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24 October 2014 13:10 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Bombastic Bombela balks

  • Ivo Vegter
Some two weeks after the publication of my column about the Gautrain's draconian rules, a startling email arrived, in which the Bombela executive I quoted accused me of sloppy journalism, factual inaccuracy, and not meeting minimum standards of professionalism. Such grave charges have to be taken seriously.

To any journalist, an allegation that they got their facts wrong is a serious matter. If true, it demands a prompt apology and correction. For a columnist writing opinion, scrupulous regard for the facts is the bedrock of credibility.

It was with concern, therefore, that I received the following email from the Bombela Concessions Company executive I quoted in my column about the Gautrain's rules:

Following our recent engagement, I unfortunately read your article in the Daily Maverick with some disappointment.

Whist I understand that you are trying to be provocative (and I have no problem with that), that is surely not an excuse for journalism which is, to speak frankly, just plain sloppy.

  • Many of your assertions are wrong (as any 5 minute visit to Google would have shown).
  • The low level of your understanding of your topic suggests the most cursory and biased research. Accusing the Gautrain, a Public Private Partnership of limited duration and which went to public tender, of being a monopoly is simply ridiculous.

The reason I was unwilling for you to use my name was precisely because I did not want to be (mis)quoted in a factually deficient article. I’m always happy to engage with the media but I expect at least the minimum standards of professionalism, like getting the facts right and portraying a balanced perspective.

Needless to say, I promptly requested details of the alleged factual inaccuracies. I also kept the editor of The Daily Maverick informed about the allegations and my response to them.

What followed was a strange affair. The Bombela executive, to whom I had initially granted anonymity because he refused to be named unless he could approve the article before publication, sent me a copy of my column. Half of it was highlighted in yellow. No specific evidence or arguments to support the claim that the highlighted sections were incorrect were provided, so all I could do was to justify each highlighted line. I spent an evening doing so.

This did not satisfy him, and he responded with further claims of why I got it all wrong. When the discussion reached an impasse, I proposed that we establish whether his serious allegations held water by publishing the exchange, so readers could make up their own minds. The executive agreed, on condition that I publish the exchange in full.

Before I do so, it is worth saying something about the case.

As the evidence will show, the Bombela executive could not support his allegations about factual inaccuracy with evidence. Nor could he support allegations about my standards of professionalism with actual breaches of professional conduct. He merely labelled the fact that I offered an opinion with which he disagreed as "bias".

He appears not to grasp the difference between fact and opinion. Perhaps he believes that his own opinions should be enshrined in lengthy rule books, to be enforced upon every journalist who writes about his organisation.

Reading between the lines, it is clear that he regards the Gautrain rules as a legitimate imposition of devolved government authority, just as every other public transport system requires legally enforceable rules of conduct for passengers.

Further, he appears to take issue with my scenarios of how the rules could be abused, and makes the case that they will most likely not be so abused.

This would be material, if I disputed the statutory legitimacy of the power devolved to the Gautrain. I do not. On the contrary, I explicitly called its powers "legal". Nor do I dispute that a public transport system needs specific rules that do not apply elsewhere. I explicitly conceded that too.

My argument was that many of the actual Gautrain rules are vague, sweeping and draconian, that they are obscure and hard to find, that the enforcement powers granted to private officials are too broad, and that the potential consequences of breaking these rules are too severe.

Once again, I refer to Lyndon B Johnson's formulation: "You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered."

Now it may well be that Bombela does not agree with this view. It has every right to disagree, and to say so. However, one can address differences of opinion with columnists without resorting to baseless accusations of unprofessionalism.

While I could not describe my own tone as entirely free of sarcasm, the executive's tone raises far more serious issues. The use of phrases like "no excisions permitted", and the summons to "a professional environment" to be further instructed in the errors of my ways merely confirms what I wrote in the original column: "A private monopoly combined with the government's monopoly on force produces the most authoritarian of bureaucracies."

But make up your own mind. Allow me to introduce Errol Braithwaite, marketing executive of the Bombela Concessions Company, the Bombela Operating Company subsidiary of which is the operator of the Gautrain.

Here is the short version of his specific complaints, with my reponses. And here is the complete exchange, without any excisions, as he preremptorily demanded. I disobeyed his orders only to protect his own privacy. For that, I apologise. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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