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21/01/2018 09:42 SAST | Updated 21/01/2018 10:16 SAST

Pay To Play: Bathabile Dlamini Hits Back

Lumka Oliphant says sponsored journalism is the norm

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PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA MARCH 18: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini during an interview regarding the Sassa crisis and the Constitutional Court outcome on March 18, 2017 in Pretoria, South Africa. During the interview Dlamini said she was shocked to hear that the Constitutional Court could hold her personally liable for legal costs related to the social grants crisis. (Photo by Leon Sadiki/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Dear Prof Anton Harber and the rest of my colleagues in the media

Firstly, I feel the need to reintroduce myself to all of you. I am doing this because one of these days you will say you do not know me. You have never seen me.

My name is Lumka Oliphant and I hold a qualification in journalism. I have worked in various South African newspapers under the best of the best in this country. Mathatha Tsedu, Paula Fray, Ferial Haffajee, Brendan Seery, Zingisa Mkhuma to name just a few.

Secondly, I am development communication student under Felicity Levine and Boikaego Seadira at the University of Witwatersrand.

I am still trying to recover from your opinion piece published in the Daily Maverick that "Bathabile Dlamini has destroyed the credibility of the SABC" and I think maybe even Wits owes the Department a refund. I think you owe them a refund because they are investing in my education at a Wits that teaches me about development communication. A Wits that tells me to be creative and not rely on the media to tell my stories. Last week, you all disowned me. Journalism disowned me and that hurts in ways that you could never imagine.

You disowned me with the exception of Ray Hartley who came out and asked what the fuss was about because what I had done was done in the industry for as long as he could remember!

You disowned me because I work for a principal you have preconceived ideas about and I did what most of you had taught me in the newsroom, but I will not dwell in that. I want you to give me a way forward because we are about to have a very rough year!

Professor Harber, It is the beginning of the year and every year around this time, I get phone calls and meeting requests from members of the media.

This is not the work of journalists but their advertising departments and sometimes editors. They want to be considered in my spending plan and they all compete for the budget. They bring colourful proposals and negotiate for better pricing.

It is very competitive.

Morally, I always feel that the SABC needs to get a better slice of the cake and I stand firm on that decision.

They have the platforms, the reach and the languages. None of you commercial media can compete with them.

I also am obligated to support community media especially when we are in their communities.

I have learnt that people love their community radio stations and there is a sense of believability when information comes from their community radio stations. We are at a time when newsrooms are bleeding.

They do not have the personnel nor the revenue.

Social media has changed the way we consume information and one has to choose between buying a lotto ticket or data, a newspaper or just log on to their online news house.

It is tough.

It is tough for government communicators, it is tough for the media.

Those who communicate for government need to constantly find new strategies to make sure that their message is out.

This includes directly talking to communities through iimbizo, buying space and using social media.

At DSD we are big on communicating directly with our communities. Most of the communication budget goes to being in communities and finding solutions and changing policy with our communities. Most importantly we speak in their languages.

We leave money in communities. We spend weeks in dialogue with different audience. Usually this culminates in into a bigger event where the community and its leaders report to the Minister.

I am telling you this because I want us to interrogate the statement by the SABC and the position of most of you that what I did was wrong or not done. Again, thank you Ray Hartley for having the guts to say 'is it because it's this Minister?" Several others also thought the fuss made by the media was uncalled for and excessive. I had done nothing wrong.

Let me be clear, I am happy but concerned about the decision by the SABC to refund. It is a bad precedent and I do not know if we are ALL owed money by the public broadcaster. They crumbled under pressure and did not stand for a principle. But the board has decided. I am concerned now that we must start defining what interview means. What paying for interview means. It's going to be interesting. Not only for the SABC but for the rest of the media. I received a proposal from Power fm last year for Minister to host a show during women's month. Others I believe paid, others did not. Again, I understand why everyone needs to be creative and sell good proposals to us.

I get proposals from every media house and usually a combination of different tools and platforms. I am extremely disturbed by the hypocrisy.

I remember a time when I was with City Press and the UAE was marketing Dubai as a tourist destination. They invited journalists from all over the world. They flew us first class on Emirates and accommodated us in their best hotels. We came back and wrote about our experience and acknowledged at the bottom with a different font and very small. More like that "not for sale to persons under the age of 18" notice on our alcohol packaging.

It may be was cheaper for them to fly us, dine us, accommodate us and give us royal treatment than to take advertising. Dubai is what it is today in terms of being the number one destination to visit because they invested in marketing creatively for brand Dubai. Different strategy. Good strategy. We interviewed everyone and anyone there. Made available by whoever was in charge of their tourism. SANPARKS in the late 90s used to do the same. They transported us to their parks and sometimes we slept there or just spent a day. My first trip to the Kruger National Park was from SANPARKS and I was working for The Star. I believe treating us like royalty, the Arabs wanted us to have a particular angle on Dubai. I was still very junior in the newsroom during this time.

Airtime and space is not cheap. We need to be creative around funding for communication. A 60 second TV advert during Generations can cost you R500k. A 2 page advertisement in a newspaper can cost you R1 million. Negotiating and bartering happens a lot here.

Distance to cover stories is another factor communicators must always think about. The SABC tries harder here. They have the footprint and the obligation to inform. Let's take Bizana as an example. There is virtually no media house in that area. The SABC is in Umthatha, East London and Durban. No ANN7 and ENCA is in PE and Durban. The Daily Dispatch and Isolezwe are in East London. Please Check the distance of all these places. I usually do not expect the private media institutions to come but I have an expectation that at least the SABC will come but between traveling and deadlines, they usually do not do a proper job.

What do I do?

I buy radio programmes and they include interviews. You may argue that they bring other resources but I am dealing with interviews here. Sometimes they can't make it but give you paid for interviews during the normal programming. I have not heard any of them saying the interview conducted was paid for by.

It's not just the SABC but all of them. Again if we want to talk about cost of airtime and space, the SABC gets peanuts. They carry the guilt of being a public broadcaster but their competitors are making a lot of money.

Last week, all of you told South Africa that what I had done was not done. I heard the most bizarre things from questioning the amount to it being a "puff" interview. I learnt again last week that journalism is journalism only when it is hostile.

Your sales teams will be calling me. I already have a few appointments with them but I do not know what to tell them because last week you stood collectively and with one voice and said what I did was not the norm. I have taken a team from Carte-Blanche to Brazil to repatriate children in distress and paid for them.

I have taken a news team from the SABC to Las Vegas when this Department led by Bathabile Dlamini won an award for its Gender Based Violence Commannd Centre.

I have paid for Morning Live and Sunrise. I have paid Primedia because this Department led by this Minister had clinched another clean audit. All this was done, yes, to clean the image that all of you want her to have despite working hard. Yes, it was done so that all of you would stop the narrative that she drinks when she is leading the campaign against alcohol abuse and has come out to say 'I am epileptic and I take strong medication, I cannot afford to take alcohol!'

It is my duty and I have an allocated budget for both the Ministry and the Department. She is the face of the Department. Can we now talk honestly and openly?

Yours sincerely

Lumka Oliphant