- Chris Vick
- 23 Feb 2012 (South Africa)
The meeting opened with the revered Secret Editors' Handshake.
With a mix of familiarity and pride, the editors clustered in groups of three: each editor either with eyes covered, ears closed or mouth hidden.
The chairman slowly raised his personalised Johnnie Walker Black tumbler.
"To the editors," he mumbled.
"To the editors," they responded, and were seated.
The chair shuffled a few papers, then leapt right in: "Colleagues, we have entered a perilous phase in our lives. The ANC is clearly on the attack, with a dangerous pincer-like assault on our existence."
They nodded, like concerned wizards.
"The ruling party seems dead-set on continuing with the Protection of Information Bill, and it seems there is no turning back from the parliamentary media tribunal discussions, regardless of our press freedom commission process.
"We are being made to look like powerless fools."
They nodded deeper.
"But there is someone out there who is out to get us – someone who was once one of our own but is now using his exploits as a spin-doctor to cause great embarrassment.
"Vick!" they cried, to a man (and the occasional woman).
"Hiss. Sies. Sellout. Charlatan. Bastard. DEVIL!"
It was starting to sound like Parliament, and the chair was forced to call for order.
"Yes, Vick," the chair said, shaking his head. "First it was Daily Maverick, and now our old foe Peter Bruce has been suckered into giving him a platform too."
"Is it true Vick's still working for the ANC?" one editor cried.
"Or for Mbalula?"
"I hear he still works for Tokyo."
"Or for Jessie."
"There's a rumour he writes speeches for Hugo Chavez."
The chair was forced to raise his tumbler again as the lynch mob gained momentum.
"We have no proof of this," he stated. "But it is clear that he is some form of stealth weapon for the ANC. He's pushing for a media appeals tribunal so that spindoctors can run roughshod. Journalism as we know it will be dead. We will be powerless. A media tribunal will suit him and his ilk perfectly."
A young editor, recently recruited to the magic circle, raised his hand. There was an uncomfortable murmur – this was not an audience that suffered newcomers easily.
"Vick doesn't say he supports a media appeals tribunal," the young editor stated with purpose. "He's saying that if we don't sort out our own act, we're going to end up with a tribunal. He's been saying that since he started writing for Maverick. He's flashing a huge amber warning light in our faces.
"All his columns have a common thread – he says we need to deal with inaccuracies, ethical lapses, plagiarism, that sort of thing. Quality and ethics. And that if we want self-regulation to survive, we need to make the system work better. Otherwise we're just giving the ANC ammunition to take pot-shots at us."
He could barely finish the sentence before the elders turned on him.
"You've been spun, boy," said an elder, emitting a faint smell of gin. "You see, you see, Vick is evil. He gets inside your head and tells you these things, and you believe him. He is the devil."
Emotions were running high. Seizing the moment, an elderly journalism trainer raised his hand: "What have we got on him? How do we take him on? What can we do?"
An editor with a vague resemblance to Harry Potter raised his hand: "I have an idea: let's write a nasty column about him, and expose him."
"But won't that give him more attention? Maybe even build his business?" a Primedia decision-maker asked.
"No. Clearly, the people will believe us," the volunteer editor responded. "They always believe us. Particularly Vick's nonsense about writing for the 'little people'. I really take offence at that – everybody's knows WE speak for the little people. Nobody else can – particularly not some flashy spin-doctor who spends his time in boardrooms and coffee shops."
There was concern, particularly among some of the elders. The volunteer editor had something of a fondness for speaking tours and riding his bicycle rather than spending time in his newsroom. And he had a penchant for scouring cafes for French toasted sandwiches (or croque monsieurs, as he preferred to call them) when he should be working.
But there was no holding him back: he already had his iPad out and was googling to his heart's content.
"I can even go to Vick's company website," he declared, looking up briefly. "I'm sure we'll find something we can use against him."
"Great idea," the chair responded. "In the meantime, let's break into commissions and think of some big words to add to the column."
Before they could even form small groups, an excited voice let out: "I like 'venal'. Venal. Used it once in a leader and people loved it. Let's say he's venal."
"Excellent. And he cherry-picks his facts. I love 'cherry-picked'. And 'paper-thin arguments'."
The editors were on a roll.
"And let's not forget this business of telling the world we ask him to write stories for us, or that journalists take kickbacks. Let's make him name and shame."
A season editor intervened: "He told me he couldn't name the ones who said they had paid journalists because that would be disclosing his sources," she said.
"You've spoken to him?" the gin-fumed ex-editor asked.
"Yes," the seasoned one said. "We spoke on twitter this morning."
The chair was apoplectic: "Who else has been communicating with Vick on this scandal?"
Slowly, eight hands went in the air. One hand-raiser was bold enough to admit: "I told him it was a great column. Nauseous, but good."
Another agreed: "I did too. But I had to tweet him later to check whether I was one of the people he'd spun."
A third volunteered: "It's worse. People have stuck the article up in our newsrooms. They're using it as a checklist for when they deal with PR people. They're describing him as a legend – that he's the first one to take us on."
One of the more tech-savvy editors chipped in: "It's all over Facebook, too. People are saying it's long overdue. One of our own journalists even commented that he wasn't surprised – he says we write so badly that we'd all gladly accept something Chris wrote for us. On Facebook, people. It's out there."
The final word came, confession-like, from one of those who'd most enjoyed the word-game a few minutes ago: "Vick told me he was getting emails from reporters today saying everyone knows who the corrupt ones are, but none of us is prepared to follow it through. He says he's even told the editors themselves, and nothing was done."
There was a hushed silence, and many dropped heads.
"This is worse than we thought," the chairman eventually said. "This is heresy. We cannot have other people trying to get involved in the media debate in this country. It is our profession, our debate, our future.
"Now he's gone and spoilt it. He's exposed us. He has broken the omertà.
There was a pause, and then: "I think we need to break for a drink."
There was silence as they shuffled out, broken only by the sound of the volunteer editor ticking away in the corner.
"There's a huge responsibility on you, my son," the chairman said as he moved over, embracing the volunteer editor.
"This is do or die. You have to defend the realm. Make it as cutting, as personal, as nasty as possible. Yes, there may be some negative feedback. But we are bigger than him. It has to be done. And remember: we have the little people on our side. They're on OUR side." DM