Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You must show me your boobs, I'm a journalist

I took part in two very different press events this week. On Thursday, I listened to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed discuss the unholy mess in Somalia (We feel sorry for you and don’t want those nasty Islamists taking over, even though they brought peace for six months in 2006, because they are all terrorists and might try to blow up some Americans in Kenya again. But then we don’t want another Black Hawk Down, so we will just give you some money to shut you up and pretend the African Union peacekeepers are doing a good job – to paraphrase Clinton’s message to Sheikh Sharif).

Then, on Saturday, I hung about the Mombasa docks with a bunch of German TV journalists to cover the arrival of the Hansa Stavanger, a German-owned container ship freshly released by pirates that had five Germans onboard (And a bunch of other foreigners from random countries like Tuvalu, wherever that is, who could all have a big orgy and then commit ritual suicide right on the dock in front of us and we won't notice, but wait a minute, I’ve heard the German captain has a splinter in his little finger. Call Gunther and tell him to cancel that documentary on human rights abuses in the Congo, we’re going live!!! - to paraphrase the German media’s angle on the ship’s arrival).

Both events highlighted for me that journalists are a funny bunch.

The Kenyan press pack was up in arms on Thursday when they found out that Clinton would only be answering four questions after making a short statement. I guess it has been a while since a top US official has visited Kenya, but this is the way it always works. You have to book your question in advance and hope you are high enough in the pecking order. Fat chance of that.

Usually the first few questions go to the pet media, the travelling contingent that follow Clinton/Bush/whoever around the world and faithfully report every word in return for a comfy seat at the front of the press conference instead of a rickety fold-down chair at the back and the chance to share a chummy joke with the top official in front of the other journalists to show how important they are. This will also most likely be an American agency or paper - step forward AP and the NY Times in Clinton’s case. Then a few questions will be tossed to the local media, in Clinton’s case to the Somali journalists.

So, I wasn’t surprised when Clinton’s aide indicated that the next question would be the last. But the Kenyans were. Howls of outrage came from around the room as they demanded that Clinton stay and answer more questions, because they hadn’t had their turn yet. Eyes rolled, fists shook and well-fed jowls wobbled in righteous indignation. Clinton laughed them off and left the room. Cue lots of muttering and the scraping of chairs as half the room left – rather shamefully I thought, since Sheikh Sharif was still speaking.

Something similar happened on Saturday, when the local shipping agent tried to close off the berth where the Hansa Stavanger would arrive. Forklift trucks piled up empty containers, blocking the view of the dockside and spewing tasty exhaust fumes down everyone’s throats. The TV journalists who had come all the way from Germany to get pictures of the ship arriving went ballistic and loudly remonstrated with everyone in sight, including a bemused port official who seemed to just be passing on his way to the toilet.

I have to admit, I was considering the sneaky option, which would have been to climb across a large chain at the other side of the dock, despite the fact there was a ten metre drop to the sea and one of the KK security guard would probably have conked me on the head with his baton had I got in anyway.

In the end, the direct, rowdy approach proved successful as the mob forced its way in and refused to move. The shipping agent had no choice but to let us stay behind a hastily erected piece of red tape. So this time it was a partial victory for the journalists: the German TV crews got their pictures of a big ship sitting at the docks doing nothing for hours. I got to hang about for 12 hours watching them turn increasingly alarming shades of red under the equatorial sun (I suspect the carpets of German newsrooms will be covered in flakes of journalist skin later this week). There was a lot of complaining about the lack of access to the crew, however. Apparently the ungrateful buggers didn’t understand that we needed comments for our stories.

The common link between the two events was the genuine sense of outrage the journalists felt when they found out they were not going to get their way. Most of us feel it is our absolute right to ask anybody any question we want at any time of day or night. Never mind that somebody may have something trivial to do like, oh I don’t know, represent the world’s most powerful nation in seven African countries in under two weeks. Or recover from a four-month kidnapping ordeal at the hands of Somali pirates, in which you had to sleep on the floor, had automatic weapons pointed at your head and were not allowed to brush your teeth.

This attitude is, of course, what helps keep politicians on their toes in most countries and helps ensure that democracies actually function, so it is generally a good thing. And witnessing a dozen miffed adults stomping their feet in a petulant rage is priceless.

But the same attitude also fuels the worse type of intrusive gutter press journalism, and there have been times I have found myself teetering on the edge of doing things I am not comfortable with because of the “I have a right to know” attitude.

Like anything in life, it is all about finding the right balance.

So I’m now off to peer in through Scarlett Johansson’s curtains. The public has a right to know what she looks like naked.

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