Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson was fond of saying: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro". So in an era where newspaper columnists are given free range to espouse hate speech, how come it's only the offending columnists who get fired - and not the people who give them the platform in the first place?
Moegsien Williams, executive editor of The Star, uses a wonderfully descriptive phrase to describe the dangers of reckless writing. “Once the shit is out of the donkey, you can’t put it back in again,” he likes to tell young journalists as a way of emphasising the importance of checking facts – and opinions – before they are printed and become public record.
At a time when public scrutiny of the media is at its peak, one wonders how the editorial decision-makers at Avusa feel about providing a platform for three of South Africa’s most offensive, projectile-shitting journalistic donkeys in just three years.
The first droppings were when David Bullard was fired in April 2008 after publication of a column “Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing”. Three days after signing off Bullard’s column for publication, his editor described the column as racist and insulting. He apologised for publishing it, saying that by doing so “we were complicit in disseminating (Bullard’s) Stone Age philosophies”.
At the time, many wondered: If it was so racist and insulting, why did you publish it in the first place?
The second droppings fell two years after Bullard was bulleted, the Sunday Times’ step-sister, Sunday World, gave a platform for columnist Kuli Roberts to say the following about coloured women: “You will always be assured of a large family as many of these girls breed as if Allan Boesak sent them on a mission to increase the coloured race. They have no front teeth and eat fish like they are trying to deplete the ocean. And they love to fight in public and most are very violent”.
After the fact, as was the case with Bullard, Sunday World’s editor said he took full responsibility “for the offending column appearing in my newspaper”. Roberts apologised, but was still suspended, the matter was investigated internally (stop me when it starts sounding like government), and the offender went undercover for a few weeks – only to be redeployed as a “party writer” (as in Randlords, not the ANC) on sister newspaper The Times.
By then, you would have thought, the Avusa decision-makers would have realised you can’t let these donkeys roam around using your newspaper as a toilet. But no…
The third droppings hit the dirt this week when, in the midst of Malema mania, along came stressed Eric Miyeni in Sowetan branding City Press editor Ferial Haffajee “a black snake in the grass” and accusing her of “doing it for the white master”. A necklacing, he suggested, may be in order.
You’d think Miyeni, of all people, would have learnt the consequences of lifting his racist tail in public – he was fired by SAfm two years ago for a similar offence, having indulged in xenophobia after being slapped by a foreign waiter.
As in the past — with the shit already out of the donkey — Avusa acted against the obnoxious columnist it to whom it had given a platform, discontinuing his “Bite the Bullet” column with immediate effect, but with 150,000 copies of the newspaper already in circulation and the website going incendiary.
Avusa editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya and Sowetan acting editor Len Maseko did the usual and put out a statement saying Miyeni’s column “crossed the line between robust debate and the condonation of violence”.
Which, for the third time, begged the same question: Why publish it in the first place? Don’t you guys read the stuff before it goes to print? It’s not as if either is inexperienced in these matters.
As an outraged Miyeni told e.tv when he heard he was fired: “I gave them that column on Thursday. They published it on Monday. Maseko read it before he published it. Where are the checks and balances?”
Or to use Williams’ analogy: If the column is shit, spike it – surely?
The bigger picture, though, is the one that needs attention.
Firstly, there’s a very real contradiction in the way Avusa titles are quick to condemn public figures who indulge in what they perceive as hate speech – and yet consistently pay their columnists to do the same.
Secondly, there’s an even bigger contradiction in the way those who construct those newspapers call for greater accountability among those who head governments or companies, yet fail to do so themselves.
Undoubtedly, in a few weeks time (for he is always a bit late with these things) Avusa public editor Joe Latakgomo will pen a column, buried next to the government tender ads on page 67, full of platitudes and much wringing of hands. Apologies will be regurgitated, readers will be told editorial checks and balances have been tightened and we will be able to wade through columns of mea culpa.
But after three strikes, that’s just not good enough.
After Roberts crapped all over coloured people in Sunday World, for example, Makhanya said Avusa had begun an internal inquiry into the incident. A mere three months later, Eric was still able to use Sowetan — Sunday World’s sister newspaper — as his personal lavatory.
Of course, there’s an even broader question during a time plump with talk of media appeals tribunals – if the commercial media is to restore public faith in its products, shouldn’t it start to acknowledge that retrospective retribution just doesn’t cut it? Where is the quality control?
Their approach – mea culpa — no longer works for civil society. It doesn’t work for the state. It doesn’t work for the church or struggle royalty. So why should it work for “the fourth estate”?
If Avusa measures itself by the same accountability-meter it applies to those in public and private office, one or two bosses may need to bite Miyeni’s bullet this time round.
So yes, drop him as a columnist by all means. But at the same time, ask some serious questions of the commanders in chief – in this case, acting editor Len Maseko and recently appointed Sowetan and Sunday World publisher Justice Malala.
Because at this point, after these serial offensive offences, we have to ask ourselves: Are the wrong heads rolling? DM