Opinionista Ivo Vegter 30 August 2013

Pants on fire, but they’re not mine

This week I was publicly accused of lying by Jonathan Deal, the CEO of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, the main lobby group protesting against shale gas development in South Africa. In investigating the supposed error, I found a rather more disturbing truth.

When Jonathan Deal, CEO of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, accused me publicly of lying in writing about shale gas in my column of 27 August 2013, I was naturally concerned. I set out to investigate, to double-check the facts. What I found has convinced me that the dishonest party in this affair was more likely Mr Deal, with the connivance of at least one other individual, namely Michael Raimondo of the Green Renaissance film production agency.

Here’s what happened. I wrote a column, published on Monday 26 August at 11:37pm, entitled “The obstructionism of shale gas activists”. In the comments, and on his own blog, Deal penned a retort entitled “Will Ivo Vegter fall on his own sword?”. Among the emotive appeals and unsupported allegations of “personal attacks”, Deal concedes that the case against shale gas drilling has failed, but he wants to get one last jab in to undermine my credibility, because I am in favour of it. Cornered animals can be vicious.

My initial response can be read here. Although Deal says he expects no apology or retraction over “some inaccuracies in connection with TKAG”; it is a journalist’s duty to correct the record if, indeed, mistakes were made. The points that required a response from me are:

“The video montage to which Mr Vegter refers was produced by Michael Raimondo of Green Renaissance without reference to TKAG. This is not the first time, by a long shot that Mr Vegter has made incorrect statements about me and TKAG, but I do not intend to revisit those here.

“Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor is not a committee member of TKAG and TKAG has no input into the website of his company.

“Mr Vegter’s assertions of ‘flat-out lies’ and unproven claims appear to refer to the video which he has mistakenly ascribed to TKAG. We reject those assertions within that context.”

I contacted Mr Westgarth-Taylor, who told me even he does not know whether he is a committee member of the TKAG. I asked Branko Brkic, editor of Daily Maverick, to append a formal clarification to my column, noting that though he had been so employed at the time in question, he has since “asked for time off” and therefore my use of the present tense in his designation may have been in error.

I also contacted Michael Raimondo of Green Renaissance who confirmed that the TKAG had nothing to do with the video in question, and that its misleading description was an error on the part of a Rhodes intern. Raimondo claims to have been away when the video was posted and he offered to remove the video from the Internet. Since he has done so, I have posted a screenshot of the description, which clearly implies active involvement of the TKAG, on my own website.

Note the fundraising appeal, the website link and the sentence: “On 22 June 2011, representatives from Green Renaissance and the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) went to find out what people thought about hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ in the Karoo.”

Note also that Green Renaissance has made other films about shale gas drilling, which feature members of the TKAG and include fundraising appeals, as well as Jonathan Deal’s own contact details. Suspecting TKAG involvement with and endorsement of such films seemed an innocent mistake to make. But, as Deal himself wrote in the comments: “Michael Raimondo made the video WITHOUT REFERENCE to TKAG (read please: WE WERE NOT INVOLVED IN THE INTERVIEWS OR IN ANY PART OF THE PLANNING OR PRODUCTION OF THE VIDEO).” (His capitals.)

I accepted the claims Deal and Raimondo made to me in good faith. In the clarification to my column I wrote that an unnamed intern erroneously claimed TKAG collaboration with the Green Renaissance film. I had taken the description that persisted intact online for over two years at face value, and apologised for the error. This was not good enough for Deal, however. He again took to his personal blog with an even bolder claim: Pants on fire?

In it, he calls me “devious”, and adds: “I am telling you that in my opinion, you are a liar Ivo Vegter.” (He also denies that there was any discussion between Raimondo and himself, in the very same blog post in which he quotes a private email I sent to Raimondo.)

This is not the first time that Deal has picked on an isolated error of fact, promptly corrected with full apology when it was pointed out, as a deliberate lie. He has even picked on a translation error, which I failed to spot before it went to print, as evidence of my mendacity. It does not serve his rhetorical purpose to distinguish between unintentional mistakes and deliberate lies. For the record, he claims I hold environmentalists to the same standards, which is not true. I have never called anyone a liar over an unintentional error promptly corrected.

I was getting used to his nitpicking strategy, and it certainly keeps me on my toes. However, I did not expect to discover what appears to be a deliberate and untruthful campaign to impugn my integrity as a journalist.

You see, the story doesn’t end with the clarification. A regular reader, Kriek Jooste, discovered the online portfolio of the intern who made the Green Renaissance video in question. His name is Rogan Kerr. It claims: “Phillipa Elrich [sic] of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG) interviewed the citizens on the street…”

His LinkedIn profile listed this experience: “While interning at Green Renaissance my time was split into two parts: the first where I shot vox-pops concerning the anti-fracking movement and the second where I edited this into a piece for the Treasure the Karoo Action Group.” (My emphasis.)

I added a postscript to my clarification with a link to Rogan Kerr’s site, and promptly emailed him, Deal and Raimondo to ask the meaning of this.

Deal and Raimondo both stood their ground. Raimondo said that Deal was not personally involved, the video was neither funded nor commissioned by the TKAG and it was not made as a fund-raising tool for the TKAG.

That is not exactly the same as saying the TKAG as an organisation was not involved, and the very prominent donation appeal undermines the latter claim.

I also tried to trace Phillipa Ehrlich (the correct spelling of her name), but have to date been unable to contact her. Her former employer said she had been away travelling, and provided a cell phone number, but it was no longer in service.

To my considerable surprise, Kerr’s website had disappeared by Thursday 29 August 2013. So had his Twitter account, which twittercounter.com proves was active until at least the same date. And so had the Green Renaissance entry in his online résumé. Again, screenshots of his portfolio and LinkedIn page can be found here, with the relevant lines highlighted.

It remains to discover who Phillipa (or “Pippa”) Ehrlich is, and whether she represented the TKAG. She certainly claimed publicly that she did. Witness her claim to be a member of TKAG in this article, published on the Media24 website Channel24, about a music video in which Ehrlich is credited as the producer/director, and the TKAG is credited as executive producer. I archived another screenshot on my website, lest this evidence of collaboration also vanishes without a trace.

Today, Rogan Kerr got back to me. This is what he said, when asked whether the TKAG was involved in making that video, or whether he erroneously credited them with collaborating on it:

“That entirely depends on whether or not Phillipa Ehrlich (whom I was paired with to work on the video) was, in fact, associated with the TKAG – as she claimed to be. I suggest you try and contact her.

“My job on this video was purely technical (operating camera and compiling in edit). Links to the information included in the video were supplied by Ms Ehrlich, who as you guessed, also conducted the interviews. The info in the description was partly supplied by her, and partly written by both of us.

“All that being said, I did not communicate with Jonathan Deal personally and I was NOT asked by him, or Mr Raimondo of Green Renaissance to credit TKAG, but was encouraged to do so by Ms Ehrlich.”

So, here’s the status. At first it seemed that Jonathan Deal used my failure to fact-check the Green Renaissance video’s online description to portray me as a mendacious liar when I refer to the TKAG in my columns. I conceded the error in good faith, in the belief that most viewers would likewise have been under the impression that the video was a collaboration with the TKAG.

But more and more, it started looking like I had been deliberately misled into believing that the TKAG attribution was an error at all.

This leaves us with two options. Either the TKAG had a fraudulent impostor on its hands two years ago, who made several public statements and films representing the TKAG and nobody bothered to take any action until now. Or Jonathan Deal and Michael Raimondo, thinking they could pin a falsehood on me and make it appear deliberate by actively destroying the evidence, conspired in a deceitful smear campaign to try to discredit me.

Until Ms Ehrlich is found, to give her side of the story, we cannot establish whether her claim to represent the TKAG, and conduct the interviews in that video on behalf of the TKAG, based on information obtained from the TKAG, is false. Occam’s Razor suggests that she was a member, and did act on behalf of the TKAG, which makes it perfectly legitimate for me to hold her video up as the work of the TKAG.

Who is lying now, Mr Deal? You are the CEO of the TKAG. As you have yourself admitted, it now seems certain that the TKAG has failed in its efforts to prevent shale gas drilling. Are you now stooping to a vicious smear campaign to discredit the journalist who did more than any other to investigate whether your public policy advocacy held up under scrutiny? I have always taken responsibility for my errors. I have always been prepared to debate those who disagree with the views I express in my columns and I devote a great deal of unpaid time to exactly that. But I refuse to subject myself to vindictive defamation. I will not stand meekly by while environmental activists, perhaps embittered by their campaign’s failure or by how I portray them in my book, conspire to undermine my professional integrity as an independent journalist and opinion writer.

One wonders if smear campaigns are what the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize was intended for, or how defamation helps South Africa’s environment, or its poor and unemployed. DM


This story is becoming more absurd by the hour. A Twitter user named @RustingBucket seems to fit Rogan Kerr’s description. It seems Rogan Kerr did not delete his Twitter account, but changed his handle from @RoganKerr to @RustingBucket. He declined to answer when and why he had changed his handle. I posted screenshots on my own website (http://ivo.co.za/2013/08/29/pants-on-fire-but-theyre-not-mine/) with evidence that @RoganKerr used to exist, was active until 29 August 2013, and no longer exists now. Also, proving that Google search thinks his handle is still @RoganKerr, and has never heard of @RustingBucket.

Now, is this another attempt to deceive, or did Rogan Kerr just happen to delete his portfolio, amend his CV, and change his Twitter handle, all in the same week that he gets embroiled in a controversy over whether or not the TKAG was involved in a film he made? Unfortunately, since he declared himself unwilling to answer the questions put to him, I can only speculate.


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