Monday, January 31, 2011

A Famous Grouse: January 29

Latest Saturday Weekend Argus column. Unedited, as usual. For those who don't get the paper. -- AD 

SOME years ago, before I settled in the fishing village, I was invited to address journalism students at the University of the Witwatersrand and share with them my thoughts and opinions about the trade. I readily accepted. A captive audience? Who wouldn’t?

However, come the lecture, it was soon apparent that most of my bright-eyed audience all imagined that, within a year or two, they would find themselves beamed into the nation’s sitting rooms on a regular basis and with a flash of perfect teeth they’d kick off the evening news with the inside skinny on some event of vast significance.

Obviously I had to divest them of this silly notion. “Television,” I said gravely, “can do furniture. But it can’t do journalism.”

It was an old joke, but they didn’t seem to know it. So I told them the one about television being a medium because it was not well done or rare. They didn’t seem to know that one either and I left Wits deeply concerned that these youngsters would never come to know, as I have, the beauty and romance of ink and fishwrap.

For them it would all be about tweeting and running around with wires in their ears. Would they ever be able to use a notebook and pen, I wondered.

For some unknown reason I have never been invited back to the university, but I rather hope that those students, wherever they are today, could perhaps reflect on my words, particularly in light of recent events concerning the national broadcaster and the way it reports the news.

Last week, SABC board shortlist nominee Govin Reddy told the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications that SABC journalists were pathetic, untrained and lacked what has been described as “the cutting edge”.

Understandably, Reddy’s comments have ruffled feathers at Auckland Park, and I believe there is much gnashing of teeth in the newsrooms there.

Some have defended the corporation’s lack of edge, arguing that it was unfair to compare the SABC to the BBC, as Reddy did, as the latter had so much more in the way of resources. In other words, as I read it, it’s not that the SABC is worse than the BBC, but rather the BBC is better than the SABC. Or something like that.

But there is no reason why SABC reporters can’t up their game and get edgy like the print media.

Their former managing director of news and current affairs, Snuki Zikalala, certainly showed them how when he checked in to the Harare Sheraton to oversee the SABC’s coverage of the 2005 presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

It was here, in his suite, that he was able to inform his reporters that there was no food shortages in the country because he “had no problem ordering fresh bread rolls, bottled water and whisky through room service” and that those who begged to differ could well find themselves before a disciplinary hearing.

There are those who point out that Zikalala has a PhD in journalism from Sofia University, Bulgaria, and therefore he is an expert and knows what he is doing. There are also those who point out that, etymologically, the term “of Bulgaria” provided the word that perhaps best describes what, in fact, Zikalala was doing to journalism at the SABC.

But then again, you don’t need a doctorate to know that, when they’re out in the field chasing down a story, print journalists always first get drunk in their hotel rooms. True, they perhaps cannot afford to order whisky through room service but that doesn’t mean they haven’t got a bottle or two in their luggage.

In fact, back in the day when I was a young reporter with one of Cape Town’s leading English morning newspapers, we didn’t even have to be in the field to get wasted. There was a well-stocked bar and a cigarette machine next to the sports department, and several sub-editors supplemented their income by selling drugs to the junior staff.

Of course, things have all changed now. Gone, for example, are the days that an ambitious journalist would greatly increase her chances of a salary increase by sleeping with the editor. Newspapers don’t have that kind of budget these days, which is all rather sad for editors. Pathetically, journalists now needing a bit of a leg-up with their careers are reduced to having sex with politicians.

SABC hacks needing that valued cutting edge are advised to get a vigorous drug habit. Something in the horse tranquilizer vein. There’s nothing that earns the respect of your colleagues so much as pawning your cameraman’s equipment to pay the dealer.

And, for a while anyway, viewers will find your work very interesting.

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