Themba Maseko - School of Journalism


20 May 2008

Being a Government Spokesperson in a national democratic society

When I received an invitation to deliver this guest lecture at this University’s School of Journalism, I wondered without asking. What meaningful words does a government communicator say to a group of students who are pursuing a career that ultimately scrutinizes and interrogates the work of government?

None of us can doubt the enormity of the challenge to answer this question.

The invitation requested me to reflect on my experience as the Government Spokesperson. What kind of approach regarding journalistic principles, ethics, working method, fair reporting, media protocol makes the Job of an Government Spokesperson easier and helps journalists to gain information from official sources professionally, courteously and effectively? Undoubtedly, this is but one of the central questions and challenges that I am expected to reflect on.

When I was preparing for this presentation I had to contend with a welter of antagonistic and protagonist issues based on our media coverage and analysis of government’s programme of action. Without any shred of contradictions, it is patently clear that there is a gamut of challenges that underpin the relationship between government and the media. Although some of these challenges were discussed during the first Cabinet/Sanef Indaba in 2001, it is crystal clear that there is still more work to be done in this respect.

The Cabinet/Sanef Indaba 2001 acknowledged the unacceptable level of mistrust and animosity reached between the two parties in recent times, and firm steps have been identified to rebuild trust in the mutual interest of government and the media, and in the interest of the country.

Several practical suggestions emerged and the summary of some of the most important ones are: Informing the public, improving government communications, deepening freedom of expression, improvements in the media and international aspects including looking at expanding reporting on international affairs and the possibility of a diplomatic press corps. Some of the issues agreed upon were joint Government and media initiatives which will include a deliberate emphasis by the Economic Cabinet Cluster to brief journalists and editors more frequently on significant and substantive issues, in context of agreed rules of engagement.

Although the relationship between government and the media is not always what we ideally wish it to be, I draw solace from the continuing efforts from both the government and the media to understand each other.

Therefore, this invitation to come and engage with you aspirant journalists, while you are still in the cooking room of you career, forms a vital cog of this continuing process of government building a good relationship with media.

However, despite the formal agreement to the invitation to come and speak here and an indepth understanding of issues concerning both government and media, a more appropriate answer to the question I wondered about without asking is to start by explaining who we represent as government communicators.

It is equally important to give you a brief overview of the Government Communication and Information System also known as the GCIS.

The GCIS

The South African Communication Service (SACS), a structure that served the information and communication needs of the apartheid system had to be critically examined, transformed and re-oriented and its fate decided by the dawn of a democratic government communication regime. Like its forerunner, the Bureau of Information, it was clear at the time that the communication system in the country was suffering from a crisis of legitimacy, credibility, trust and reliability and therefore did not exude the alacrity to respond to the challenges posed by the new democratic government.

With the ushering in the democratic epoch, it became clear that the character and nature of SACS had to be transformed in order to enable it to respond to the contemporary challenges facing a society in transition. Such was the political reality of the time and the government did not have an option but to ensure that the process of social transformation gives a concrete expression to the constitutional imperative of “a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people”.

To give practical meaning and content with a view to guiding the process of transforming the communication system inherited, government set up a Communication Task Group, known as Comtask, in 1995 to study South Africa’s communication challenges and recommend to government how to address these challenges.

The Comtask was a sequel to the Arniston Conference on Government Communication, which brought members of the press, unions, relevant government departments, government communicators, and civil society to discuss the challenges facing communications in South Africa. Following a robust and intense engagement on the type of a communication system needed, the conference requested the then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki to appoint a team of credible and knowledgeable people to examine the structure and function of government communication, look at training, affirmative action in the field, review the ownership and control of the South African media and interpret how these affect government communication and recommend policy choices.

The overall assessment was that effective media relations are always associated with a recipe of coordinated government messaging, led by professional communication officials with status, who work directly with and have free access to ministers and officials. Well-structured co-ordination and clear lines of responsibility were noted as essential elements for the success of government communication.

The report of the Comtask published in 1996 made 83 recommendations to government which dealt with amongst others, structures, functions, personnel and training, improving South Africa's image in the world, development communication, access to information, a reflection on the media environment and the establishment of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

The GCIS is located in The Presidency and was responsible for setting up the Government Communication System and transforming the communication functions in government.

As the CEO of GCIS, I am the official spokesperson for government and attend and services Cabinet.

GCIS is primarily responsible for communication between government and the people.

A high premium is placed on development communication that emphasises direct dialogue, especially with people in disadvantaged areas.

GCIS is involved in drafting communication strategies and programmes for the whole of government at national level, and integrating the communication operations of all government departments.

Our vision

I think it is important to first move from the same vantage point in our understanding of what a vision means and represents.

A vision represents a realistic, credible and attractive future state of affairs, a condition that, in some important way, is better than the one that currently exists.

Simply put: Where do we want to see ourselves in future?

The GCIS' vision is -helping to meet the communication and information needs of government and the people, to ensure a better life for all.

Our mission

I think, like we did when explaining the vision, we should try to find a common ground on what an institution’s mission is?

A mission indicates the institution’s purpose: The definition of its role in society. It should explain the identity of the institution and set ambition.

The GCIS' mission is to provide leadership in government communication and to ensure that the public is informed of government's implementation of its mandate.

We discharge our duties through the different structures in our system of communications.

Communications approach

Proactive and responsive development communication forms the basis of the sinew of the GCIS.

Our approach of proactive and responsive development communication is a method of providing communities with information in a manner that enables people to use that information to improve their lives.

The approach is aimed at making public programmes and policies real, meaningful and sustainable.

The information must be applied as part of community development efforts and must address information needs identified by communities.

The intended outcome is to make a difference in the quality of life of individuals and communities.

Government communication is driven by the needs of people, that it facilitates citizen participation in the creation and use of information, and that it opens the activities of government to public scrutiny thus promoting democracy and efficiency.

The GCIS promotes the notion of a nation in dialogue because we have identified this dialogue as an interactive social platform that will help us fast track national development initiatives aimed at eradicating socio-economic drawbacks.

In this regard, it is crystal clear that our government recognises that communication serves an important social purpose and it is a strategic element for service delivery.

One of the salient issues concerning us as government communicators is the common knowledge that there is a huge mistrust between government and our media. This is driven by an element of questioning each other’s bonafides. Sometimes government is seen to be viewing the media as a nemesis and on the other hand media attacks the legitimacy of government and its institutions.

It was within this realm that the Cabinet/SANEF Indaba in 2001 identified critical issues pertaining to the respective roles of government and the media in building the unique project of democratic transformation in which South Africans are engaged. The uniqueness of our experience obliges us to reflect deeply on how we conduct ourselves in the different terrains in which we operate.

Although there is a vibrance and diversity of the media and fairly open discussion of social issues and policy options within the parameters set by the Constitution, the growing skepticism of government’s legitimacy and authority is not a healthy environment at all. In essence, this can have dire consequences of diluting the legitimacy and authority of government through influencing a southbound public confidence, if the tyranny of the sound bite or headline is loud enough to shape and the character and nature of the public discourse.

Intense commercial competition in the media market is among the key factors accelerating the negative sensational reporting on government. Without casting aspersions on the importance of a robust media in a democratic society, it has become apparent that our media has taken a firm stand on sensational stories with the view that when it bleeds it leads.

Renowned author of Marketing Through Mud and Dust, Muzi Kuzwayo correctly implores us to “leave sensation and hyperbole to the advertisers.”

News should be judged on public interest rather than commercial value. I find it problematic when news is treated like a commercial message with the sole interest of bringing in monetary rewards regardless of its merits.

Kuzwayo quite correctly adds, “while the news media must report on the good, the bad and the ugly of government and society, they cannot play the role of an opposition, no matter how disorganised the latter might be.”

Both government and the media will have to take into cognisance the power of the people. We should not fall into the tempting trap of thinking that our people are a silent majority. In truth, they are not, as they fully understand that societal mobilisation is the heartbeat of a participatory democracy.

A few months ago one of the biggest newspapers in the country (Rapport) felt the wrath of public activism when following the appearance of the opinion piece by columnist Deon Maas arguing that Satanism is "just a different philosophy.”

Maas wrote, "Satan does not necessarily represent evil; it is just a different philosophy. You still pray, but only to another god. If Muslims think they are having a hard time, they should look at satanism. They really have a bad deal."

The article raised the ire of readers who started an SMS campaign calling for a boycott of the newspaper. Rapport was forced to discontinue the opinion piece due to the pressure it had put on the paper’s commercial interests.

Rapport editor and alumnus of this department Tim Du Plessis said, "Rapport is committed to media freedom, the free expression of opinions and robust debate. The orchestrated boycott campaign, however, altered the nature of the question from one of freedom of expression to one of commercial interests.”

Ignore the public at your own peril!

What can we do to forge closer relations between government and the media?

As pointed out early on, the Cabinet/SANEF Indaba 2001 was one of the defining initiatives which will help to propel the relationship between government and the media onto a higher trajectory of development. Notwithstanding the opportunities lost in the past, we believe the lesson is that dialogue should become a continuous and ongoing feature of our democracy.

Building a communication partnership with the media is also one of our core objectives. This will help the media to be better informed about government policies and programmes.

Establishing a solid network with key media people, getting closer to journalists who have interest in our sectors and government becoming more accessible to media are just some of the many ways in which government and the media can work together towards the realization of this huge task of ensuring a better informed society.

Essentially, we have to begin to trust one another again.

The establishment of formalised structures serving as a conduit between government and the media is another important factor in this relationship. There are various workable models that can be adopted to strengthen the relationship between government and the media.

Presidential Press Corps

The Cabinet/SANEF indaba proposed the establishment of the Press Corps with an intention to provide journalists with as much unhindered access to the President as possible.

However this model has not worked as intended here at home. We still need to work very hard in ensuring that this initiative comes into full operation.

In other countries like the US this model has worked very well and professionally hence we are committed to resuscitating the Presidential Press Corps in South Africa.

In the US for example- the White House press corps (or the White House press pool) has established a very close working relationship with the government.

Although this model has worked to bridge the gap between the media and the executive, the White House Press Corps have not escaped criticism with some accusing the press corps for not challenging the people they cover more directly and for shirking its Fourth Estate responsibility.

Legendary journalist Gay Talese once remarked, "The press in Washington got us into the Iraq War as much as the people that are controlling it, they took information that was second-hand information, and they went along with it. It wasn't only the Judy Millers who got credit for being in the pocket of Ahmed Chalabi and Wolfowitz and the rest of those people. All of them. The New York Times bureau, not only Miller, but all of them."

Other journalists who specialise in covering the upper and lower house of the U.S. Congress are known as congressional correspondents.

In the Australian parliament, the Canberra Press Gallery, officially called the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, comprises of 180 journalists and their support staff, including producers, editors and camera crews, who report the workings of the Australian Parliament. Gallery journalists are collectively responsible for the great majority of news stories about federal politics that appear in Australian Print and broadcast media.

The proposals for at least two meetings between our Cabinet and Sanef this year will also play a catalytic role in formalizing the relationship between our government and the media.

Government communicators can contribute to the building of healthy government media relations through knowing the policy positions of their departments. Communicators should also bear in mind that the public’s access to government information through the mass media is an important right.

It is equally important for a communicator to know the journalists who work in their field and encourage more physical interaction with the media.

The Government Communicators Handbook designed to assist government communicators to locate themselves in the overall government communication system in a rapidly changing communication environment spells out basic guidelines on what government communicators must not do when interacting with the media.

  • be unaware of what your department is doing
  • lie to the media
  • make promises you know you cannot keep
  • be pompous and rude with journalists
  • show a lack of respect for media deadlines
  • make sexual advances towards journalists
  • do not alert the journalist about a press release you have sent, especially if it was via e-mail
  • keep sending long press statements and treat the media as the PR wing of your department
  • be constantly unavailable
  • Surely a spokesperson’s job is not only for the good times
  • Don’t duck questions or pretend to know nothing about anyone
  • send inaccurate information
  • make inconsistent statements.

Challenges faced by media and government

According to the Boston University College of Communication, Journalism has become increasingly complex in the 21st century, and journalists must describe a rapidly changing world. Journalists must analyze and explain the events swiftly and thoroughly.

Preparation for such a responsibility is a formidable task, because a good journalist not only has technical and professional skills, but also intellectual breadth and curiosity about the world.

This applies to government communicators as well because of our co-existence with journalists in the communication environment.

At the same time, the explosion of business and entrepreneurial opportunities in recent years has complicated efforts by both the media and the government to attract skilled personnel. Journalism and government both face stiff competition from the relatively high salaries and profits available in the business sector.

Both government and media find themselves in the most unenviable position of lack of skills. The juniorisation of staff in both is also a major cause for concern. This juniorisation is characterised by poor craftsmanship.

Experienced journalists, tired of earning NGO salaries are leaving the industry for better paying jobs while this important institution of a participatory democracy is left in the hands of unskilled and inexperienced graduates who have not learnt the sacred rules of the trade. The exodus of these experienced craftsmen and women creates an erosion of the memory base that media is left poorer without.

Professor Guy Berger, head of the School of Journalism & Media Studies at Rhodes University insists that, “It is not pure science, but it stands to reason that -- exceptions granted -- many journalists owe their performance to the quality of the education they received.”

I fully agree that the education that a journalist and communicator receives plays a great role in developing the career of a journalist. This department in particular has produced some of the best Journalists and communicators in our country today.

Names like Sandile Memela who is currently the spokesperson for the Minister of Arts and Culture, Zolile Nqayi who is with the department of Justice and constitutional Development, Mpumelelo Mkhabela at the Sunday Times and Borrie La Grange who is at The Times newspaper, come to mind when one reflects on the good work done by this department.

The Sanef 2002 South African National Journalism Skills audit established that it was apparent that the news media in general (with some very clear exceptions such as those found at Media24) lack the training policies, staff capacity, financial resources and time to adequately address the matter informally through peer-group support or -formally through in-house training.

Limited resources prevent media institutions from taking junior reporters through a (traditional) process of mentoring, guidance through which they can learn the ‘tricks of the trade’ from their senior counterparts.

In his reaction to this skills shortage, City Press Editor in Chief Mathatha Tsedu said, “One of the biggest problems facing the (media) industry is the juniorisation of the journalistic skills base. This comes at a time when the South African story is becoming more and more complicated. We have to get our house in order in a very quick way in this sense.

This is a true reflection of the declining standards in the fourth estate, which often leave much to be desired. The old days of a clean, crisp and on time copy are gone because of the conspicuous absence of the old deadline junkie in our newsrooms.

According to Llewellyn Kriel, fired as a sub-editor at the Sowetan after complaining about poor quality of copy in a blog site, “The problem is compounded by the use of freelancers whose raw copy for regional editions is sometimes riddled with errors and inconsistencies as to be barely intelligible.”

On paper Kriel was a senior sub-editor, which entails cutting a story down to size, checking grammar and writing a captive headline but in practice he was what fellow subs called a panelbeater.

He equates working on some stories to “taking a decomposing, maggot infected sow’s ear and turn them into silk purses. We’ve got reporters for whom the basic tenets of English grammar are as alien as the five Ws and an H,” he commented.

Kriel emphasises that some stories were beyond salvation and were bereft of the five Ws and an H. He also suggests setting up mentorships, drill young reporters into the basics, encourage senior editors to crack the whip and fire cases beyond redemption.

Commenting on the relationship between government communicators and the media and the dearth of skills in media former Mail & Guardian journalist and current Sasol spokesperson Marina Bidoli said, “Remember that the media is a fragmented diverse group that has no vested interest in the success of your business. Journalists, like activists, create and amplify outrage. Many are poorly-trained, sensational and biased, and their stories are allegation-driven.”

These comments by senior communication practitioners and award winning journalists urge us to act swiftly to address the skills shortage in both media and government.

Ethics also play a crucial role in discharging the duties of both communicators and journalists. Faced with this challenge Kuzwayo commented, “Journalists break embargoes and the confidence of their sources, they will aspire to the same lifestyle as the criminals and despots they oppose, and journalism will be synonymous with fiction.”

In 2005, GCIS commissioned research into the media perceptions of government communication to improve government’s services to the media. The research consisted of 67 in-depth interviews with prominent journalists between August and October 2005.

The research was done by Kuper Research and the Media Observatory, a project of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Journalism Programme.

Research revealed that although most senior journalists believed there had been improvements in government communication in recent years, they felt that still more advancement was needed.

Key recommendations coming out of this research process were:

Government communicators should avoid an adversarial relationship with the media. There needs to be an alignment of government communication and the media behind common objectives. A ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality is counterproductive. The culture needs to be one of information-sharing, trust and respect.

Government communicators are urged to understand the needs of the different media types. Part of the professional standards required from government communicators is that they need to know the different platforms they can harness to deliver a message.

Communicators are expected to understand and respect the importance of journalists’ deadlines. Be accommodating and assist in meeting the deadlines. Understand the immediacy of daily newspaper, radio and television news deadlines.

Government communicators have to be accessible to the media to share information and for them to meet their deadlines. Ministers and decision-makers should be more available to the media.

Although the relationship between government and the media is not at on a trajectory we all want it to be, government has committed itself to the constitutional premise of media freedom and concerted efforts are made to ensure that media continues to occupy its dignified place as an interactive platform for freedom of expression.

And quite notably, government communication should not be perceived to be untruthful or economical with the relevant information. We are committed to our pledge of a better life for all and we assure you that we will meet this pledge with responsibility and all of the strength and wisdom we can command as it forms the object of our wishes.

Ladies and gentlemen I thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interactive platform and I wish you all of the best in your future endeavours.

Thank you.

Themba Maseko
CEO
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)

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Speeches: 
Year: 
2008
Speech date:: 
Tuesday, May 20, 2008