OPINION

How Naomi Campbell censored SA media

What would Madiba have done? That question came to mind when local hacks were banned from taking pictures of the supermodel - who was in SA to promote the Global Citizen Festival & centenary celebrations for Mandela

12 July 2018 - 08:24
Naomi Campbell at a press conference in Sandton on Monday.
Naomi Campbell at a press conference in Sandton on Monday.
Image: Masi Losi

For all that Naomi Campbell wanted to honour Nelson Mandela when she visited Johannesburg this week, she failed to match his respect for press freedom. At the launch event for the Global Citizen Festival, to be staged in the city in December, she ordered reporters to down their cameras, saying only her photographer could take her picture.

What was meant to be a day celebrating the spirit of the festival, which rallies politicians, global leaders and celebrities to end extreme poverty by 2030, instead left a bitter taste in the mouths of many journalists as Campbell cancelled a string of interviews at the last minute because, according to sources, she had overslept. (A publicist from Campbell's team called me the night before this article was published to deny that she had overslept and insisted that all planned interviews with Campbell had gone ahead. In a second conversation via text she said some interviews had been cancelled but only because they were arranged "last minute.")

At a second event on Monday night where the supermodel was also meant to promote the event she forced the media to down their tools and refused all interviews. I was in a room with about five other reporters when she arrived and told us that only her photographer would be allowed to take pictures.

It was a surreal moment. 

The Global Citizen Festival is promoting Madiba’s message about setting people free from poverty, in the year when South Africa marks the centenary of his birth. And Campbell, who is a host and producer of the event, was in Mzansi – which she has called her “second home” – to spearhead that message.

Ntsiki Mazwai recently said that, considering the festival line-up of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Usher, Oprah Winfrey and Ed Sheeran, we are likely to see South Africans "grovelling" to get tickets and meet the US stars.

And in some sense she's right. I don't agree that we “grovel”, but there can be a sense of bedazzlement when international stars head our way. After being in the entertainment business for more than a decade, I've been #blessed to have met personalities such as Bono, Clint Eastwood, David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton and Jennifer Hudson. The highlight, of course, was Tata.

This week, after Campbell had her own photographer take her picture, members of the media standing in silence with their cameras and phones by their sides, she was meant to do an interview. Instead, she walked out.

"I am done talking. I am not talking. I'm done," she told a member of her team as she left the press room.

Given that the event was linked to Mandela and his heritage of respect and generosity, shocked reporters were soon exchanging stories about his dealings with the press.

"The first time I met him, he stepped on my foot while passing me. He stopped his security to give me a hug and apologise," said a colleague.

I too had a similar experience with Tata. As a fledging journalist, I was sent to his Houghton home unaware of his sensitivity to light. Experienced journalists and photographers already knew to avoid flash photography. I was snapping away when his personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, nearly bulldozed me. Yet Tata knew it was an honest error. He grabbed my hand and said: "It's okay. You did not know."

Maybe Campbell was having a bad day and those who had interviewed her earlier got a better version of her. I do not take umbrage at the fact that she was late or that she scrapped interviews. It happens. But to instruct the free press in a democracy to lower their cameras for a generic picture opportunity in a press room? 

Perhaps it is a new "celebrity" thing, so I asked some colleagues in New York, London and Dubai. They said it was rare. And when it does happen, usually notice is given ahead of the event that pictures would be taken by an official photographer and later be supplied to the press. 

I’ve debated the situation with my colleagues. Some urged me to think twice before publishing this article. “You won’t get tickets for the concert and will be cut out of interview opportunities,” they said. But since when did we stop doing our jobs in fear of not getting concert tickets? Since when do we pander to some form of quid pro quo agreement? There’s also the claim that this incident will shift the focus from the worthy cause – to alleviate poverty. It won’t. One person cannot undo the hard work of thousands of others.

Ahead of the concert announcement, I asked Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans how attending leaders would be held accountable for any pledges they made. He said the event was not simply an opportunity for leaders to "have their moment in the sun", as accountability was paramount to its success. Just as it is my responsibility as a reporter to hold people accountable for their actions.

Perhaps when Campbell visits Mzansi again, she will be more "agreeable" when dealing with the media. As Mandela said: "There is a universal respect and even admiration for those who are humble and simple by nature, and who have absolute confidence in all human beings, irrespective of their social status."

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