Eusebius McKaiser says it is okay for journalists to be members of political parties - but then they should declare this.
There’s a debate raging on whether journalists should be allowed to belong to political parties and, if the answer turns out to be yes, whether they should explicitly say they do. This debate is interesting; it is important to get clarity on the principled issues at stake here as the credibility of political journalism could be at stake.
I think it would be very strange if the constitutional right to political association was restricted for journalists in general and political reporters in particular. I see no reason why someone cannot be a member of a political party and still be a professional journalist who is judged on the merits of their work.
After all, almost every single political journalist in South Africa that I know or am acquainted with has explicit viewpoints on our political parties and the government. Most of them vote, and in private conversations are even happy to declare who they vote for, and who they would never even dare think of voting for.
If you read political reporters often enough, and follow their commentary on social media platforms, you can with relative ease determine if not party-political biases, certainly explicit ideological and policy preferences and orientations.
Let me start self-reflexively: it is clear that I am a liberal in the mould of philosopher John Stuart Mill’s work. I think his On Liberty is a perfect blueprint for what the moral limits are on a state’s power over individuals and communities.
I support a welfare state, though think that ours is needlessly bloated and not designed to achieve self-actualisation on the part of the poor. But, on balance, despite accepting the competitive need for a fundamentally neo-liberal macroeconomic policy environment, given the nature of the global economic system we are embedded in, I’m happy to pay high taxes to ensure that my poorer family members have a caring state that can look after them even if I die and remittances stopped.
In essence, then, I am addicted to our liberal constitutional framework, and yes, I think that, with minor exceptions, the policies and ideological frameworks punted by the ANC are what we need. Pity they can’t implement these effectively.
I wish the state was more technically competent. In a sense, my dream government is a competent, ethically minded substitute for the current corrupt and inefficient one, but without a fundamental shift in the policies of the ANC government.
So, there you have it. And I am not alone. Read Business Day’s Peter Bruce often enough and it’s clear you have there, by contrast, someone who thinks both that President Jacob Zuma’s government is essentially incompetent, and that there are fundamental problems with our policies, that they drive up the cost of business and don’t enable conditions conducive to growth at high levels. I bet my healthy kidney that he isn’t an ANC member and doesn’t vote for the ANC. But I can’t blame him, I guess.
Take a political journalist like Carol Paton (one of the best journalists in the country.) It is clear that she has strong personal views about, for example, Zwelinzima Vavi being a great guy who is integral to Cosatu’s cohesion. She has been very robust in “contextualising”, with notable enthusiasm, the charges against him, placing them “in the context” of leadership and power battles inside the union federation. Subtext is often easy to discern.
And, whatever has been said about his right to move from politics to journalism, you must believe in fairies if you believe the Sunday Times’s Gareth van Onselen writes dispassionately about the ANC and the DA. Even his attempts to be critical of the DA often blatantly reveal a negative preference for certain views, and leaders like Mmusi Maimane, within the DA.
Take a final example. It is obvious from her Facebook comments that the new group executive editor of Independent, Karima Brown, has strong socialist commitments in her outlook on politics. How could you hide these if you were a reporter?
These, and other examples, raise a question then. Isn’t it pointless to beat about the bush about your political affiliation when, in reality, you have political convictions? My first appeal here, as with last week’s more general argument I made about the myth of objectivity, is that local media become more honest.
We are not detached scribes. We form relationships with politicians, political parties and ideologies.
Does this mean membership of a political party is permissible? I think so. The key is to be honest about it. And declare these upfront to your employer, and to your readers, listeners or viewers. And own your outlook on the beat you’re covering as a journalist. And then manage conflicts of interest.
The key is not to pretend to be neutral but to write well, provide evidence for your views and construct sound logical arguments. The public must then also mature, and engage the arguments, and facts, rather than your public declaration of party membership. Both the media, and the public, must accept these biographical realities.