We have the Forum of Black Journalists to thank for many things, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.  Above all, we have the group to thank for making it possible to say openly: this is ridiculous.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

IN THE days of the United Democratic Front (UDF) we used to joke about an organisation called, in the grand tradition of struggle acronyms, TWAC. It stood for Two Wankers and a Computer.

This was a mythical organisation that had been set up to oppose some apartheid government action everyone had long forgotten, but which had won TWAC two seats on the UDF executive and European Community funding to fight the good fight. They were noble anti-apartheid activists (both of them), and they had a small office in Khotso House with the aforementioned computer, which was used to churn out strident media releases. The joke was brutally unfair, of course. Well, sort of….

I was reminded of it during this past week’s controversy over the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) and its exclusion of white journalists from a public meeting at which ANC president Jacob Zuma was speaking. This seemed to me like a throwback: why, when one has serious clout in newsrooms, would people still adopt the posture and language of the marginalised and powerless? Surely, when you are political editor of the country’s biggest newsroom, as is the leading figure in the FBJ, you develop new approaches to dealing with these issues?

I have no doubt there are things to be dealt with, and I have no problem with people organising along whichever lines they feel necessary to address them. But how do we come to a journalists’ organisation with a steering committee featuring an actor and a government spokesperson?

What kind of person is it that will stand at the door of a public event and say to their colleagues and associates: “Turn around and go away because you are white”? That is not a person who can be comfortable with themselves, who can feel good about their contribution to the new SA.

WHAT kind of journalist will take umbrage and say their colleagues are disrespectful when they come to a meeting they have not been invited to? This is not a person who understands the first thing about journalism. That is what we do: we knock on doors which are closed, we try to find out what is going on behind them. What kind of reporters would we be if we were interested only in meetings to which we had a formal invitation?

But sometimes it is good to stay outside. Sometimes it is the right choice for journalists. Inside, you would be subjected to a political leader trying to cosy up to journalists, probably invoking a subtle racial brotherhood. He is not going to give any secrets away in a meeting such as this, and if he does your hands are tied because it is off the record.

To fight to get into such a session is to look like a journalist falling for celebrity and power, and the desire to be close to it. That is the curse of many journalists, particularly political journalists. We like to be in the circles of influence and smart politicians know how to use this to make us feel good.

Much smarter to stay outside the meeting and try to report what was going on inside. If there were any titbits, you would then be free to publish them without having your hands tied by off-the-record rulings.

If Zuma was really smart, he would have waived the off-the-record provision and invited all journalists in. He would have won respect and looked like a true national leader, rather than a tawdry politician trying to cosy up to journalists and avoiding difficult moral issues.

But the most notable thing this time around is that the event has caused an outcry. There is something in the air that allows people, black and white, to say for the first time: this is ridiculous. These people do not speak for us. This is not the way we behave in 2008. And that is the healthiest sign of all. These events have thrown open a critical debate about race and transformation, and how healthy it is to see it in the open, being thrashed about with passion and concern by all types and colours.

For that we have to thank the FBJ.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 5 March 2008.