Lumka Oliphant, spokesperson for the Minister of Social Development, has issued an open letter to me in response to my criticism of her department’s payment for an SABC interview. This is my response.
I am pleased to engage with you on this topic. Since I understand your note was blind-copied to a number of others, I hope you will forward my reply to them as well.
It is good to hear that the Wits Journalism lecturers have been encouraging you to be creative, but if they did not also emphasise the importance of knowing and upholding public and media relations ethics, then that is a serious oversight.
I note that the “bible” of government communicators, the GCIS Handbook, is very clear on the issue of payment for coverage: “Government Departments should not pay the media for any form of editorial coverage. We should achieve reputation-enhancing, earned media coverage through the newsworthiness of activities and announcements.” (Paragraph 10.5.3)
Your are right that things are tough in government communications and in the media and media sales people are often pushing the boundaries. But we are going to damage the media and journalism if we don’t tackle this, and that will not be good for any communicator.
I said in my piece that this has meant that unethical and inappropriate practices have crept into our media and this is damaging credibility. These financial pressures are unfortunate, but we have to accept them as part of our new reality. But, I argued, we still have to keep some rules to protect our credibility.
The most important rule, I believe, is that sponsorship and payment must be transparent.
Another is that public money must be used to promote knowledge and awareness of the department’s work and how the public can access social services. in this case, it was used to promote the Minister personally, and politically.
I don’t see a problem in you helping media cover things they cannot otherwise get to, if it is done openly. I think your support for community media is excellent – but it has to be done in a way that builds the credibility of that media, and does not undermine it. I agree with you on the importance of the public broadcaster. I think that there are many sponsorships and co-productions you could do with the SABC which would serve you, them and the public well. But this does not include using public money to promote the minister personally, or in ways that intervene in party leadership battles at critical times.
Much of the problem lies with the broadcaster, and I see they admitted it in their statement on Friday, and have taken steps to correct it. I think it is incumbent on all of us to respect the rules of best practice. Our country depends on a strong media with credible programmes and hosts, and we must work together to reinforce – and not undermine – this.