Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

Press clubs are for public engagement, not political intolerance

Following the fracas after Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson refused to enter the room or speak at a Cape Town Press Club breakfast until an opposition MP had removed himself, there is suddenly talk of the press club being some kind of front “infiltrated” by opposition politicians.

ANC national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, the office of the ANC chief whip, several newspaper editorials, and my Thoughtleader colleague Isaac Mangena, have said politicians should not be members of the club. The press club has agreed to raise the issue in committee on Monday and to also place it on the agenda at the club’s next AGM. I intend to argue at these meetings that the club should not change its membership policy.

There may well still be a good argument or reason to exclude politicians but I have not yet heard it.

The opinions advanced to date by the ANC chief whip, ANC spokesperson, Mangena and, surprisingly, by some newspaper editorials, are not grounds for changing the policy. But I understand why they have this point of view, given that it is uninformed and based on near total ignorance of how the Cape Town Press Club works.

Firstly, a press club does not only have journalists as members. This is true of press clubs all over the world including the oldest and most esteemed. As a former member of the National Press Club in Washington DC, Hugh Roberton, wrote to the Cape Times in the club’s defence, all sorts of people including judges, diplomats and politicians are members of press clubs everywhere.

Press Club meetings are all about cut and thrust, questions and answers, and present both a challenge and an opportunity to whoever addresses them to engage with the broader society (including their opponents) and possibly say something newsworthy in the presence of the media.

They are indeed exciting events, occasions for informed debate.

But Joemat-Petersson did not wish to engage in this way. She wanted the event at the club to be a platform for her to brief the media. There seems to be a genuine misunderstanding on her part.

Perhaps she was ill-advised (even though one of the minister’s very own media advisors happens to have been a member of the press club; I have his membership application in front of me now where he clearly states his ANC credentials). Perhaps it was because of her particularly toxic interactions with the said opposition MP the day before. On another day, maybe she wouldn’t have objected at all. But this time even though he agreed not to ask any questions the minister would not even have him in her presence.

And it wasn’t only the chairperson Donwald Pressly that was taken aback. A senior foreign diplomat present at the table where I sat was aghast at the minister’s insistence.

If these events were for journalists only what would be the point? One can call a press conference anytime.

There is always a good core of journalists present (125 journalists are members including press from other African countries and overseas media) and the speaker is virtually guaranteed coverage, sometimes extensively so, and often on national television. But a press club breakfast, lunch, dinner or cocktail event is not a press briefing. An invitation to address the press club is not an invitation to give a press conference.

The Cape Town Press Club, the oldest and biggest in the country, has for a long time had politicians as members, and these have included MPs, political spokespeople and party press officers. I’ve just checked the database and recognise names from the ANC, ID, DA, and IFP. (In his day, Prime Minister BJ Vorster called the Cape Town Press Club a hotbed of communists and thus not a forum for the Nats’ policies to have a fair hearing.)

And so it has been the case for 36 years and it has never been an issue until this incident. On May 23, Chris Nissen (the ex-ANC leader of the Western Cape) will address the club. The club checked with him and he is happy for his old political nemesis Peter Marais to be present as a guest. In fact he wants his political opponents to be there.

A few weeks ago, Ebrahim Patel addressed the club and he was asked a question by opposition MP Lance Greyling to which he courteously replied. The minister was not in any way undermined; he got up graciously and answered the question. These past months Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu took questions from environmentalists and lobbyists; ministers Gigaba and Nzimande also took questions from people other than journalists. They demonstrated the kind of tolerance and openness we expect in a democracy. So did Tokyo Sexwale, Jacob Zuma, Morgan Tsvangirai, Rob Davies, Thuli Madonsela, Frank Chikane, Tony Ehrenreich, Patricia de Lille, Helen Zille … I could go on and on.

Furthermore, press club functions are not for members only. Members are allowed to bring guests. Excluding politicians from membership therefore would not necessarily have changed the events around this unfortunate incident, since there is nothing to stop an opposition MP being invited by a press club member as their guest.

I must now regretfully correct some of the comments made or quoted by Isaac Mangena. It is disheartening when the media start to cannibalise each other especially at a time when press freedom is at its most vulnerable in years.

He writes: “Members of Parliament of the country’s opposition [are] embedded within our press clubs”. In which case, members of the government and the ruling party are also then “embedded” in the club. No politician is on the committee which determines who speaks; they don’t serve on the press club in anyway. They do not direct the activities of the club. They pay their dues same as everyone else and turn up at lunches. Sometimes they might ask a question; the chairman referees and does not give guests and members the floor to make speeches or debate with the speaker but to ask a question. So a politician’s presence is neither an “infiltration” nor “embedded” in any meaningful use of these words.

Nobody was “disguised as a journalist”. The MP was there as himself and as we know from events clearly visible.

As with the ANC chief whip’s statement, Mangena then starts to conflate the Cape Town Press Club and other press clubs. I have no experience of the other press clubs in South Africa. They are totally autonomous.

Then Mangena launches into what unfortunately comes across as a rant (perhaps it was for comic effect and it is actually quite funny):

What’s up for discussion in your meetings? How bad the ANC run the country? How the IFP should be fed up with their ageing leader? How Cope lost hope? Because I am sure these parties are not represented in the CPC, and I doubt any of their officials would be allowed if they asked?

Spectacularly wrong. All these parties have press club members. In fact Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s spokesperson and speech writer was a member for years while in the IFP leader’s employ.

Furthermore the club only knows a member’s political affiliation if it forms part of their job title. It is not asked for. So the claim that the club would exclude people based on their party beliefs is a calumny.

Mangena then asks: “Was CPC formed to be used by (or as an arm of) the main opposition to grill “others”?

No, it was formed in 1976.

Mangena then attacks the national press club about which I know next to nothing and cannot comment. It appears a lot of his animus is directed at its Yusuf Abramjee, and whatever beef he has with that individual has led him to make assumptions that the Cape Town Press Club is constituted or acts in the same way he alleges.

I hope I have outlined clearly enough above how the club does in fact operate.

I understand genuine concerns that having politicians as members may blur the lines, but I do not see how that blurring occurs as politicians are simply ordinary members and don’t run any aspect of the club. This is an isolated incident in the club’s long existence, and it revolved around one minister taking exception to a particular individual. The fuss being kicked up around the club’s membership policy is a smokescreen for an ill-judged moment of political intolerance.

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