In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Sherwin Bryce-Pease, president of the United Nations Correspondents Association.
At a time when the credibility and influence wielded by the fourth estate have been questioned by those in power, the mission of organizations like the United Nations Correspondents Association, which fosters good relations with reporters and members of diplomatic delegations, is especially vital. Sherwin Bryce-Pease, UN bureau chief with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, has covered the intersection between US and UN politics for over a decade. As president of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), he is tasked with ensuring that the interests of the journalists in their dealings with the UN are met.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Bryce-Pease about how access remains one of the biggest hurdles for journalists in an organization tasked with achieving international cooperation.
Athanasios Dimadis: President Donald Trump’s adversarial relationship with the press has been well documented. He has often accused reporters of misinterpreting his words and of being biased. What is your view of the current media landscape in the United States?
Sherwin Bryce-Pease: The reality show aspect of cable news in the United States, often partisan in nature, is doing real damage to a fact-based society where opinion dominates what should be a facts-based news agenda. In other words, rather than getting the news, we are served a combination of fact, conjecture and hyperbole all at once, which doesn’t educate the citizenry or the electorate, but rather confuses them. So just like the side effects of a new drug, we are just beginning to see the negative ramifications of cable news mixed with the toxicity of social media in this country.
Dimadis: How have the priorities of the UN Correspondents Association shifted in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency?
Bryce-Pease: From an operational point of view, not much. Our mandate is to represent our members in their dealings with the United Nations. But because the United States is the biggest funder of both the general and peacekeeping budget of the organization, what comes out of the White House and the US Mission under the outgoing Ambassador Nikki Haley has been of even greater significance to our members (from a news perspective) given President Trump’s “America First” policy and its implications on the multilateral, rules-based system. But that doesn’t necessarily change our priorities, which are to work on creating the best working environment for our journalists at the UN and facilitate their access to newsmakers.
Dimadis: What are the challenges for correspondents covering UN-related matters? What has been your most valuable learning experience managing relations between the international press corps and the UN Secretariat?
Bryce-Pease: Access is a constant issue that we face, particularly during the high-level week, when more than 100 heads of state and government come to town. Another challenge is the inability of UN officials, in particular, to say what they think rather than what might be less upsetting to member states. Issues of sovereignty and influence (i.e. funding) often limit the ability of UN officials to speak truth to power.
Dimadis: What are your top priorities for your presidency?
Bryce-Pease: To ensure that we have a voice at the table when decisions that affect us at the UN are taken, to raise funds for the annual UN Correspondents Association Gala Awards and foster good working relations with key missions to the UN. My role is to be the voice for the journalists and to create a credible space for that voice to be taken both seriously and to be heard.
Dimadis: Each year, the UN Correspondents Association presents awards for journalists for the best print, broadcast and online media coverage of the United Nations, its agencies and field operations around the globe. What do you and the other members of the UNCA Executive Committee take into consideration during the selection process?
Bryce-Pease: This is an independent exercise managed by an independent convenor and external judges. Because our committee members are also eligible to enter the competition, barring a few exceptions like myself and the awards gala sub-committee, the judging panel is completely independent. All our categories are about coverage of the UN through print, online and broadcast media, and this year’s winners have reported on migration, climate change and women’s empowerment, among other subjects.
Dimadis: How has the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi affected or galvanized the mission of the UNCA?
Bryce-Pease: I think Mr. Khashoggi’s horrific killing touched a nerve with all of us. While outside our mandate to specifically advocate on behalf of specific issues, our members continue to raise the Khashoggi murder and the need for accountability at the highest levels, including through a possible independent UN-led investigation.
Dimadis: You’ve been the UN bureau chief with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, covering US and UN politics for well over a decade. How has the relationship between the two evolved over this time?
Bryce-Pease: The UN is as effective as the sum of its parts and fails dismally when national interests dominate the greater good. I think that this is true also of its relationship with the United States.
Dimadis: What, in your view, are the most crucial and pressing reforms that the UN Correspondents Association must face in the next few years?
Bryce-Pease: Unlike the UN Security Council and the Inter-Governmental Reform process, UNCA is able to respond to the needs of its members in a fluid manner. For example, we had 10 women and five men during my first one-year term, and parity was maintained during my second term. Issues of sovereignty are fortunately not something we have to grapple with when making decisions. We will always fiercely protect our independent voice at the UN even if that is upsetting to some member states.
Dimadis: You’ve interviewed such figures as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, South African Presidents Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Thabo Mbeki, and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet. You’ve even interviewed former US President Barack Obama at the White House. What has been the most valuable observation you’ve made as a professional journalist working in the US for foreign media?
Bryce-Pease: What happens in the United States still matters to the rest of the world and affects people around the world in a visceral way. Alternative facts have become a reality here, spreading to other parts of the globe, and we are watching norms and standards devolve in front of our eyes.
Dimadis: It’s been suggested that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. In fact, the World Bank estimates that climate change could displace up to 150 million people within their home countries by 2050. Millions of others are expected to flee to wealthier nations. How does the UN Correspondents Association and its members plan to respond to global warming compounding pressure on fragile states?
Bryce-Pease: One of our main awards categories is directed toward coverage of issues related to climate change. It’s our small way of shining a light on an issue that is all of our responsibility.
*[An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to the UN Correspondents Association Gala Awards as the UN General Assembly Gala Awards.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.