Everyone hurts when you break the rules of journalism

If there was ever an illustration of how harmful it is for media to carry sponsored editorial without letting the audience know, the Sunday Times gave it to us last weekend.

Page four of the country’s biggest newspaper offered a hopeful perspective on the Cape Town water: “Cape Town’s dreaded Day Zero can be avoided”. As someone with a daughter going off to study in the Cape, I felt relieved that what is generally a credible newspaper believed that the worst might not happen. As someone trained to read media carefully, I noticed that the page was labelled “Special Feature” and it used a different typeface from the rest of the paper’s editorial.

But it did not say it was sponsored. And it contained political criticism of the Democratic Alliance: “Water Minister tells DA finger-pointers to dry up”. Surely the Sunday Times would not allow one politician to pay for space to criticise her rivals without telling us that this is what it was?

In fact, it was paid for by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). “It was indeed sponsored content and the initial draft had the department’s logo and an indication to readers that this was not an editorial page,” Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko said, in answer to my questions.

“The page was changed by sales staff during production process without alerting the editor/editorial and the final product appeared not so clear even though the fonts, page flatting and other elements distinguished it from news pages.

“I was not satisfied with the final product and I have made it clear to sales staff that changes on such pages need to be discussed with the editor for final approval. We have made it clear in all our native advertising features that there must always be a declaration to the readers regarding the status of the pages,” Siqoko.

DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau was surprised to learn that their logo was not on it, and said it was standard for it to be on all their advertising material. Asked if it was normal to include a political statement by the Minister in an advert paid for by taxpayers, he said, “This could be because there is always a need to impress on consumers that the Minister has always had this idea that water has no boundaries and water knows no politics. It is something she feels strongly about.”

The reader has been dangerously misled. Reading it, one assumes this is the work of an informed, skilled, critical journalist who has weighed up the evidence to conclude that Day Zero can be avoided – and that the evidence and conclusion have been through rigorous editorial. It turns out that this is a politically-laden, one-sided, unfiltered opinion.

What adds to the confusion is that on the facing page, regular Sunday Times reporting tells a different – less hopeful – story. At best the reader is left confused. More likely, they feel deceived and misled, certainly once they realise that the first page they read was disguised propaganda.

Sunday Times’ authority and credibility have been damaged, and the Minister and her department look like they are trying to play political games rather than deal frankly with a crisis situation. Everyone is hurt.

It does not help that most of the media coverage has been confusing and unhelpful, offering conflicting views on whether Day Zero can be avoided and what will happen when it comes. There has been little attempt by all the parties to put aside political squabbles and focus on what this means for citizens. Now the Sunday Times and the Minister/Department have added to the uncertainty.

This comes shortly after a controversy over the SABC failing to tell us the Minister of Social Development and Women’s League chair Bathabile Dlamini, had paid for a lengthy personal television interview that ran during the ANC conference.

My comment that this was “in contravention of every principle of journalism, every code of conduct, every professional rule” brought an angry open letter from Ministerial spokesperson, Lumka Oliphant. Oliphant’s letter was revealing in that it argued that this kind of conduct was routine. She was graphic in her description of a desperate media bidding for her budget:

“Every year around this time, I get phone calls and meeting requests from members of the media … their advertising departments and sometimes editors. They want to be considered in my spending plan and they all compete for the budget. They bring colourful proposals and negotiate for better pricing. It is very competitive …”

She often pays for editorial, she argued, though she fails to distinguish when it is done openly or secretly, or when it is done for genuine coverage or for Ministerial self-promotion: “I have taken a team from Carte Blanche to Brazil to repatriate children in distress and paid for them. I have taken a team from the SABC to Las Vegas when this department won an award … I have paid for (SABC’s) Morning Live and for (eNCA’s) Sunrise. I have paid Primedia …”

She is right that under financial pressure, the media have encouraged inappropriate practices, and are sacrificing their own credibility as a result. At least, both the Sunday Times and the SABC have quickly recanted and said they will stick to their policies.

What Lumka failed to mention was that her conduct – and that of many of her government colleagues – was in contravention of their own rules. The “bible” of government communicators, the GCIS Handbook, is unequivocal: “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)

It would also be in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act for taxpayer’s money to be used for Ministerial self-promotion or party-political squabbles.

The rule of proper conduct are all in place. All we need now is someone in charge with the will to implement them.

* This column first appeared on Daily Maverick

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