Sipho Showa’s ‘Dirty Journalists and the Rights of Citizens’ (Sunday Standard 13-19 January 2008) captured my imagination the most.
I wish to add my voice but seek to do so not much in support of Showa’s arguments nor in defense of the ‘latter day bully boys’ as he classifies them, but only in my desire to place the matter in its social context.
Some journalists are certainly overzealous in the execution of their duties. More often than not they get carried away by sensationalism; by the determination to break the news before anyone else. In the process they have very little respect for civility, courtesy and honesty which reminds me of Elbert Hubbard’s words that ‘journalists are people who separate the wheat from the chaff and see to it that the chaff is printed’. They often re-affirm their unwavering commitment to get news by subterfuge, of course, willing to apologize, however, casually; or retract their stories, however reluctantly, and often belatedly. Nonetheless, it should be noted that journalists have the responsibility to inform, educate and to some extent chastise.
Undoubtedly, some members of the public are guilty as Showa posits but less in terms of regaling the significance of the media in our lives, instead, much in terms of peoples’ craving for public life of celebrity hogs. Some people will stoop so low as to pose half naked in public if that could attract the attention of the media. They would like to have it look as though newspapers would not sell without a story about them, however weird. They often invite press people to all the functions they host, including when they are dinning with some other people’s partners in a stark display of their wealth and photogenic pedigree. They thrive on controversy that is often a good sell and an attraction. Such people deliberately create scenes or commotion everywhere, all the time so that they could be noticed. In other occasions they are easy to notice due to their rich apparels that help to set them apart from most of us. In other occasions, they are easily noticed because they are half-naked, loud mouthed and always busy passing around a packet of mint-scented Dentyne chewing gum for those of us who can’t afford it, simply to show off and get attention.
Such people are determined to use their lively public images to mesmerize the press, to get the press hooked on them. They dance at being acclaimed flamboyant, philanthropists or local tycoons. They grace events of varying standards simply to make their presence felt and flout their ‘talents’ aimed at stealing the show from the main attractions. Truthfully, they enjoy being followed by the press people for it makes them proud, complete and on top of the world. Some go to extent of dining and wining the fellahs from the press so that, in turn, they get more coverage and exposure. They are always determined to use the media to prop up their celebrated images and propel themselves to stardom.
On the eve of his marriage to Victoria, David Beckham vowed to hypnotize the media and capture the world. The media too got excited to cover the life of a twenty-first century male Marilyn Monroe of the UK. They followed his every move and he seemed to enjoy every moment of it, his rise to stardom, helped in no small measure by relentless media coverage of a perfect, loving and super rich couple. When his marriage was experiencing problems caused by his infidelity, the media did not back off but instead continued to provide ‘desired’ coverage but Beckham was infuriated that the media was invading his privacy. Had the media backed off, that would have been selective coverage which is certainly undesirable. He had forgotten that he made himself a public item without an inner being. He started making noise about his privacy being intruded and violated by an insensitive and negative media. Yet all along he was ever grateful that the media was separating him from the chaff. David Beckham has since learnt to live simple and graceful despite his lively public image and his massive wealth.
Before his first-world marriage, Robert Masitara was a relatively unknown business mogul. His wedding though propelled him to stardom, dubbed by the local media as the first of its kind in Botswana, a kind of a state wedding. The wedding was spiced up with a kind of a presidential escort service. Precisely, the Botswana Police couldn’t resist the temptation of being part of a grand wedding. Newspapers were filled with pictures of the super couple in full display of their gigantic wealth and Masitara seemed to enjoy the occasion, in particular the wide coverage and the use of superlatives in describing the big day and the beauty of his wife. The media too got glued to the colourful life of Robert and the activities of the Masitara Foundation as editors queued to interview the ‘youthful tycoon’. When Masitara was arraigned before the courts to answer charges of rape, the media maintained the same tempo of coverage. Masitara objected to the coverage of this other side of his life. He instantly declared the media his arch-enemy number one and on one such occasion he manhandled a photographer, the very people who he literally tempted to hound him.
My recollection of these two study cases is not intended to offend any one, not in the least the persons named in this essay. My sole intention is to show that whereas some sections of the media may be (in Showa’s words) ‘needlessly adept at taking pleasure in poking mullock at hapless members of the public’, on many occasions many victims of such media intrusion are of their own making. This in no way seeks to justify the rudeness and insensitivity of the tabloid editors, rather it seeks to draw readers and possibly potential victims of media invasion of their lives to the blunders we sometimes commit in our relentless search for fame. Consequently, the issue that the public is hounded by a blood thirsty troop of paparazzi should not only be appraised from the point of view of the media as a hostile and intrusive institution but should also be conceptualized from the perspective that people’s insatiable appetite for Hollywood lifestyles is a recipe for trouble and hotbed for vice and intrigue. People who constantly make news headlines should know that they not only got to be reported on but also commented on. Good journalists have a knack for putting contemporary stories into historical perspective to assist readers follow the events.
The press and the public need each other hence the need for mutual co-existence premised on respect, tolerance and honesty. Obviously, such an equation is hard to balance even with the presence of a regulatory body for the media. What is necessary is for the public to be vigilant, to exercise considerable restraint in their pursuit of fame.
Egomaniacs who enjoy the high table should also ensure that they are adequately covered (ba ikgabetse) so as not to become willing hostages to the paparazzi. Editors, on the other hand, should avoid creating an impression that they are egocentric and self-indulgent unless, of course, if they desire to confirm public perception that ‘all successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it. If the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something’ (Menken, H), or else they risk being taken for comedians and mutineers.