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From DA spin-doctor to journalist: An open letter to Gareth van Onselen


Moloto Mothapo is senior manager for media and communication at the ANC parliamentary caucus. Previously he worked as information officer, and also acted as spokesperson, for the Congress of SA Trade Unions. He holds a degree in journalism. This letter contains strictly his personal views.

Long time no see, Sir. It has been a while since we engaged. How is your new life now as a 'political journalist', Sir? What a flattering title for a former party spin-doctor. Your overnight conversion from a loyal party propagandist into a 'political writer' is indeed a remarkable feat.

Not many people can boast of such an achievement. Can you imagine Jackson Mthembu or Keith Khoza becoming ‘senior political journalists’ at SABC or Sowetan? I shudder to imagine the media brouhaha that would ensue. The likes of the South African Editors Forum and Freedom of Expression will once again provide free public lectures on press freedom and threat to media independence. Those media institutions would be discredited and heads at the managerial level would roll. You should remember how many times independent and qualified professionals get demonised in the media whenever they take up new positions, merely because they were once seen publicly in the company of certain ANC comrades.

So, congratulations for such a remarkable controversy-free crossover from the blue party, Sir. I’m certain you’re still pinching yourself with glee even today.

You must be surprised as to why I am writing this letter to you out of the blue (excuse the pun!). Well, I would like to say I’m writing to say hi, but I guess I would be lying. After all, you and I have never been ones for exchanging pleasantries. So, let me go straight to the point.

I note that since you left the Democratic Alliance last year after loyally serving the party for 12 years in various capacities, including as propagandist, we have not battled it out publicly. I must say I liked you better when your blue colours were nailed to the mast. You were a better political opponent then; you didn’t really have to pretend to be something you were not. You were that ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ kind of guy, no confusion. It must therefore be difficult these days waking up every day to go to the newsroom, pretending to be something you are not – a journalist. I bet you wake up every morning, stand in front of the mirror and repeatedly recite assuredly to yourself: I am a journalist, yes I am; I am a journalist…!

How has that worked out for you; have you accepted yourself as a journalist? Have those guys in the newsroom in Rosebank, the real scribes, accepted you as their colleague, a bona fide member of their journalism clan? Please excuse my persistent curiosity, Sir, but just yesterday you were dishing out DA propaganda to them – and were even at loggerheads with them. Today you are sitting on the same editorial table with them, discussing which political stories to cover. Such an imposition unto them, by the powers that be, must be awkward for the poor scribes. Do you know how embarrassed some of them are to be associated with you or even to refer you as a ‘colleague’? Believe me, I know; I’ve chatted to some of them.

I cannot help but wonder how you are coping with the rapid transition from a party hack to an ‘independent journalist’, but I sympathise. I say so because some of us who crossed political swords with you in the course of your 12-year reign at the DA, know your blue colours run deeper than the bone marrow.

I understand that your arrival from the DA to the newsrooms of the Sunday Times and Business Day, where you are respectfully called “senior reporter” and “columnist”, sparked intense murmurs amongst the scribes. Mutterings ensued in the corridors at Rosebank regarding whether a proud liberal, a party propagandist and hack like yourself, can change his blue spots and immerse into the world of real and credible journalism. Some of us were never so hopeful as to contemplate such a question in the first place, and as your tenure at both newspapers today attests, we were right.

I must digress and state that, with the exception of a few eyebrows being raised, I bet you, Sir, of all people, should be surprised that your transition has been without public controversy. I am saying this because, as a DA spin-doctor, you issued several media releases and commentaries arguing that objective journalism was impossible if one has previously worked in an environment in which one advanced a certain ideological course. Remember the ruthless series of media statements, op-eds and cutting sound bites you dispensed in condemnation of former Sowetan journalist Anna Majavu for her perceived journalistic bias against the DA? This was merely because she previously worked for the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU). This was after you, Sir, as the DA’s director of communications (or was it special operations?), spearheaded her blacklisting so that she was barred from receiving any information from the DA or enjoy any journalistic dealings with the party for allegedly harbouring “malicious agenda against the party”. Your DA colleague, Ross van Linde, was more blunt – saying Majavu was not a journalist: “(She) is a former South African Municipal Workers Union spin doctor, who has a particular political agenda.” Majavu’s crime was just writing a few unflattering but factually-backed stories on the DA. Ouch, that was harsh, Sir!

The argument you advanced was that as an ex-employee of a trade union, which happened to be affiliated to COSATU, which is in alliance with the ANC, Majavu could never be objective as a journalist. Your controversial blacklisting of Majavu was met with derision from the advocates of press freedom such as Sanef and the parliamentary press gallery association (PGA). Sanef said it was “deeply perturbed” and found the decision to blacklist a journalist “preposterous”. Thabo Leshilo, the acting editor of Sowetan at the time, called your decision unfortunate and tantamount to censorship: “History shows that the exclusion of journalists is used as a form of censorship against those who do not mollycoddle their subjects. It is no different from Julius Malema kicking out a journalist from a press conference”.

In his response to your long piece, in which you defended the decision to blacklist and attacked those who expressed outrage at the decision, constitutional expert Pierre de Vos had this to say:

“In my view, when political parties refuse to engage with journalists whom they do not like, they are acting in a way that threatens press freedom. No journalist wants to be cut out of the loop. If a party uses its considerable power over the media (as journalists depend on political parties for information and comment) to cut pesky journalists out of the loop, chances are that other journalists will self-censor so that they will remain in the good books of the party. The casualty of all of this is, of course, freedom of expression – the very freedom of expression that the DA claims to revere.”

Caiphus Kgosana, chairman of the PGA at the time and now your colleague at the Sunday Times, was scathing in his criticism of your decision to blacklist Majavu, calling it “ill-conceived and ill-advised and (setting) a very dangerous precedent, especially in the light of events that are deemed to threaten media freedom”. The blacklisting, he said, smacked of “unacceptable double standards”. I wonder how you look at each other now across those newsroom desks in Rosebank. This should be that kind of situation they call #ThatAwkwardMoment on Twitter.

For somebody who, as a party propagandist courted such controversy, whose actions were regarded by the media fraternity and constitutional experts as tantamount to press censorship and a threat to press freedom, you should be pleasantly astonished that your floor-crossing was controversy-free. I bet you’re still punching the air even now, aren’t you?

So, Mr Van Onselen, do you still believe an ex-employee of a union (or in your case, an ex political party hack and propagandist) inherently harbours a political agenda and thus should never be trusted to report news fairly and objectively? Perhaps more directly, should we trust you to be objective Sir? Should we regard you as a real journalist?

The argument you furiously pursued alongside your DA colleagues in justification of Majavu’s blacklisting was that “Anna Majavu is not a journalist…(she) is a former South African Municipal Workers Union spin doctor, who has a particular political agenda.” If we were to apply the same principle, must we conclude that you are not really a journalist, but a mere DA apparatchik deployed at Rosebank to advance “a particular political agenda”?

In her defence of Majavu and the constitutional principle of press freedom against you and your party, Jane Duncan, professor and chairwoman of the Media & Information Society at Rhodes University, pointed out this fact: “Majavu’s previous work is irrelevant. Many journalists have been involved in other professions in their working lives. This does not make them lesser journalists, otherwise one would need to be a journalist from the cradle to the grave to qualify in the DA’s eyes, which is unrealistic”. It is now a matter of historical records that you were strongly opposed to this view. ‘Once a party hack always a party hack, right? Let’s crucify her’!

The mistake that you (and your party cohorts) committed regarding Majavu, the consequence of which was her blacklisting and public bashing, is that you measured her according to your low standards. In judging her you applied a measuring tool called: what would Gareth do in such a situation? And indeed, as your own record at both the Sunday Times and Business Day shows, given such an opportunity, Gareth would use it to pursue “a particular political agenda”.

Yes, in van Onselen’s book, the transition from party politics to objective journalism is impossible. In terms of your own low standards, with which Majavu’s professional integrity was judged, is that it is inevitable that anyone who has worked for a party or union would abuse journalism to advance some nefarious political agenda. Such is your style, Sir, which you mistakenly thought Majavu was susceptible to and capable of.

You see, Sir, I have all the reason to believe that the same low personal standards you used to measure Majavu’s professionalism are the very standards you are applying now in your new life as a ‘journalist’. Your tenure at both the Sunday Times and Business Day thus far is telling.

Did you know that the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of the press is a critical attribute of our strong and lively constitutional democracy? Essentially, it guarantees an independent and fearless media, free dissemination of news, diversity of views and access to information. For their part, genuine journalists, who enjoy these rights under our constitution, commit to upholding the highest standards of journalism, which include objectivity, balance, truth, accuracy and fairness. The South African Press Code indeed enjoins real journalists to maintain the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the readers.

Hey, Gareth, would you say – with a straight face – that you have upheld these basic journalistic principles since becoming a ‘journalist’? As DA’s chief propagandist, you penned many political articles, media statements and ‘research’ reports attacking the ANC, the government and its leaders. Nothing has changed, has it? You have continued to make your party proud in your new role. Your insatiable anti-ANC obsession seems to be ingrained in your system, is it not? Now I understand what you exactly meant during your Majavu persecution when you implied ‘once a party hack, always a party hack’.

Is it not interesting that in the seven months that you have been with the Business Day, you have already devoted a whopping 78 articles out of over 130 published articles attacking the ANC, its leaders and government? This is an average of about two articles per week. This is in comparison to the 13 articles you have written during this period on the DA, which were mostly flattering (such as singing the praises of DA MP David Maynier’s role in Parliament and prediction on DA’s electoral chances in 2014). Helen Zille would be pleased with herself if she could match the same number of anti-ANC media statements in a year. She would also agree with me that you are doing a much better job at serving the DA in Rosebank than you could ever have done in Cape Town.

A look at your Business Day column trend since your engagement in June last year indeed unmasks any pretence of neutrality you may have attempted. It is telling of that phony scribe you waxed lyrical about, the journalist who is in it to advance “a particular political agenda”.

The article you published upon your arrival at Sunday Times last year, in which you, in a supremacist and condescending fashion, mocked President Zuma’s cultural practices, sent a clear message to even those optimistic enough to give you the benefit of the doubt regarding any potential conversion to real journalism.

It is these type of articles which prompted Phillip Dexter to remark in his Business Day letter: “…quite why Business Day allows Mr van Onselen to publish DA propaganda as a so-called columnist, is something the editor should explain to readers. Business Day affords the ANC no such generosity.” I agree with Dexter’s sentiments here, but he might not be entirely correct because Business Day does publish ANC veteran Dr Pallo Jordan’s weekly column. However, the paper does state the fact that he is a member of the ANC’s national executive committee to dispel any expectation from readers that he would be impartial. Methinks in the interest of fairness all your articles should state this simple fact: ex Democratic Alliance spin-doctor.

As I said, I took you a bit seriously when you didn’t pretend to be something else; you were a better political opponent then. For this reason, I had not bothered responding to any of your anti-ANC propaganda since you joined the media. I also chose to ignore you recently when you waged an angry and emotional tirade against the ANC caucus’ 2013 end of the year statement, in which you referred to our analysis of our performance as “bullshit”. I thought to myself: this should be the kind of stuff schizophrenic journalism is made of! One could safely say that the DA’s own political reaction to our statement, juxtaposed with the emotional insults you employed in your attack, sounded quite flattering in comparison.

I am certain you would dismiss the genuine concerns I raise in this letter simply as an ad hominem attack or, in typical Van Onselen speak, “bullshit”. But then, I get reminded you once argued in one of your columns that it would tantamount to “anti-intellectual behaviour of the highest order” to simply dismiss the views expressed merely on suspicion that they constituted an ad hominem attack. The funny thing about any ad hominem attack, you stated, is that there might well be some truth to it. Well said, Sir.

The view that you and your DA colleagues advanced in justifying the blacklisting and public persecution of Majavu was that, contrary to the sentiments held by Duncan and other press advocates, she (Majavu) could never be regarded as a genuine journalist given her background in the labour movement. Shouldn’t we also, to paraphrase your colleague van Linde, state: ‘But Gareth van Onselen is not a journalist, he is a former Democratic Alliance propagandist’? For somebody who has championed the Goebbels-style blacklisting and banishing of a journalist, which was condemned by media activists as “preposterous”, “censorship” and threat to freedom of expression; I believe such characterisation would be more fitting to you than it could have ever been to Majavu.

With such a controversial background, you must be surprised your entry to the world of journalism had not stirred up much controversy. Most noteworthy, as Majavu’s chief persecutor, you should be pleased that YOU have neither been blacklisted nor persecuted by the ANC or government despite your consistent anti-ANC propaganda exhibited almost daily in your op-eds.

Let me conclude this letter by asking once again, how has life been in your pretentious world of journalism, Sir? Have you accepted yourself as a real journalist, or as nothing but a genetically modified journalist engineered in the blue laboratory somewhere by the Coast in order to further that party’s political fortunes and further its obsessive and ad-nauseam anti ANC propaganda?

Long time no see, Sir!

Kind regards,

Moloto Mothapo. DM


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