Defend Truth


The Star and Malema: Playing word games can be deadly


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

The Star’s misquotation of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema publicly criticising President Jacob Zuma has thrown the relationship between our lead stories and the voice boxes of politicians into some disrepute. And  couldn’t have come a worse time in the great and increasing rivalry (to put it mildly) between the media and the ANC.

The state is set to launch, Vuk’uzenzele, a fortnightly newspaper that  will be an “unapologogetic[sic] mouthpiece of government” with the head of government communications, Jimmy Manyi, also enlisting the services of more seasoned doctors of spin to share with government communicators “lessons and experience” in how to get the media to scramble like starved urchins for whatever crumbs they may be thrown by government spokespeople.  There is little doubt politicians’ words often get to speak louder than actions in democracies. The ANC government seems to have recognised the impact its words can have on the impressionable masses. Politicians, of course, need to be made accountable for the language they use, but what about the media when they get it wrong? 

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu, for one, was scathing in his criticism of The Star. “If The Star truly prided itself on its slogan -‘Telling it like it is’ – we wonder whether this poor quality and unethical journalism, which has caused serious damage to the reputation of President Jacob Zuma, the ANC, comrade Malema and the ANCYL, is a reflection of all that can be expected from the newsroom of one of Johannesburg’s biggest dailies, especially during the crucial period of local government elections,” he said. Tellingly Mthembu went on to say “it was in this vein that South Africa should look at other means to stop this type of “non-objective reporting”.

The Star’s oversight in trusting the word of a freelancer from an agency may prove to be a costly one, if not in damaging the integrity of a well respected publication, then in questioning what informs the thinking in lead stories.

Academic Doris Graber takes the dim view of politics as no more than a “word game”, the performance of politics in democratic societies is greatly dependent on language.  Politicians, of course, rise to power through their ability to speak persuasively to voters  and once power is secured, the activities involved in being a politician are largely linguistic – commands, dialogues, debates, formulation of proposals, laws, orders, decisions and legal opinions.  If politics is at all a game, though, it is a highly contrived game of power founded in language.  Political news consists principally of what politicians have said and what others say about their sayings. The media, as interpreters of what politicians say, are crucial to the construction of the daily political spectacle.  But interpretations are rarely uniform, there will invariably be a clamour as varying interpretations compete to define what reality is.  Misinterpretations and misrepresentations are always likely to happen and they will not always serve the interests of politicians.

It has become commonplace to open the morning papers, or, First Thing morning emails, to yet more reports of rumblings from the big, bad ANC Youth League Machine. Julius Malema rose to infamy with his unwavering support for Jacob Zuma, offering rather generously, “to kill for Zuma”. Malema then continued to captivate as he boldly championed the cause of nationalising the country’s mining sector. And while his remarks have earned him a healthy knuckle-rapping from the ANC top brass, Malema has  proved to be inimitable in delivering the sort of  assessment of what is really going on. When  former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni was appointed chairman of mining giant AngloGold Ashanti,  the Youth League commented that his appointment was,  “reward for having protected the interests of white, male capital”. It’s an outrageous statement, the type that has consistently catapulted the Youth League to our lead stories. It doesn’t matter that we’re all shaking our heads in disdain of the sheer gall of it all, the attention the Youth League’s statements have received has significantly increased its political clout and The Star’s bungled quotation is proof of that.  The media see Malema as a source of political news that keeps giving, called upon to express opinion in public even if when he does not have an opinion to express. Malema has come to need to an opinion on everything. Public visibility is vital to the success of politicians and even hollow rumblings that keep a politician in the news at a crucial time such as in the run-up to local elections, enable politicians to create favourable perceptions of themselves among the electorate.

The Star’s editor, Moegsien Williams, in issuing an apology to Malema and the ANC  went on to say, “The ANC must feel free to lodge a complaint with the Press Ombudsman with whom we would co-operate”.  Whether the ANC will be placated by such an apology and place faith in the Press Ombudsman remains to be seen. But it is a little unfair for The Star to face the consequences alone while the freelance journalist at the centre of the controversy is allowed to slink away in obscurity. This incident has fed into the frenzy of mistrust of the media by government, it reinforces the view that the media are pursuing an agenda against the government and so, cannot be trusted to be accurate interpreters of the reality as determined by politicians. It encourages the idea that the government needs its own media service because self-serving journalists and profiteering media are simply dishonest. It almost makes the idea of a media tribunal palatable. It is already difficult enough for the public to believe the things they read. Already we’re incredulous of much of the morning news. It didn’t take April Fool’s Day for  Jimmy Manyi himself to sound like a grand satirist. How are we to know which comments were made, which not and in what context? The proposed media tribunal was never a good idea, remains so and we hope it never sees fruition, but it is an opportunity to improve accountability about what we report. 

Any contest of the dominant political paradigm in a democratic society is dependent on the media because dominance and submission are being constantly challenged in the creation of the daily political spectacle. DM


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