PRESS FREEDOM CARRIES NO LICENCE TO BE DISRESPECTFUL
No journalist has a right to tell the host of a press conference that he, the journalist, is not going to listen to what is being said at the press conference if the host will not take questions.
To go to a press conference with such an attitude is presumptuous. The journalist is there to cover what is being said. The journalist is not there on condition that he or she would only listen to what is said providing that questions are allowed. That is not and has never been a precondition for covering an event.
When a journalist leaves to cover a briefing or a press conference he or she does so under the assumption that something is likely to be said that will be of public interest. The journalist is there to capture that which is of public interest so that it can be communicated to the public.
At most press briefings and press conferences, questions are usually entertained. This is done for the purpose to allow for clarifications or to provide additional information. However, some journalists legitimately use the question period to elicit answers and comments from the host on matters unrelated to the subject of the press conference.
In this regard, it is for the host to decide whether he or she will answer what is put to him or her. Reporters must never get carried away with the belief that they are the central figures at events they are covering. They must understand their role and more importantly they must know their place.
Some reporters do not seem to understand either. Some of them do not seem to understand that they are reporters and not politicians. Their job is not to get into a debate with the host of the press conference but only to report on what was said and to seek answers and questions on matters of public interest.
However, the way some reporters behave would make you wonder whether they are in the right profession. Sometimes, you want to ask whether they should not be in parliament rather than in the pressroom.
The job of the reporter is not to debate the hosts. The job of a reporter is not to argue issues. That task should be left to the politicians.
During the Watergate scandal, there were memorable exchanges between the then CBS White House Correspondent, Dan Rather and President Nixon.
Dan Rather had as the White House correspondent for CBS developed a reputation for asking tough questions. At one press conference he asked the president what went through his mind when he heard people say that perhaps he, the president, should resign.
President Nixon did not lose his cool or self- control. He simply said, “Well, I am glad we don’t have to take the vote in this room…”
Having developed a reputation for his tough questions, Rather rose at another press conference to ask a question. With the reputation as a tough questioner behind him, he was greeted by loud jeers as he identified himself and the news corporation that he represented.
Before Rather could go further, President Nixon asked, “Are you running for something?”
Rather’s now famous reply was, “No, Mr. President, are you?”
Rather never, however, showed disrespect to the President. And this is something that reporters despite how they are treated have to understand.
They have to respect the offices of public officials. They may disagree or find what is being said evasive or contemptuous, but they should not respond by being disrespectful.
A few years ago there was an incident involving Julius Malema, then the head of the youth arm of the African National Congress of South Africa. Malema had a BBC journalist escorted out of his press conference after hurling insults at the reporter.
Malema came under heavy criticism over his expulsion and abuse of the journalist who he called a “bastard” and an “agent”. But if you listen to what actually was said it was clear that the journalist had provoked the outburst from Malema by interrupting him with a rude comment while Malema was speaking.
Using strong language, Malema reminded the journalist that he needed to show respect because he was not in the newsroom, but in a revolutionary house.
Malema may have been harsh and deserving of rebuke for the stern stance he took, but the journalist surely ought not to have been trying to engage in a debate with the host of the press conference or to interrupt him when he was speaking.
It is unacceptable for any minister to tell a reporter to “Shut Up!”. But reporters also cannot be allowed to be disrespectful and try to dictate the pattern of a press conference. They are not there for that.
At press conferences, reporters are usually allowed a lead question and then a follow-up. But some of our reporters seem to want to use this facility to debate officials at press conferences.
If journalists want to be respected, they must show respect. If they cannot be respectful, then the host has every right to ask them to leave or to demand an apology.
In February of this year, a reporter from The Australian was forced to apologize to the Prime Minister of Australia for asking her a rude question.
While journalists play an important role in our country, they must not allow themselves to become the subject of the news. By sticking to their role as journalists, by being forceful but respectful, they can avoid being publicly embarrassed or rebuked.
Freedom of the press does not carry with it the licence to be disrespectful. And when public officials justifiably find that journalists are disrespectful, they have every right to ask them to behave properly and if needs be to leave the press conference. But they certainly should not tell them to “shut up!”