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South Africa: Government and media have mutual interest in good communications, not least re Mandela

Posted on 2 April 2011 | 10:04am

As I blogged earlier in the week, I was recently in South Africa advising the government there on communications issues. The Independent group of newspapers asked me to write about my visit, and some of the issues we discussed. Here is the article I did for them.

For a political romantic – and despite the image that is what I am – there is always something wonderful about coming to South Africa. Whenever I hear anyone say that politics makes no difference, I say visit the country where politics and protest swept away apartheid and joyously brought so much change.

Because of your past, this is a country also blessed with a rare, living global icon, a man whose name will echo through all time, joining the likes of Lincoln, Luther King, Gandhi, Churchill in the list of political greats, to be remembered and taught about forever.

I had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela several times, first as a journalist, then when working for Tony Blair. He remains one of the few people on the planet for whom the hair on the back of the neck stands to attention when he walks into the room. He is one of the reasons why South Africa has a strong image globally. Another is the story of the struggle against apartheid itself, in which people from all around the world played a part. Another is the Football World Cup. After all the talk of South Africa’s inability to stage such an enormous event, it went superbly. That the quality of football left something to be desired cannot be blamed on the host country.

Of course no man, even one as saintly as Mandela, lives for ever and one day, sad though this may be to consider, he will not be with us. Just as his life was one of the great events of the last century, so his passing will become one of the most important milestones of this century. I remember when Princess Diana died, Tony Blair said it would lead to an outpouring of grief none of us had ever seen. I can only begin to imagine what kind of outpouring there will be for Nelson Mandela. The global focus on his recent hospitalisation gave but a foretaste.

It will be an enormous human, diplomatic and media event. It will in many ways represent  the moment when South Africa becomes just another ‘normal’ country competing for business, attention and standing in our fast-changing globalised world.

This was one of the issues I raised when speaking to this week’s conference of the Government Information and Communication System. It is not often that the eyes of the whole world focus on one country, and reflect on its past. When they do, it is an opportunity to signal the future with strength and confidence. I have no doubt all the logistical planning is in place, but when people question the need for government communicators, they need to be involved in this too, partly because of the scale of the media invasion there will be, partly because of the interest in the country.

I made three speeches to the conference, and the backdrop to all three was the pace of change, not least to the media landscape, and the impact that was having on politics and government. I emphasised the need for a more strategic approach to communications, and greater co-ordination across government.

This was a theme echoed by Jimmy Manyi, the head of the GICS and Cabinet spokesman, who is also attracting the kind of headlines I used to when director of communications for the Blair government. Indeed, the first paper I saw on landing had the headline ‘Dirty Tricks Boss’ over a story about plans for a government newspaper. By the time I got on the plane home, I was handed a newspaper whose front page suggested some internal rebellion against Jimmy’s planned changes to government comms. I had all that too. I was able to tell him however that I had headlines comparing me with Hitler and Goebbels, so he didn’t yet have too much to worry about.

I can see why some commentators might worry about a government newspaper. But three points in his defence. First, internet access in South Africa is low so exhorting citizens to get information online is done more in hope than expectation. Second, government has a duty to seek to keep its people informed. And third, if you put those two points together, and consider how much governments like the US or the UK spend on putting information online – a lot – then it ought to seem less threatening. Of course people need schools and hospitals more than they need newspapers, but communications is an important and legitimate part of government too. One of Jimmy’s colleagues spoke of a ‘trinity’ of policy, public service delivery and communications. The first two are what matter most. But both need the third to be fully effective and understood.

So government communicators should always seek to be strategic, and not be defensive. Nor should they get overly concerned by every piece of criticism or negative reporting. The disjunction that matters most is not the one between government statements and media coverage, but between media coverage and people’s lives. Most people make their judgements according to their own lives rather than what they read in papers.

I did several interviews in Johannesburg and in most if not all there was an assumption of two types of communication; government communication – bad – and media reporting – good.  The truth is there is good and bad in both and both sides should have a grown-up debate about each other’s role without thinking the other side is always venal. One of the speeches I made was attended by journalists as well as government personnel and to be fair to the media, they were not entirely dismissive of the idea that government communications should be strengthened, though they were concerned about the idea of a media tribunal and keen to be involved in any discussions about it. Foreign media were also keen to be able to work with the government in ensuring the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s passing does him and the country proud.

As for Jimmy, I can see that the media find him a lively and interesting character, which he is. There is always a risk when the spokesman becomes the story. It happened to me often enough. But it must not stop you doing the things you believe need to be done. Perhaps I didn’t always help myself, but I lasted a decade or so, which is a long time to be at the interface of media and politics, and I endured many many long forgotten bad headlines. It is always wise to try to differentiate between a screaming headline and what really matters.

Provided Jimmy has political support from the country’s leadership, stays focused and strategic, and builds a sense of teamship across government departments, I am sure he can take a lot of heat. Indeed, it would seem that being a lightning conductor is often part of the spokesman’s job.

The discussions I attended brought back memories of the early stages of the Blair government. The need for change was obvious, but not always easy to bring about. But the media world continues to change so quickly that ‘no change’ is not an option. The question is what kind of change is required to adapt to the changed media world. For my part I recommended greater co-ordination across government, far more frequent direct briefing of the media, more direct comms to the people, and an understanding that when times are tough, and the story difficult, that is the time to make sure the phone is on, not turned off.

There were a lot of bright people at the event. I think they know what the challenges are. I hope that as they seek to meet them, the media will see it is in their interests too that government communications strengthens and improves.

  • Ehtch

    A good example of what you explain was in the Mail today, on Gaddafi’s son’s PhD from the LSE.

    It explains he might have been unfairly “helped” to qualify for it, and yes, within the first few sentences, it accuses Blair to be the one to be blamed. It is enough to send you spare.

  • Keane Sinead

    why do you bring lady di or st tony into everything?i read you’re book face it she did not fancy you

  • Anonymous

    @ Ehtch – blaming Blair? Well it is the Daily Maul, you know! That’s what it’s for. They have never come to terms with the fact that a non-Tory could win three elections in a row, bring in all the changes they’d have done if they had had real leadership and STILL be able to leave office unbeaten at the polls. They have a lot to try to pin on Tony Blair.

  • Ehtch

    Lady Di was like Marilyn Monroe, or like one of the other fragile-minded goddess actresses of Hollywood studio system, Gene Tierney/Vivien Leigh/Judy Garland, etc. etc..

    Such people, as Mandela, are or were worshipped, but in a different way to Mandela. So I thought it was a good comparison.

  • Ehtch

    Gavin Henson has taken more than his fair share in the certain papers too. You obviously remember him from NZ Lions 2005, Alastair.

    But he had a dream day yesterday, on his debut for his new French club Toulon, alongside Johnny Wilkinson, at 12.

    I know you like your sport, Alastair, so here are the highlights of it,

    post-match interview,
    made a try, hot knife through butter,
    scored a try,

    Bien fait, Gavin Henson, bravo.

  • Suanitta Numan

    i think she had a crush on him…:)

  • Keane Sinead

    what i am trying to say is the tone of this blog , campbell also goes to st tony or di and put’s forward the view that st tony’s goverment was the best thing since sliced bread what has made me comment on this blog is campbell hypocrisy the prime example being phone hacking when two things come to mind i do not care if celebs are hacked (they sell themselves to papers) and pot-kettle-black

  • Keane Sinead

    according to st.tony’s wife sr.cherie it was the other way around

  • Scooke7

    Yes, agree wholeheartedly. And don’t forget, that in order to hack voicemail, you need to know the pin number of the subscriber. If one is stupid enough NOT to change one’s default pin number, then whose fault is that? Of the millions of mobile phone subscribers in the UK, maybe less than 0.1% are celebs, important people etc. The rest of us don’t give a DAMN. Yates of the yard was CORRECT not to waste public money on pursuing this. But it seems now that Labour are not in govt,. they want this govt. to waste public money investigating this. Hope the police and CPS don’t.

  • Keane Sinead

    Thank you also if News International’s papers had not switched to the tories and stayed labour does anybody think we would be hearing phone hacking and it was also a bit strange that in the week that Campell’s book was coming out he thought he had been hacked labour to me seem to be jumping on a bandwagon out of spite

  • Ehtch

    More Gavin Henson, Alastair, when he got sent off down my way, at the legendary Stradey Park, in 2002. Enjoy and laugh,

    Stradey Park is now becoming a housing estate. by the way. Parc y Scarlets is an amazing new stadium – hope you can get down there to see a game Alastair, footie or rugger.

  • Hafod76

    Might as well post this, the great Lions coach, Carwyn James, singing in russian. Enjoy, comrades,
    Keep the red flag flying, and all that bollocks.

  • Ehtch

    More Russian Folk and dance and song, just after Stalin snuffed it, 1953…

  • Ehtch

    Gavin and his elbow, on a Leicester prop. Brilliant stuff! Willy Wonka chocolate legs or what?

  • Ehtch

    One more, Boycezone on Gavin Henson,

  • Ehtch

    Stunning violin from 2009 Llangollen internatinal eisterddfod, totally brilliatnt violin,

  • Ehtch

    Might as well post this, on Turkey, and things past, the games people play, and their torture afterwards, But that is how we carry on, it seems. Things seem so rational on a day you choose.