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Media endorsement of party and political candidates

I was on the verge of writing something on the magistracy when one media person asked if I had a view on media endorsement of political party candidates.

The request took me back to October 14, 2005, when Mmegi newspaper ran a screaming headline “endorsing” opposition leader Otsweletse Moupo over Robert Masitara in a tightly contested G-West North Parliamentary constituency by-election.

The newspaper maintained that the other candidate was a rape accused and that the ruling party had increasingly betrayed intolerance to dissent. By voting Moupo, the paper argued, the opposition’s voice in Parliament would be strengthened and the public would have an opportunity to gauge his performance as the nation’s alternative president.

The ruling party candidate lost the by-election and not unexpectedly, the BDP blew a gasket over the endorsement. For weeks following, the media in general, and Mmegi in particular, burnt at the stake.

The anti-establishment tenor pervading private media political reporting suggests that we are only a whisper clear of the era of candidate endorsements. Whilst it may be debatable if the private media is generally opposition leaning, it is hardly doubtable that it is anti-establishment.

For an industry that credits itself with impartiality, there must be a fully cognizable theory behind endorsements of party or candidates. No room should exist for obtaining public trust by false pretences.

As justification, Mmegi cited foreign examples of newspaper endorsements. I have a problem with peddling naked precedent as reason. Such a course obviates a factual and logic based enquiry. If endorsements are an exception to the general rule on media impartiality, there must be justification for such an exception.

Theories abound. One such, is that if you’re going to go to the trouble to have a printing press and a newsroom and put your message out and try to cover public policy, then you also have the right as the owner of the publication to express your opinion. It is contended that the media must play a role in shaping public opinion in the public interest. That’s how - the argument goes - an editorial page got started to begin with.

The logic is suspect. Newspapers hold themselves up as editorially independent and hardly ever as their owners’ mouthpieces. Secondly, the overriding expectation of impartiality is the draw card for public trust.

If newspapers have a voice their own, then they must make that claim in express terms. Being juristic persons and hence alter egos, they must state whose voice they represent. Thirdly, the justification does not explain why editorials should veer outside policy commentary to electoral choices and what public interest such a digression serves.

An entity that has a clear and pronounced interest in an electoral outcome cannot purport to report in a manner that is deleterious

to the same interest. Far from the case in point representing an endorsement in any form, it was a tactical ambush calculated to deprive the other party of an opportunity for refutation and therefore confer an unfair advantage. It is hard not to surmise that the paper was not a pitch intruder.

Endorsements, we are told, are supposed to inform public opinion. One wonders though, whether the same objective cannot be sufficiently achieved without editorial influence.

Who appointed editors and editorial boards guardians of personal, democratic choices. By endorsing party candidates, newspapers arrogate themselves not just the right to inform but to lead public opinion. Of the former, there can be no contest. It is one thing to lead public opinion.

 To inform it, is another. The media cannot endeavour to feed the public an electoral choice and claim to be unbiased. At best, it can justify the bias on public interest considerations. But that must begin with admitting the bias in the first place.

If newspapers have any arbitral role over electoral choices, they must grant affected candidates equal opportunity to give cogent reasons why “editorial” discretion should be exercised one way and not the other. Checks and balances must exist against arbitrariness. For the practice to claim any legitimacy there must be a way of holding newspapers accountable for candidate endorsements.

That’s possible where reasons for endorsing one candidate over the other are timeously divulged.

Publicity, as one Judge observed, is the very soul of justice. It is the safest of all guards against improbity and keeps the Judge while trying, under trial.

The private media is indispensable to the democratic process. Its stock in trade is impartiality. It must be under trial in the discharge of such trust. The media are a fallible institution and the public must be assured that they are not corruptly mortgaged to political choices they urge upon it.

Exploiting a position of influence, won and sustained on public trust, to sway public opinion one way cannot be justified by simply pointing to a foreign example. To do so is to be dogmatic. Assuming without conceding that I am wrong, I would maintain still that newspapers must justify any decision to publicise their positions ahead of open public discourse. They cannot choose for the public before the public chooses. The need is most pronounced where there are no strong editorial boards as in our case.

My answer should be clear by now. I am against endorsements. My opposition is even more fervent when such are done without regard to fair play rules.

Chief On Friday



The Yoyos of politics

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