Payola scribes must be shown the door

LAST week's article about "brown envelope journalism" is an example of how pervasive corruption has become in our society.

LAST week's article about "brown envelope journalism" is an example of how pervasive corruption has become in our society.

According to the story, some Cape Town-based journalists were paid cash in "brown envelopes" to write influential stories for political ends.

The report reminded me of a conversation I recently had with Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thabang Makwetla about corruption in the public sector.

Makwetla argued that those involved in corruption, either in the public or private sector, were part of our society. Their actions are therefore a reflection of how the rot of corruption has actually set in. Any fight against the scourge must also be pervasive, Makwetla argued.

This week a colleague spoke about an incident in which a group of sports journalists were regaling some audience at an "after-tears" (post funeral party for the uninitiated) about their trips to pay-points where they received "brown envelopes" from sports kingpins.

One of the journalist told how they were always insulted by a certain football supremo's wife whenever they went for the pay-packets. She accused them of writing sh** about her husband while lining their pockets with his money.

Some of the rewards journalists are believe to have received included cars and exclusive access to their high-ranking benefactors.

The story about Metro Manila Times reporter Mariam Soraya is an indication that the bribing of journalists by politicians is a world-wide phenomenon.

In fact, some of my colleagues who have been in this field longer than most of us have, point out that payola for journalists has to a ceratin extent been accepted as being part of the trade.

They referred to the case of former football supremo Abdul Bhamjee, in which some sports journalists were fingered for receiving "brown envelopes" to write positive stories about the beloved game.

One seasoned journalist told us how an erstwhile colleague celebrated the death of a certain soccer supremo because the deceased was tight-fisted when it came to paying payola to the scribes.

In the Philippines, where Soraya hails from, bribing journalists is called "envelopmental journalism".

Her story is that when she received an envelope stuffed with 1000 pesos (about R370) from a member of parliament she was not surprised.

Such "incentives" are apparently commonplace at the Manila dailies, most of which are owned by businessmen with close political ties to President Ferdinand Marcos.

Unlike the rest of the pack, Soraya astonished everyone by announcing she would return the money.

Not surprisingly, she was urged to keep it, if only because none of the other reporters had ever returned their tips.

It is unfortunate that reports about our local scribes reveal the opposite of what Soraya stands for.

South Africa boasts being one of those societies where there is a relatively high media freedom.

Unfortunately practices like the "brown envelope" play into the hands of those who argue that the media in this country need to be reined in.

The reality is that journalists cannot present themselves as watchdogs and then go feed from the same trough that those they seek to expose also feed from.

If they are to become watchdogs there is an expectation that they should uphold a certain standard of moral probity.

As another colleague has said: "Journalists cannot be like flies around a cesspool and then complain about the stink."

In fact, by "running with the hare and hunting with the hounds" journalists are actually betraying those in whose interests they are supposed to be acting in exposing corruption in the public and private sectors.

Their job is to expose the cracks where they exist instead of papering them over like public relations practitioners do.

They must actually follow what President Fidel Ramos of the Phillipines has accused them of doing: "Focus on the hole instead of the doughnut."

To deal effectively with the "brown envelope" phenomenon, the media industry as a whole must become more vigilant. It must be able to purge itself of such misdemeanours.

Failure to do so can only lead to the public, which the media are supposed to serve, losing confidence in them. That does not augur well for a vibrant democracy that an effective media normally promotes.

As for journalists who fail to live up to their ethical commitments and accept bribes, they must be fired.