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Opinion: A dress code for journalists

Dear government,

The weekly Council of Ministers’ press briefing is usually a relaxed and almost informal event whereby ministers give updates about their portfolios and whereby journalists have the opportunity to ask any questions they like. Yesterday something changed: a civil servant of the department of communication told me that I could not sit next to my colleague of the Daily Herald.

Why? The gentleman pointed at my freshly pressed tee shirt. That did not go with the suits, shirts and ties of the ministers and with their own attire. It did not look good on camera, I figured.

Better wear a button down shirt next time, the message was. I politely declined: the government is not going to tell me how to dress.

The ambush with this new house rule surprised me, because I have been to press briefings many times, usually dressed in jeans and a tee. Clothing has never been an issue, but now it apparently is. Okay, if these are the house rules of the new government, so be it. The question that keeps bothering me though is this: why?

The press briefings are broadcast on TV, so apparently the government now wants to show the population that the journalists it admits on camera in its press briefings are dressed neatly, a bit like they’re ready to go to church.

Why? Indeed, that is a very good question. Journalists do not attend the press briefing to compete for the title of best dressed word smith, they go there to hear what members of the government have to say and, if need be, to needle them with pertinent questions.

If I had shown up with a tee that read something like @!&# Minister so and so I would understand if somebody told me to get the hell out. But my tee only read Los Angeles, so to find this offensive is a bit of a stretch.

Ah, it suddenly hit me: this is about keeping up appearances. Journalists are supposed to do what any government hack tells them. Dress up! Behave! Show the people what a good boy you are!

I am, of course, not a good boy – at least not in this sense. I have been a professional journalist for most of my life and nowhere in the world has anybody ever told me to grab a button down shirt or to get the hell out of sight of the cameras.

I consider the way I dress a personal and constitutional freedom. Article 5 of the constitution guarantees the right to privacy, but the government now apparently wants to enter my closet and tell me which shirt I ought to wear on certain days.

The constitution also guarantees me the right “to publish thoughts or opinions, or provide information via the printed press without prior permission.”

One could of course argue about the question whether dressing in a certain way is the same as expressing an opinion. I think it is, and therefore the way people choose to dress ought to be protected under the constitution.

Decades ago, I worked in the Netherlands with four colleagues on what was at that time a 20-million (Dutch) guilder project. We were developing a concept for a news magazine. The purpose was to convince the board of directors to give us all that cash to hire twenty journalists and bring the magazine to market.

Our project days were relaxed affairs (a bit like the press briefing): they usually started around ten in the morning and ended at four. We had a reasonable office in a building the publisher rented in a suburb of Amsterdam and the dress code was beyond informal: tees, sneakers and jeans.

We thought of the board of directors as “the grey suit mafia”. They were not our kind of people. Whenever we wandered the corridors of the building, nobody ever paid attention to us, or even said hello.

That’s when we decided to do a little experiment. One day we all showed up for work in three-piece suits; we wore a carnation on our left hand lapel and to complete the scam we all walked around with an Al Capone #10 cigar – a monstrous affair that I would not wish on my worst enemies these days.

Guess what happened: all those people that ignored us the previous day, started to greet us and they even took an interest in what we were doing. That’s where we got our little victory: the project was still veiled in secrecy and we did not give out any information. The next day, we returned in our usual outfits and the grey suits never bothered us again.

The experiment showed that people read an awful lot in the way we dress: you are either “their kind of people” or you are not. If you fall in the latter category, you will be ignored, underestimated and in some cases ostracized. There is no better position to be in for a journalist.

So for now, I’ll stay off camera in the weekly press briefings, while the real work simply continues.

 

Hilbert Haar,

Editor-in-Chief @ Today.

 

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