20th Anniversary of Public Relations Global Network

Keynote from Forbes Africa

My name is Chris Bishop and journalism is my life. It has taken me all over the world and I am lucky to have seen all of its continents before I was 30.

 My father is a journalist, so is my wife and so is my sister. My father was the biggest influence by far in terms of ethics and my choice of career. When he used to drive me to school when I was a child he was always happy. I asked him why one day and he said: “I don’t know where I am going today; I don’t know who am going to speak to or what I am going to do.” You can’t beat doing something you love and getting paid for it. Nearly 40 years later, with 31 years in journalism, I agree.

I am very proud to say my father is still getting up early in the morning and is a court reporter in Worcester, England, at the age of 77. I always tell him he writes like a man a quarter of his age.

One of his great influences on me was his principled stand on journalism and press freedom.  It was he, not my college lecturers who taught me about free speech and protecting your sources.

This is the issue I want to put in context for you today – Press Freedom. Especially in a year that began with 52 journalists sitting in African jails. If any of you have been in an African jail you will know it is not a pleasant experience. I know I was incarcerated twice in Africa for merely filming on the street. I can tell you there is little worse than that moment when the police take your belt and laces and that door locks behind you and you realize you don’t know when it will open again.    

Support for Press freedom is something I am having to think deeply about now as I am guiding young journalists as an editor once again.

FORBES AFRICA

It has been nearly six months since we launched Forbes Africa – the 16th English language version of the famous American magazine. I don’t know whether you know there is an African link to Forbes in the States. The present head of the company Steve Forbes. His grandfather, a Scotsman, came to South Africa in the early 20th century and helped set up a famous newspaper called the Rand Daily Mail.  He wanted to set up a financial publication here, the people on the Rand Daily Mail weren’t keen, so he went and set one up in the States and the rest as they say is history.

When we launched Forbes here a lot of people said we were mad. Print was dead they said – its day was over. They hadn’t bargained on a quality magazine celebrating capitalism in all its glory and problems. I felt - get the content right and capture that excitement around the entrepreneur   – then we would have a fighting chance. Sure enough the advertisers have queued up and we have just signed a deal to sell the back cover for next three years.

 I said at the launch in Johannesburg that business is the new rock and roll in Africa. And I think in many ways it is.

THE VIBRANT BUSINESS CONTINENT

When I first came to work as a journalist in Africa back in 1994 – the stories were of a post-colonial continent struggling with state run economies and the IMF. Fast forward 18 years on and business is the big story. Everyone wants to read about it. I think business journalism is in good shape in the continent. You will find most business journalists are experienced and serious about their subject. There are also many new publications, like our own, TV channels and a myriad of websites covering the subject. Radio stations are popping up everywhere from Mozambique to Tanzania to Nigeria.  The flow of information is turning into a flood as the airwaves open up.

Africa is the place to be if you want high return on your investment. Its emerging markets offer vibrant, growing economies rich in resources and opportunity.

HERMAN MASHABA

One of the last cover stories we ran was about a South African self-made man called Herman Mashaba. Now this is a man who does not live in an ivory tower. This is an entrepreneur who knows life. He started life playing dice games in the townships -- the kind of games where people used to be stabbed to death. He began selling crockery door to door and became a millionaire through hair products.

He believes too often we worry about job creation and forget about business.  He says if we allow business to do its work – the unseen hand described by the economist Adam Smith - the jobs will be created as a matter of course.

PRESS FREEDOM

For this vibrant economic world to take shape in Africa, we need investment, we need democracy and we need freedom in all its forms – especially press freedom. I think the Arab spring across North Africa showed a lot of complacent leaders that they could no longer turn a deaf ear to the voice of the people.

To put press freedom in context. I worked in London for the BBC. We used to complain about press freedom back then even though we had more than we knew what to do with. Sure, the British state can be as secretive as any other, but on 90 percent of the stories we covered you could shove a microphone at a cabinet minister or head of state without being hustled away. Questions were answered in writing. Politicians did have a modicum of accountability and often resigned over their mistakes. If a minister issued threats to journalists you could laugh back knowing nothing was going to happen to you and further that the news desk would be keen to run the story even bigger because of the ruffled feathers.

PRESS FREEDOM

When I came to Africa and started work for the BBC and later the SABC across southern Africa I saw what life was like without that kind of press freedom.  All too often there were people, often armed, standing in the way of the news and newsmakers. (Zambia Kenneth Kaunda)

The philosophy in most of the African countries that I worked in was that what government was doing was not anyone’s business. The idea of politicians and civil servants being paid servants of the people appeared to be alien to many in power. And we were shoved around and often vilified for our pains. I have been accused of almost everything by the powers that be in this continent – an ex-solider, a neo colonialist, a spy, a former policeman, a Zimbabwean farm owner, a disgruntled ex- farm owner – you name it, it was thrown at me. In reply I offered up the best weapon in the journalist’s armory – a pair of clean hands. On the advice of my dear father, I have never carried a card or waved a flag for anyone.

Life without a free press meant there were rumours everywhere; debate was undercover and unhealthy; you could lie about anything and as long as you knew the right people few would ever know. It stifled debate and crippled progressive thinking. Stories in the press were often governed by political influence. I used to watch people reading the government owned newspapers the day after unrest or a riot and watch them laughing at the official version. Is that a way to win over your people I ask? You can fool some of the people some of the time…..but not all of the people all of the time. If anything, the liberation of Africa proves that the people of this continent can’t be fooled for ever. I wonder why new governments try. 

MUGABE’S WEDDING

It can be painful trying to stand up for your rights as a journalist in this continent.  I can guarantee I am the only person in this room who has been punched in the throat while I was shaking the hand of former President Nelson Mandela.

 I covered President Robert Mugabe’s wedding to Grace Marufu in 1996 and the story was that the head of state, President Nelson Mandela, was going to be next one to marry. Graca Machel. As Mandela emerged from the church I approached him politely with my camera crew to ask the question when I heard from security:  “These people are hostile.” A fist hit my throat and three policemen dragged me down the steps and punched me. One of them tore off my watch. What had I done wrong? I had merely asked a question.  I refused to give up on the story and eventually Mandela’s bodyguards arranged the interview in which the old man said famously –the problem is these young girls don’t want to marry an old man like me. Two days later he announced he was going to marry Graca Machel and by that time my ribs had just about healed.  I didn’t get my watch back.

ZIMBABWE AND GUNS

At the top of the system of information in Zimbabwe was the government with all of its protocol and lethargy. You couldn’t get comment out of the government sometimes for love nor money. About 16 years ago I remember trying to do a story on Zimbabwe’s tight and very sensible gun laws that meant the country was free of crime.  The idea was to compare and contrast them to the laws in South Africa where gun crime – at the time was rife.  You would have thought it would have been a Public Relations dream for the government. A great chance for that positive publicity politicians were always saying they weren’t getting.  Not so.  I was sent from pillar to post by the police and eventually was harried into making an application in writing. The reply came a few months later – when the story was history – in a letter. I stuck it on my wall.  It said that my application had been received and because the matter concerned the police it needed the consent of the Home Affairs Ministry; because I was a foreign journalist it would also need the consent of the Foreign Ministry. It did assure me that it was being seriously considered. I am sure it still is.  

BOTSWANA

Press Freedom and principle can also be expensive. I had to resign in Botswana in the year 2000.   I resigned one of the best paid jobs in this continent – a job I loved – in the cause of press freedom. I had launched Botswana Television and was the head of news and current affairs.

When I came to South Africa in 1999 to take up the position of news editor at SABC TV News it was a joy to behold. Ministers would be grilled on the talk shows. You could phone a top-level government official and he or she would meet you and carry out an interview on the pavement. Institutions and government departments would send you information whether you wanted it or not.   It was your right to know – they often reminded you. At that time freedom appeared all around.

THE FUTURE?

I think around the world and especially here in Africa we must look out for the kind of freedom I am sure we want for our children. I think here in South Africa we should look very carefully indeed.

The Information Bill before parliament must be of concern to every journalist worth their salt and anyone who wants to know what is happening in their country. I believe we should fear and fight any legislation that threatens our right to know.

I think there is a worldwide trend now where the people in power our making decisions about how the world is run and telling us it has nothing to do with us.

The application of power and the allocation of our resources should be of interest to every single human being on this planet. Whatever the cost people should know.

The Information Bill could stop journalists from publishing so called classified government information. The South Africa the opposition, media organisations, activists and ANC ally, Cosatu - that is the union umbrella here -have demanded that the bill be redrafted and vowed to challenge it in the Constitutional Court if signed into law in its current form.

All insist that the bill should include a public interest defence, as enshrined in state secrecy legislation in Canada. Such a defence would enable journalists and others who published classified information, under pain of prison, to argue in mitigation that they had done so in the public interest. I think most journalists would support this.

I wonder how many important stories about our future will perish if this bill is passed. In this month’s edition of Forbes Magazine we are running an investigation – that took many weeks to complete - into the minting of Kruggerands at the South African Mint. We were looking into claims by collectors that some of the coins they had bought from the mint were “under spec.” In layman’s terms that means they didn’t have all of the gold in them that they had paid for. They had tested the gold coins and found that instead of the legal amount of 91.7 percent gold, some of the coins-in-question had merely 86 percent. It was a story of vast public interest as millions of people around the world invest in South African Krugerrands.

When I met the man from the mint to put the story to him he pointed out to me the national significance of the Kruggerand, importance of its  reputation,  and further that the South African Mint was a “Key point “ that is a protected government site. That could make any stories coming out of there “classified.” I wondered if the new Information Bill could have been invoked on this story and we could have risked prison for printing it.

To his eternal credit, the man from the mint concluded that if you really want to print the story, that is your right and we will never stop you.

So we are printing the Krugerrand story from both sides - leaving people to make up their own minds. We will offer a right of reply to the Mint if they feel aggrieved after-the-fact.  If there are any further issues or clarifications the Mint can write a letter to the magazine and we will print it – but reserve the right to truncate it. There you are simple isn’t it?

It is also an irony that the free press, the defiance of restrictions and courageous journalists – many of who paid with their lives – helped wake the world up to apartheid in South Africa, ushering in the freedom we now enjoy.

One thing I will always remember about the many ANC activists I met across Africa was how smooth they were when it came to dealing with the press and how almost everyone knew how it all worked.

On the other side of the coin the government here does want to reform the press for the better. I will admit the press does leave something to be desired at times. Newsrooms are losing their finest and most experienced journalists to better paid jobs in government or PR. This is causing the juniorization of the newsroom leaving lots of young people with little experience and even less guidance as they find their feet.

I also see worry practises creeping in. A lack of attribution and accuracy, too much googling instead of research and not enough simple old fashioned checking. I have been written about many times when I was in news management at the SABC – I’m afraid it went with the job. Only once did a journalist ever bother me to phone up to check the facts –it killed what was going to be an untrue story.  On this occasion I told the man he was a rare journalist in this day and age.

Also a lot of what we read on the internet is wrong.

A lot of this burden of tightening up the industry lies on the shoulders of the editors. We have to ensure that young journalists are inspired and armed with the knowledge to keep them in the trade. As for the pay – that is entirely a matter for the accountants.

THE PR INDUSTRY

And as for the Public Relations Industry….You too have a part to play in this quest for press freedom. 

Just the other day I saw a published report for an energy company with a proviso on the bottom saying the company that compiled it wanted to vet any coverage of the report. How can people even think of doing that? Who gives them the right? It wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. It is a report put into the in the public domain surely – for the people isn’t it?  What nonsense is that?

If you gave me a dollar for every time a PR person has asked to read a story before it is published and I would retire a rich man. It is a growing trend these days and must be resisted by journalists. I have said “no” to some of the most powerful people in this country. It is our right to be in a position to tell our stories unhindered. To ask to read the story first interferes with our editorial integrity as much any government censor could. To give you one example a very experienced journalist friend of mine made the mistake of showing one of her stories to a mining company - the company came back to say that it was a disgraceful piece of journalism – when she inquired why the company PR said the story did not reflect the organic growth of the company – which I am sure is fascinating to the people who run the company – the rest of the world – who cares?

Then there’s the squeeze on public space. The streets and public thorough fares belong to the people and journalists. You should be able to take pictures and interview freely in the street. More and more you are getting security guards and even PR people trying to tell you that you can’t shoot this or that – I am sorry I see this as an attack on press freedom.

Last, but not least, I get dozens of PR officers phoning me every day – asking me if I want to go to this or that or could I write a feature on their CEO or whoever. Now when there is a genuine news story going that I really want to gather information on these companies – I can guarantee you all of the PRs who ring me daily will not be found. I know the truth, or negative news, as some of you guys call it, can be painful – but if you do give the information we need – maybe we may look more kindly on an interview with your CEO.            

I am glad to be standing here able to say and think what I feel without fear nor favour. No one is going to follow me home, no one is going to threaten me.  No one is going to try to assault me for my view. That, my friends, is one of the fruits of press freedom.

I leave you with the words of Murray Gurfein one of the judges in the famous Watergate case in the United States.  For the young people among you, it was a case in the 1970s where journalists uncovered political skulduggery surrounding former President Richard Nixon that eventually brought down his administration.

“A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the right of the people to know.”

I am proud to say I am getting more cantankerous and obstinate by the day.

Thank you.