In defence of political reporting (and reporters)

Jeremy Gordin responds to Andrew Bonamour, Kuseni Dlamini... and Anton Harber

A long, long time ago, when an impenetrable mist sometimes lay over Sauer Street at dawn, electronic mail was still in its infancy, men were men, and proprietors and managers kept their gobs shut on matters editorial and stuck instead to golf, I was Managing and News Editor of the Sunday Independent.

I was flirting unashamedly with one of my (then) young charges, Caroline Hooper-Box, known affectionately by me as "Poops-boxer" and I asked what she'd done at the mighty UCT after leaving Wits with an undergraduate degree.

"I did my honours in politics," she said proudly.

"And what use is that in dealing with journalism and life?" I asked with all the patriarchal archness of one of the three arseholes with corner offices.

She looked at me with withering contempt and said gnomically: "Listen, dude, life is politics and politics is life - and it's no use taking some stupid, romantic view that you can separate it from life ..."

Poops-boxer was correct, of course. And I was duly abashed.

What's more, I knew better. I joined English-language Seffrican newspapers in 1977 (the Rand Daily Mail was my first poison of choice) - so no one knew better than I that the cursus honoroum lay in the so-called politbureau and nowhere else.

If you wanted to be an editor, you needed to do your time at parliament (you also needed to be male and white, but this too is a subject for another day). If you didn't want to be a "political reporter" - which, for reasons I forget, I did not want to be - well, then, toughies, big ears, you just weren't going to make it to the top in all those mining-house-owned newspapers.

Actually, you weren't supposed to be a Jew either; and Joel Mervis was deeply annoyed that the mining house/s didn't give him the RDM - but rather the then rubbishy Sunday Times. (But this also is a subject for another day.)

Above all, Seffrica was all about politics; it had to be, given the dire situation in the country, about which I needn't dilate.

Anyway, some incredibly fine journalists came out of the "political" mill (though not all travelled the cursus honorum): Allister Sparks, John Ryan, Tony Heard, Peter Sullivan (yeah, yeah, say what you like, he could write a mean political piece when he put his mind to it), Helen Zille, Donald Woods, Rex Gibson, Percy Qoboza, Aggrey Klaaste, Steven Friedman, Patrick Lawrence, John Kane-Berman, Ken Owen (perhaps our finest columnist of all time, whether or not you cared for his brand of politics) - and I could go on and on and, yes I know, there's a paucity of females in the aforegoing list, but I warned you ... anyway, I'm doing this off the top of my aging head, with minimal research.... you can add and subtract as you see fit.

Now then, bearing the above in mind, we turn to the remarkably moronic comments made by two men called Andrew Bonamour and Kuseni Dlamini, the CEO and chairman of the Times Media Group.

Could they really have penned such codswallop on their own? I don't know either of them, but surely a former CEO of Old Mutual and a big wheel at Mvelaphanda could not be so simultaneously foolish? Surely they must have had some assistance from another genius among men, Mike Robertson, the managing director (or whatever he's called)?

They (either he and he and he or he and he or maybe just he - or maybe the editor of the Sunday Times, Phylicia Oppelt, assisted) wrote inter alia in a long and tedious drol that appeared in print earlier this week:

"Over the past decade, South African newspaper editors have generally been drawn from a pool of political reporters. This has resulted in increasing bias towards news of political interest, often catering to the political elite [sic - my emphasis] at the expense of the more varied interests of readings in our target market. This trend reached its nadir in the run-up to the ANC Mangaung Conference when tens of thousands of column centimetres were devoted to stories leaked by one or other of the competing factions. Very few of the stories were either accurate or insightful, and even fewer were of interest to ordinary citizens. It is no wonder that this period was characterised by an alarming slump in newspaper circulation overall."

As Anton "Der Latke" Harber has already pointed out in his Harbinger column (see here), these two, maybe three, maybe four, sweethearts who wrote this drivel were actually saying that the reports carried by their newspapers were "inaccurate, lack insight and [are] of little interest or use to readers".

Pretty rough stuff from two bean counters, don't you think? Pretty rough stuff from two okes who a couple of years ago didn't know a newspaper from a toilet roll, wouldn't you say? Pretty rough stuff, isn't it, to go pissing on the reputations and skills of great journalists past and present?

I wonder if these two beauties and their handlangers have ever given any thought to the serious contribution made by certain journalists - a contribution that was the result of their "political" reporting - a contribution that helped turn this country into more of a representative democracy than it was before 1990. I'm thinking of all those people I have mentioned above - and I would add Anton Harber to the list as well. Sure, the contribution might not have been as "important" as that made by politicians or guerrillas but it was an important contribution nonetheless. Really, who are these twopishers?  The mind boggles.

The mind boggles especially when it comes to their claim - to go back three paragraphs - that newspaper circulations have slumped because their editors carried inferior political reportage, especially about Mangaung.

(Maybe Robertson et al weren't invited to Mangaung, who knows? Can't understand why they have such a bee in their bonnets about Mangaung. In any case, as I have pointed out tirelessly, ever since my Zuma biography, it's a Seffrican journalistic tradition to get ANC conferences wrong - that's ‘cos no one talks to the actual members but to the, er, leadership elite ...But I digress.).

Harber writes: "I wonder if the editors share [the] view that their myopic obsessions are to blame for the decline in newspaper circulations? It is worth noting that less political titles, such as the Daily Sun, have faired [I think he meant ‘fared'] no better in this period."

Actually, Harber is wrong here and, purely by mistake, Bonamour and Dlamini might be drawing a little closer to reality.

First of all, the Daily Sun sells on a daily basis about three times more than every one else (averaging 294 000 a day this quarter) - let's not forget that - so to remark that it has not "fared any better" during this period is to have made rather a silly comment.  

But, more to the point, Hooper-Box was correct: everything is political. And if Harber thinks that the Daily Sun is less a political title than any other, he is demonstrating a failure of understanding that is quite astonishing.

There is nothing more political than showing that shit buckets are still the order of the day in such-and-such a place. There is nothing more political than reporting on the "fact" that the rape of three-year-olds is accepted as a norm in most kasis. There is nothing more political than reporting that most kasi dwellers have so given up on the SAPS that when they catch rapists or burglars, they kill them brutally - they don't give a shit about our so-called justice system. There is nothing more political than reporting on school teachers who spend more time trying to have sex with their charges than educating them. There is nothing more political than reporting on hospital staffers who treat their fellow human beings with absolute contempt.  

If you want to see some real political reporting, Messrs Bonamour and Dlamini, check out the front page of the Daily Sun on Thursday morning, 3 October. That's political reporting - not, as you say, who's scratching whose back at Mangaung and various facsimiles thereof.

Daily Sun founder Deon du Plessis said from the get-go: Our politics will be the politics of the street; the shit running down your street and the clean water you're not getting. The wasted schools. The destroyed dreams and broken promises. The incompetence, greed and contempt. SA's real politics.

Jeremy Gordin is the publisher of the Daily Sun and Sunday Sun, which are owned by Media24/ Naspers.

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