Defend Truth


Big media, too often the fireman stoking engine of populist locomotive

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Why is the media seemingly incapable of rebuffing the scheming of unabashed populists - men and women whose political fame (or infamy) has less to do with any value they bring, but is a product of the noise they can generate in society? South Africa likes to think it is dealing with its own unique Petri dish of problems. It would be refreshingly disturbing were we to realise that, in at least this one respect, we’re not alone at all.

It seems the South African media are falling into a trap which we can avoid given it has ensnared others abroad before. It has to do with media coverage of blatant populists, people who sow seeds of division and somehow become very popular.

It is actually very simple to become a famous populist these days. Make a lot of the right sort of noise. The sort of noise which will bring the media’s attention – sexism, racism, xenophobia or religious hatred should bring ’em running. Keep making a lot of noise. Then, do something which gets you in trouble with some sort of authority, like the courts (again, flirting heavily with hate speech is usually guaranteed to get you a seat in the dock). If you’re smart enough, you’ll get off doing any jail time. Then go back to step one and repeat. The media will do the rest for you.

This column must come with a very large disclaimer. Who exactly am I talking about when I say “the media”? It’s easy to make sweeping generalisations about every publication and broadcast medium in the country. I’d advise a quick perusal of this excellent blog post by Brian Bakker, who shows how silly such statements can be (pity the ANC Youth League will never take this to heart). Let us limit ourselves to large-circulation daily newspapers, TV and radio news. The sort of people who deliver your news to you every morning.

By forgetting to keep an eye on the important things, like the fact that these people often foment hatred, the media becomes a vital stepping stone for anyone wanting to be a populist leader.

Just last week, a man in his late forties who has a strange proclivity for hydrogen peroxide in his hair was acquitted of hate speech in the Dutch high court. Geert Wilders had made a video in 2008 which suggested with little ambiguity that there was no difference between “Mein Kampf” and the Qur’an. He has also blamed all of the Netherlands’ problems on immigration and has previously called for a tax on women’s headscarves. Yet Wilders is in the Dutch parliament, his PVV party having very unexpectedly won the third-largest number of seats in Holland’s parliament.

Another of these far-off-centre and far-off-reality politicians who is ascending rapidly in the public consciousness is Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party member of the US House of Representatives. Much like Sarah Palin, she stumbles and fumbles from recurring public gaffes and yet is inexplicably an elected public official. There’s even talk of her becoming the Republican candidate to face Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race.

And of course, there is our own Julius Malema, a man unafraid to draw inspiration from jarring sexism and discredited Bolivarian economics.

All these people (and there are many more littered across the world) share at least one thing in common: the media’s complicity in their fame/infamy. The very act of reporting on these people merely contributes to their growing public image precisely because the focus stops being the sexism, the racism, the sheer stupidity and starts becoming reporting for the sake of it.

Another person who is using the media very successfully in this way is the head of government communications Jimmy Manyi, though perhaps not for the same reasons as the people listed above. He often expresses great surprise at the fact that he gets so much press coverage. Aside from the fact that he doesn’t seem to appreciate how media works, he has received undue publicity for a series of increasingly strange ideas about how government communications should be conducted.

We should not allow ourselves the luxury of forgetting the circumstances under which he was suspended as director-general of the labour department. Manyi was suspended after the Norwegian ambassador complained to the minister of labour about Manyi’s conduct at an official meeting. He had apparently tried to solicit business for a friend while in an official meeting with Norwegian diplomats. The facts surrounding that have yet to come to light fully, and yet Manyi keeps becoming the story instead of merely being the government’s spokesman.

Again, with Manyi as with the others, the media may help propel the snowball of populism by losing focus.

Media’s job is to inform and to soothe society’s problems, not to contribute to them. DM


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