party in an informative way.

If newspapers want to advance press freedom, they will do well to avoid falling into the Mantashe trap. Now is not the time for Stockholm Syndrome.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance. This article first appeared in the The Witness on 6 January 2012.

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