Opinionista Helen Zille 2 March 2014

If you can’t take the heat…

I love Twitter for the same reason that many journalists don’t: it destroys their special status in society and liberates the rest of us.

Social media – Twitter in particular – robbed journalists of their power to interpret the world for the rest of humanity. People who want to remain informed know that if anything news-worthy happens anywhere, Twitter is likely to break it first. And as a major story unfolds, you can choose to follow the timeline that offers the most informative account. Sometimes that may be a good journalist’s. Often it isn’t. And if you follow the hashtag, you can read whatever anyone says about the subject. Twitter turns everyone into a reporter; the only difference is that journalists get paid.

Analysis and opinion have also been liberated from the self-appointed, self-referential journalistic elite, called “political commentators”. There are certainly some outstanding analysts who are worthy of this title. But most speak primarily to, and seek approval from, each other, with a loyalty code as binding as the Cosa Nostra’s. And there are never any consequences for being wrong. Some of them are still stuck in the anti-DA rhetoric of the late 1990s. Tackle one of them, and the hack pack will hunt you down.

But it doesn’t matter anymore. Everyone is empowered to present a different version of reality, and to fight back. And some journalists seem surprised to learn that media freedom is not a right exclusively reserved for them.

That is why I was bemused by the question John Robbie posed to me on his 702 morning show about whether I was not worried about challenging a “senior journalist” just before an election. That would have been a valid question ten years ago. But today I can reach, in a single tweet, more than double the weekly circulation of her newspaper.

This levels the playing field. Now we can raise the cost of dishonest, prejudiced, and tendentious journalism. We can expose double standards and hypocrisy. And of course some journalists squeal, just like the schoolyard bully when, at last, someone turns around and hits him back.

If a journalist criticises you, the unwritten code is that you should grovel and apologise, however misinformed their analysis. Any other response is deeply offensive to them. Well, in a democracy, no one has the right NOT to be offended. If we all went around saying sweet nothings to each other, there would be no point in entrenching free speech as a right.

And, while most journalists are notoriously thin-skinned, they believe everyone else (especially politicians) must just swallow everything that is shoved down their throats.

Take @dayjoyskillz, whose twitter bio describes him as a journalist, or, more pretentiously, a “Creative Partner @E-touch News”.

He wrote the following at the time of the DA’s Cosatu House march: “I wish that token @LindiMazibuko got hit with brick on her pig face… Beat them Cosatu beat them… Bloody Agent !!!”

After which one @Zwelo wrote: “It’s not enough, I want to see white blood.”

This is an example of hundreds of similar messages that DA leaders receive every month, and there is clearly no bar on black people using words like “Kaffir” or “Nigga”.

Then there is the ubiquitous “F” word. “Zile (sic) fuck you” is one of the milder tweets I received on this subject. I was tempted to reply “Not until you learn how to spell my name” — but I resisted.

Then there was this little gem from @rasebitse. “@helenzille I won’t mind to rape you Zille and make South Africa proud. I wish you can be shot to death by Malema.” This kind of threat would cause an outcry if it was directed at almost any other South African (especially a journalist). I retweeted it, to expose the double standard.

And what was the response? A few journalists criticised me for retweeting it! I rest my case.

So what does this all mean? I think it is a symptom of the rage and fear that some journalists feel at losing their special status in society. While newspapers will take a long time to die, their readership will continue to dwindle as people become more tech-savvy, and learn how to filter the dross, while selectively following writers who offer reliable, information and informed analysis, without self-indulgence, and because they are fun to read. There is no writing that surpasses good journalism. And for this reason there will always be a demand for skilled journalists.

But given the scarcity of supply, newspapers increasingly have to tap another vein to maintain circulation: Outrage. To be sure, there is plenty of stuff to be legitimately outraged about in South Africa. But when newspapers want to “balance” the outrage scales between the ANC and the DA, they usually have to manufacture some and heap it on the DA’s side.

The Urban Dictionary defines “manufactured outrage” as “a falsified righteous outrage at things that are basically unimportant and meaningless.”

Events of the past week have given me occasion to think of past occasions where manufactured outrage caused a collective media meltdown that lasted, in some cases, for months.

Does anyone still remember the Erasmus Commission? It was an ANC political hit squad, disguised as a judicial commission of enquiry, and chaired by a judge to give it a semblance of objectivity. Asked for comment, I said: “Unfortunately some judges allow themselves to be used, and Nathan Erasmus is one of them.” Predictably, the sky fell in. I had, apparently, disgraced the DA by “disrespecting the Judiciary”. There were loud calls for my resignation. Members of my own party implored me to apologise and withdraw. I refused to do so (and not only for reasons of stubbornness!)

I argued that respect for judges is confined to their legitimate role in the criminal justice system, as well as constitutionally compliant commissions. The ANC’s kangaroo court did not pass that test, and the Judge had forfeited his right to respect by agreeing to chair it (in the same way as drunk judges do when they drive into walls). I challenged the constitutionality of the Erasmus Commission in court and won. Of course none of the commentators who had vilified me for months ever withdrew their comments or apologised.

Then there was the occasion when, battered by ANC and media criticism for being “sexist” because I had only appointed men to my cabinet, I responded as follows: “That is rich coming from a party that has never had a woman leader in its 100-year history and is led by a self-confessed womaniser who put all his wives at risk by having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman.”

I should have added something about having sex with his friends’ daughters, but I forgot.

Anyway, what I did say (as factual as it was) sent the media’s outrage-manufacturing machine into overdrive. For months!

Less than a year later, the president was at it again, this time having impregnated the daughter of another friend. Some of the stuff journalists then said about him made my comments look like compliments. I doubt whether any of them spotted the contradiction.

There are many other examples. When I described Eastern Cape children streaming into Western Cape schools to escape the educational meltdown in their own province as “educational refugees”, the ANC and the media went into paroxysms of outrage. But a while later, when Nathi Mthethwa ascribed the increasing rate of attempted murder in Cape Town to the growing number of “foreign and economic refugees” (clearly separating the two categories), no-one said a word.

Any objective person would have seen that my reference reflected empathy for the plight of the children, while Mthethwa’s reflected total disdain. Yet his remarks were ignored, while mine sparked (yet again) calls for my resignation, and analysts sagely concluding that I had become a liability to the DA.

Of course, both politicians and journalists manufacture outrage. It is usually part of a symbiotic relationship between the two, where it is often difficult to distinguish the parasite from the host. The DA, like all political parties, has its “dial-a-quote” brigade who love seeing their “anonymous” spin described as information emanating from “senior insiders”. Everyone else in the party knows that they feel aggrieved at not being senior enough, having been overtaken up the greasy pole by talented newcomers. That is their agenda and they are, in turn, happy to feed the agenda of the self-selected “commentariat”.

I have always agreed with the well-worn observation that politics is not for sissies. But nor is journalism. And as my mentor and editor, Allister Sparks, once told me – in a lesson that has remained with me to this day – “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” DM

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