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Journalists shouldn’t moonlight as politicians

Rainy Johannesburg days leave even the sunniest of drivers among us exasperated at how easily the traffic lights are put under the weather. It is at such times that the social media posts of the country’s best journos provide much needed solace. One is regaled with tales of days spent in packed court rooms, of ducking petrol bombs, of standing in endless queues to get event accreditation and of holding vigils outside hospitals. With such schedules, one wonders, why would a journo want to be subject to being summoned to Luthuli House for counter-revolutionary reporting? Why would a journo want to be subject to a Twar with Helen Zille regarding illiberal tendencies? One wonders, why would a journo want to be a political party member — be an apparatchik?

To answer the question of political party membership we need to look at the democratic centralism that is practised by political parties. In 1917 the Bolsheviks defined democratic centralism as a tendency that sought to ensure that political discussion was broad and inclusive (democratic) and that resultant actions and resolutions were aligned (centralism). This was binding both on all lower party bodies and also on individual members. These modes of operation have been adopted by modern-day parties.

An instance of this centralism is ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe lashing Trevor Manuel for “acting like a free agent”. Manuel had written an op-ed criticising the comments made by then government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi. Even though this centralist tendency may be associated with parties that have collectivist histories and ideologies, liberal political parties exhibit it too. Zille dismissing views opposing the march to Luthuli House expressed by DA youth leader Mbali Ntuli is one such instance.

Given the very public nature of the work of journalists, would a political party be willing to brook such a public “free agent”? Above examples seem to suggest no. Would the autonomy with which they report be hindered? It is difficult to imagine a situation where a political party would not use all its resources to drive public opinion.

What do we care? It is not like journalists are elected officials who have power to spend our taxes. It is not like journalists are officials in the institutional bodies that lord power over the individual citizen. Why would we not want to accept political party democratic centralism as a constraint on the autonomy of journalists?

Firstly, South Africa’s proportional representation electoral system means ultimate power to select which individuals get to serve as elected officials, rests with the party. The direct and immediate power that a party has over elected officials makes it a centre of power. The party has a vested interest in ensuring that their members and in turn the government they run are portrayed positively. In the Constitution, the Bill of Rights makes provision for the public to access state information. This access is foundational because it helps citizens keep their elected government accountable and possibly may lead to party members being portrayed negatively. Journalists are the de facto method whereby this access to state information is effected. Thus having journalists be members of political parties conflates this access to information with party priorities. That is to say, the centre of power that is the party would be in a position to ensure journalists safeguard party members operating in government. Journalists may be hindered in realising the constitutional provision of access to state information by virtue of their political membership.

Secondly, political parties live or die by elections. This is because being in government is the primary mode through which parties action their programmes. Because political parties have a vested interest in being in government, this creates a motive to sway the general opinion of the voting public and also public perception of the party. A recent case of this is the “brown envelope saga” where Cape Argus journalist Ashley Smith wrote an affidavit accusing then Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool of providing cash incentives for certain types of reporting. Having journalists as party apparatchiks removes the need for illegal cash in order to effect this type of odious reporting.

Lastly, because of media platform innovations, journalists have far more sway in directing public discourse. These platform innovations magnify the power of journalists and thus possible consequences of having journos as party apparatchiks. The first innovation is the advent of 24-hour news channels and online news. The second is how social media is disintermediating news reporting and consumption.

Online news and 24-hour channels have given journalism an unprecedented immediacy. This ensures the public gets news as events are unfolding. This has political ramifications in that it shapes public perceptions of events. This in turn necessitates political attention and action in order to manage these perceptions. An example of this is Jacob Zuma’s handling of the Libya UN resolution and his May 30, 2013 comments that preceded the depreciation of the rand. The role of journalists in this regard is important because they offer the public information and thus ensure the public may influence political action undertaken by elected officials. Party apparatchiks might not prioritise this public informing process.

The disintermediation facilitated by social media means that journalists have alternative channels to distribute their work. This means consumption of news may not happen through intermediated channels (such as traditional media houses) but rather through mediums such as Twitter. These social media tend to blur the line between the personal views of a journo and their professional work. This blurring has the potential to be pernicious in an environment where journos moonlight as political party apparatchiks.

Hands off the Fourth Estate.