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The press club that is not a press club

By Rams Mabote

Imagine walking into a butcher shop only to find that it is actually a morgue, in spite of the signage outside. Worse still, how would you feel if you took your car for a service only to realise that the place advertised as a workshop is actually a chop shop? Do you still leave your car there hoping that the signboard is more comforting than the reality you find inside?

This is how the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson felt when she walked into a room advertised as the Cape Town “Press” Club. Not only did she find that a member of parliament of the Democratic Alliance is among its members but also that journalists are but a part of this social club.

She did what you would have done if you walked into a morgue called a butcher shop or a chop shop masquerading as workshop. She beat a hasty retreat. We now know that the “press” club chose – rather reluctantly and disingenuously as we see in a relentless campaign they are running – to rather recuse their DA friend than miss an opportunity to listen to Joemat-Pettersson.

If they believed she was wrong by not understanding that the word “press” means anyone above the age of 18 – an excuse they unashamedly continue to use as a constitution – then they should have called her bluff and let her go. Worse still, as one of their apologists wrote on Twitter recently, they should have all upped and left with the DA friend in solidary (or shame). Clearly, they have no conviction of their beliefs and they are not prepared to die for their flawed constitution.

Coming out guns blazing in a reactive campaign is too late. All the “press” club is doing is trying to save face, as evidenced in Brent Meersman’s piece last week.

To claim that the “press” club is not a media conference is at best skirting the issues and at worst a diversion of the worst proportions. Politicians – and indeed many public figures – have a basic and common understanding of how the media work and the value of addressing press clubs or any other associations of journalists. Joemat-Pettersson is no exception.

All she did was take an opportunity to address who she wrongfully believed to be the “press” to expand further on the salient point of her budget vote speech, which she made the previous day. Also, she was hoping to have a background chat with the “press” on some of the recent topical and controversial developments in her Fisheries branch, most of which this “press” had reported on. But when she realised that this was not a classical press club as any layperson would understand it, she bailed out. For the record, she never asked for the DA man to leave, it was the chairman of the “press” club who did.

As it now turns out, the departure of the DA MP from the “press” club was actually a small victory. Joemat-Pettersson did not realise that still sitting in the room of 20 or so people were no more than five journalists, two of whom were not even members of the “press” club. The “press” club has explained endless times now that their constitution and composition are such that journalists form about 25 percent of the “press” club. Go figure.

So Joemat-Pettersson, unknowingly, found herself in a slaughterhouse of adversaries and their proxies. We know now that sitting in that room on that fateful day was, among others, a man who is a public relations agent of one of the companies currently involved in a wrangle with the minister. This very same person even had the gall to stand up and pose questions to Joemat-Pettersson without the decency and integrity to declare who he was and who he represents. It is a small wonder that the same company the minister spoke to the “press” about, issued a statement even before an hour had lapsed after she spoke. Conflict?

Let me end by demystifying the myth created by the “press” club and its surrogates. As a trained and former journalist, I was the one to first raise alarm about a politician being a member of the press club. The Cape Town Press Club should not patronise Joemat-Pettersson by saying that she was ill-advised as though only they have a monopoly on understanding how the media should work.

As a proud propagandist, I do not believe that even I should be admitted as a member of any press club. At the best of times, I represent the views of those about whom the media sometimes have hard questions and, therefore, having me in the midst is worse than sleeping with the enemy.

No one ever mistook a “press” club for a media conference. For Meersman’s information, Joemat-Pettersson had hosted a press conference the day before. Addressing a “press” club is seen as part of further enhancing relations with the media and giving them more insight on issues they otherwise would not have. What is wrong is when a press club has a membership criteria that compromises the independence and integrity of the media and still has the stupidity to defend this anomaly publicly while trying to vilify someone who outed them.

As for the argument that other politicians have spoken to this “press” club before without problems, it is more like a restaurateur who insists you should be happy with a cockroach in your meal just because the other diner found 16 more roaches in his/her plate.

Rams Mabote is a former journalist and special advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson.