Writing truth to (all forms of) power
- Vukani Mde
- 15 Jan 2015 10:08 (South Africa)
As you may know by now, I spent my last weekend in Cape Town. It was lovely, and no I didn’t experience any racism. If someone did try a racist move on me I missed it. I can, on occasion, be totally oblivious to bullshit, a point I will have to return to just now.
I managed to attend the ANC’s gala dinner on Friday night and their rally at the magnificent Cape Town stadium on Saturday. The rally, as rallies tend to be, was lively and made for a great afternoon. The gala dinner was a damp squib. Guests were ‘entertained’ by a flat stand up comic and for the main course were ‘treated’ to a rather dry chicken breast. Someone even denied my request for orange juice. I can’t speak to the quality of dessert, as I left immediately after the chicken, which must have been served at 11pm.
But the stadium experience was much better. It was my first time in the stadium and really, what a wonderful piece of art and engineering it is. Not a bad seat in the entire house. I must watch a football game there some time. Naturally, the ANC didn’t cater for the 70,000 crowd it says came to celebrate its 103rd birthday, but this was just as well, given the previous night’s dinner. Instead, we (my wife Nosipho, colleague Karima Brown, and I) ended up at Mama Tembo’s Cafe in Sea Point after the rally, for drinks and tapas. It was perfect. We had to work on the Sunday, and in my experience the ANC is not a pleasant drunk, so we skipped the various after-parties around the city and went to sleep early.
There was also a lot of work to be done, and I was exhausted on returning to Johannesburg on Monday evening, so I collapsed on my bed and woke up the next morning. What I woke up to was something that made me think I had unknowingly slipped through a wormhole and emerged in a strange new galaxy; no, a whole other moral universe in which the personal preferences of complete strangers were deemed to have some kind of ethical hold on me. I woke up to a veritable storm in an online teacup.
You see on Saturday, while joining the ANC in its celebration of its 103rd birthday, we’d taken selfies (or ‘groupies’, what does one call a selfie with more than one ‘self’ in it?) as one absolutely has to these days. In them, I am decked in out in Nosipho’s rather tight-fitting black ANC tee, and Karima has on a white straw hat with the party’s badge on the front. In case you don’t know (where have you been?) Karima is Group Executive Editor at Independent Media, a position that gives her ultimate responsibility for group editorial content across all titles and platforms. I am Independent’s group head for op-ed and analysis, giving me responsibility for content in that area. That is Independent Media, owned since 2013 by Dr Iqbal Surve, who is (again, how do you not know this?) a well known hater of Editorial Independence and basically just..., well, Evil Incarnate.
The image so outraged Marianne Thamm of the Daily Maverick that she immediately sat down to write over 1400 words of indignant condemnation. It appeared with the title True Colours Shining Through: Should journalists be draping themselves in party political colours?
In it, Thamm first rattles off a laundry list of the ANC’s failures, both recent and historic. The point of this list, insofar as I could make out, was that.... well to be perfectly honest I don’t have the first clue what her point was. But here it is:
“We have a president who, since taking office in 2009, has been dogged by scandal and allegations of impropriety and corruption and a government increasingly concerned with establishing a specific “good news” narrative in the media in the face of visible failure in many areas. The Marikana massacre, a bloated and often incompetent civil service, the education and energy crisis, e-tolls, ailing parastatals, crime, corruption and an attempt by factions in the ruling party to capture the intelligence services as well as influence the judiciary. These are all sins of incumbency and a vibrant and independent media is vital in holding government and power to account.”
None of that, as a critique of the ANC or the state, is particularly new or original. In fact one wouldn’t need to look very hard to find the same things written in the platforms of the Iqbal Surve-owned Independent Media, and probably a lot of it by myself or Karima Brown. Just by way of example, here’s a snippet of The Cape Time’s editorial of January 8, the day on which the ANC celebrates its birthday:
“Today, in office for twenty years, the party is beset by all the challenges and weaknesses one expects of a party in power for too long, and some that one does not. The ANC wallows in the muck of what the party itself calls ‘the sins of incumbency’. Patronage, corruption, and aversion to accountability are rife. The courage, discipline and visionary outlook of former years is in short supply. The party is big and messy and unwieldy, mired in multiple factional battles driven almost entirely by financial and power interests, rather than ideology and principle. It often finds itself at odds with the manifest interests of the very people it seeks to lead. It is on the back foot in the public discourse, because despite its immense social and political power, it is unsure of itself and lacks confidence. Too often it deploys brute force when soft power will do, the ultimate sign of the insecure impostor.
The city and province where the ANC has chosen to take its annual celebration this year are an apt illustration of its challenges. The party hasn’t governed the Western Cape since 2009, and the City of Cape Town since 2006. It is unlikely to recover its ground here anytime soon. The reasons for its loss of power (not to mention legitimacy) are complex and multi layered, but you wouldn’t know it listening to the ANC’s own explanations. Those are riddled with self-pity and blame shifting, coming dangerously close to denigrating the province’s electorate; as if it is the people who need to prove their credentials to the ANC, not the other way round.”
That’s probably more devastating and eloquent an articulation of the ANC’s parlous state than Thamm, even in the throes of her faux moral outrage, would ever be able to muster.
But, according to her, the Independent group is part of a cohort of media outlets that are working hand in glove with the ANC to close down the space for a “free press”. Apparently, there’s also been a “diversion of government advertising to publications and media outlets perceived to be sympathetic to the ruling party”.
It would be a monumental waste of my time to even ask her for any substantiation of this last claim. She has no basis to even believe the government is planning to ‘shift’ advertising in any direction, other than a hysterical but evidence-thin story carried in the Mail & Guardian, which have since been repeated uncritically in other media.
In the addled imaginations of our detractors and competitors (pretty much the same crowd), Independent has won far more “government advertising” than it has in the real world in which you and I live. It’s a part of the competitor narrative of Independent that has been greedily seized upon by the white liberal intelligentsia because it is a useful lie with which to discredit black and/or progressive media outlets interested in telling a counter-hegemonic story to that imposed on the country by them. I would stake my life on the fact that Independent lags both of its major competitor groups, Times Media and Media 24, on government and state advertising, and this is likely to be the case for a few years still. Not that we are not working hard to change the picture regarding government (and private) advertising. What strategies we will use to do this, we are neither willing to share in public nor be apologetic about.
How about this little gem: “The Independent Newspaper Group, under its new owners with the controlling shareholding held by Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Consortium, has been particularly vocal in its support for the ruling party.”
Um, where exactly? Since we’ve been nothing less than “vocal” in our support, surely it wouldn’t be hard to cite one or two examples of outright ANC support from our group. Any senior journalist who cares a fig for the importance of evidence-based writing would have cited at least one. Just one.
I will cite you one very interesting example, from the eve of last year’s general election; in other words the perfect moment for a “vocal” pro-ANC media group to nail its colours to the ANC mast. Lord knows it would have been a perfectly justifiable stance, since other papers didn’t hesitate to state their party political preferences. The M&G had no particular preference, as long as you didn’t vote ANC. They published an editorial calling on their readers to support anyone but. Given that, you would think that Iqbal Surve, then in control of Independent and apparently the single-handed destroyer of editorial integrity in our media, would take the opportunity presented by the M&G’s partisan stance to instruct all his editors to support the ruling party.
Yet, here is what a group editorial that appeared in all our papers said:
“As polling date draws closer, many newspapers have taken the step of coming out to endorse one political party or the other, urging their readers to vote as they advise. [This newspaper] is read by mature, independent adults. We therefore won’t presume to tell them how they should exercise their democratic right. South Africa is so diverse, and still so divided along racial, cultural, class and other fault lines that it is in any case impossible to propose a one size fits all solution to the conundrum of who you should support when your polling station opens tomorrow. Make your own determination based on your needs, aspirations, experiences, and no doubt, your identity.
But what we will implore you to do is to vote. Participate. Make a stand. Speak and be heard. It matters more than you know. Recently some ANC malcontents have led a spirited campaign to persuade you to spoil your vote as a way of registering your unhappiness with both the ruling party and its opposition. Spoiling your vote, and thus squandering your democratic birthright, is not a demonstration of voter power but a deliberate act of powerlessness. It is the surest way to give yourself no say in how – or by whom – you are governed. By all means let your choice be guided by your unhappiness (or contentment), but do make a choice.
Spoiling your ballot, or refusing to vote in the first place, is to silence yourself. In politics more than anywhere else, silence is interpreted as consent.”
Some “vocal support” that is.
Thamm’s piece continues along its sanctimonious and dishonest way until it reaches its moral crescendo, in which she condemns Karima Brown and I for our “unwavering political allegiance” to the ANC. The terms upon which she bases her indignation are interesting and reveal more about Thamm than they do about us, but I’ll return to this shortly. Let me tell you a little bit first about the online storm in a teacup, because it is interesting for its own reasons.
In the days since the article appeared, what I may best describe as the ‘white internet’ has gone into total overdrive. The piece has since been shared, tweeted and discussed ad nauseam. The comments sections were on fire, the anger and outrage visceral, the insults colourful. Adriaan Basson of Beeld was “disturbed” and his “journalist’s heart was sore”, the poor thing. Jill Moodie of Grubstreet was up in arms. Max du Preez wrote an urgent letter cancelling his column in the Cape Times, to avoid being ‘tainted’. There’s been a lot of mutual status sharing, ‘liking’, ‘hear hear’-style comments, and other examples of digital backslapping since. Like I said, I don’t think the white internet (or the white media establishment in its entirety) will ever forgive that picture, ever.
My initial response was mild amusement. Social commentator Eusebius Mckaiser, who has since written a thorough demolition of Thamm’s supposed ethical’ objections and the hypocrisy of her position, shared it on his Facebook wall and tried to cajole a response out of me. I said something along the lines of “I refuse to waste time on that long-winded, sanctimonious but ultimately pointless drivel”.
While my view of Thamm’s article haven’t changed (they’ve only been strengthened by her weak responses to the many counter-points put to her in the debate) I have since decided to write back to Thamm, her outraged cohorts, the Daily Maverick, and anyone else who would presume to tell me what I should think and feel (about the ANC or anything else) or how I should behave.
In my subsequent Facebook response to Thamm, I take her on over two key points, which I said and still believe are at the nub of her attack on us, though she doesn’t articulate it in the terms I employ below:
She suggests (but doesn’t say) that our stance on journalists supporting political parties or ideologies is inconsistent, even hypocritical. The example she cites is Independent’s firing last year of former Business Report senior writer Donwald Pressly. “In April last year Business Report journalist Donwald Pressly was fired for seeking political office with the Democratic Alliance, a move which new Group Executive Editor, Karima Brown, described as “a breach of Independent Newspapers' editorial code of conduct and code of ethics and a breach of the trust that those readers place in our titles and the writers who put them together”.
Ja well no fine.”
Now the Pressly example is a curious one. For one thing, it is completely disanalogous. Pressly lost his job not because he supported a particular political party, but simply because he took steps to seek elected office through that party AND failed to declare same to his editor and readers. At the time, his lawyer publicly tried, unsuccessfully, to frame the issue as his client being victimised for his political leanings. In her citing of the example, Thamm is subtly endorsing this little white lie. Pressly would have been free to take any number of selfies of himself in DA regalia if he wanted. Hell, he was even free to seek parliamentary office on a DA ticket. All that would have been required was full disclosure of the fact to his editor and the readers, and that would have been the end of it.
And why, you might ask, would it be more important for Pressly to declare his interest in public office than it is for me to declare that I went to an ANC birthday bash and put on a branded shirt? The answer to this brings me to the second reason why the Pressly example is so inappropriate:
At the time that Donwald Pressly sought to be admitted to the DA’s electoral list, that party was contesting an election based upon a manifesto of policy proposals, ranging from the economy to education, health and foreign affairs. As bureau chief for BR, Pressly had the job to assess, critique and report on this policy platform for his readers, both before the election and afterwards, when the DA would use their policy platform as the basis on which to engage the governing party. Seeking to be elected to parliament on that very same policy platform presents a clear conflict of interest. That is why there was an ethical duty to declare. It is an ethical duty that simply does not arise when you pitch up at a political party’s birthday bash, with no duty or intent to report on proceedings.
Anyone who seeks elected office with a political party is, by definition, endorsing the political and policy platform of that party in its entirety. This is not something you can do while claiming to write critically about that party and its platform every day. On the other hand, attending a party’s birthday bash, or even wearing its regalia, is in no way a wholesale approval of everything contained in its manifesto or policy documents. It is also not a surrender of one’s critical faculties in relation to said party. In the very same election in which Pressly sought to become a DA member of parliament, I refused to vote for the ANC precisely because I disagreed with key aspects of its (economic) policy.
Yet Thamm suggests that in future I should attach a disclaimer to anything I write, so that my readers will know what she claims is my “unwavering political allegiance” (unwavering allegiance to the ANC is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever been accused of in my career, but more on that shortly). Strangely, even though Thamm is obviously aware of the details behind the Pressly matter, I don’t recall her once making a similar disclosure call in relation to him or being so outraged at his behaviour. When I questioned her, in my Facebook response, about the inconsistency of her stance on the two issues, would you like to guess her response? It was something along the lines of ‘well I was busy at the time and didn’t get around to it’. Ja well no fine.
In another Facebook thread, when she was again questioned on her double standards, Thamm concedes that she had “always been uneasy” about Donwald Pressly’s heavy leaning towards the DA. This, of course, is bullshit. Personally I would hope that Pressly cares as much about what Marianne Thamm thinks of his political leanings as I do about her views about my own: not one bit.
The nexus issue isn’t Pressly’s political ‘leaning’, about which absolutely no one at Independent cares. It is rather dishonest and unethical conduct, something that she accuses Karima Brown and I of on the flimsiest excuse. One set of rules for some, another set for the rest.
Thamm’s second line of attack, adopted subsequently in other corners of the white internet, is best paraphrased as ‘well, at least think about the children’.
“Let’s frame it this way.
Would it be acceptable to Brown and Mde if a journalist in the Independent group, attending a DA federal congress or birthday party or an EFF event, posted photographs of themselves decked out in those party’s colours?”
It’s a fair enough question, and one to which a fair journalist would seek a real answer, since there’s clearly so much riding on it. Not Thamm though, she merely assumes the answer that works best for her argument: “If not, why is it okay for them to do so?”
Here is Adriaan Basson, on the same tip, as quoted on Grubstreet:
“if a reporter from your group saw you and Vukani at the rally, what would they think? And how would this influence them in future? Attending the rally is one thing. Wearing ANC colours is another. What are you “saying” by wearing ANC hats/shirts? That you support the party, even though you are not a card-carrying member? I would have been deeply uncomfortable seeing my seniors wearing political colours at a party rally.”
Not that it matters to the people who asked the questions, but here was my answer to the question whether I would have any problem with the political affiliations of Independent journalists: If any Independent journo of whatever level of seniority went to a DA/EFF/ANC event not to report on it but as a supporter of that party and posted pics of themselves, they would have NO problem with me or anyone in the group. Personally I don't want journalists who are "objective" automatons. And I have no problem with people who believe differently to me as long as they are capable of thinking through their own biases, as I myself strive to.
The answer opened up a new discussion about the desirability or otherwise of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’. In his eloquent rebuttal, Mckaiser frames the issue in a way I won’t even attempt to improve upon:
“....can we please cash out this idea of political neutrality and objectivity? Here, both sides are lazy very often. Those advocating ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ never say what they mean, let alone offer justification for why it is desirable to report ‘neutrally’ or ‘objectively’ as if they are citing a mathematical axiom. Similarly, many on my side of this debate have now resorted to simply asserting the slogan, ‘Objectivity is a myth’ without explaining themselves either. Let me stake a position here bluntly, and make the case. I consider objectivity and neutrality both NOT possible, and undesirable even if it was possible. The reason is simple. No writer, including reporters, can wholly divorce the facts of their life, their upbringing, their education, their travels, their mentors’ influences….their entire psychologies, in fact, from the reporting and writing choices they make, be these choices about what to write, or what to NOT write about; what tone and style to use, or not to use; what pictures to use to accompany a story, and which ones to leave out. This in turn means that if you look at 100 news reports a reporter has written or columns written by a columnist, you would be able to make reasonable inferences about their interests, their values, their biases, their convictions.”
Mckaiser also touches on the open and often stated biases of many columnists, writers, analysts and editors in the South African landscape, and wonders why this is viewed as less problematic than attending a party event dressed in that party’s colours. It’s a legitimate question, to which the self-appointed defenders of objectivity and balance have yet to offer up a convincing answer. This is particularly important given an argument that has been advanced along the lines that appearing in public in ANC regalia sends a subtle message to journalists who report to me that subservience to the ANC is what’s required of them.
“I think it very unwise for editors – and Brown and Mde are the most influential editorial staff members in the Indie group – to be seen at such an event in such a manner. A couple of friendly conversations with ANC bigwigs and it opens the door to expectation.
It also creates a climate of expectation for your staff members – and this, I am told, is how it works at the SABC. Human nature being what it is, a leader does not need to give a direct order to have something done. A leader also creates the environment – a culture, if you like – in which underlings read the signs that tell her which path leads to advancement and which doesn’t.”
Most unbelievable is the M&G’s deputy editor, who told SAFM radio that wearing an ANC shirt in public while off duty would send a “chilling message” and is meant to “bully” junior reporters who have a duty to cover the ANC for our stable. Think about that just for another second. Then consider that the M&G has a publicly stated editorial position against the ANC. Oddly, their position on the ANC apparently sends no chilling messages to their juniors, who will cover the 2016 municipal election knowing that the paper they work for has and possibly will again call on voters to abandon the ANC.
This has got me thinking: I’ve been a senior editor at Independent for a year now. If reporters in the group are trying to read the tea leaves, as it were, to work out “which path leads to advancement and which doesn’t”, there would actually be a lot of material to work with. But here’s the thing, most of it would not be giving them the signals that the white internet insists they should be getting.
Here are my thoughts on the ANC’s election victory last year, published in Independent’s Sunday publications and online, in an article titled ‘Winners and Losers of Election 2014’:
“But increasingly the ANC's impressive results are a chimera. Falling democratic participation levels mask the extent of the party's increasing legitimacy problem for now, but may pose insurmountable challenges in future: the 2014 voter turn-out was 73 percent, down from 77 percent five years ago. That's bad enough, but nowhere near the full story. There were over 25 million registered voters this year, and 18, 6 million came out to vote. In other words, nearly seven million didn't bother. Going further, the 25 million registered are only part of the voting age population of 35 million; another 10 million haven't even taken that initial step. 11, 4 million of 35 million potential voters isn't as impressive as '11,4m out of 18, 6m'. Only half of all people who qualify cast a vote on May 7, and the ANC has the active consent of only 33 percent of adult South Africans.
Don't get me wrong, ordinarily there's nothing wrong with that. Across the world, the governments of democratic nations are chosen by shockingly small percentages of the adult population. That reality, however, should provide no comfort at Luthuli House. Participation levels in South Africa are declining as a result of disillusionment with democracy, and those opting out are more likely to be potential ANC voters than anyone else.
In its moments of self-reflection after this election, the question the ANC should be asking itself is this: what happens when those who have given up on us and our promises, those who are shocked by our moral and ethical lapses, the poor who are angered by our coziness with money, and our cowardly subservience to destructive orthodoxies, when those alienated by our abandonment of the values-based leadership of Tambo and Mandela, disillusioned from the notion that we are capable of being for anything but ourselves; what happens when all these decide not to stay away, but turn up at the polls?”
In the same article I was unforgiving in my assessment of the shocking state of the ANC in the Nelson Mandela Metro, who featured as one of the ‘Losers’ of the 2014 election:
“ANC - 49, DA - 40. Too close. And if you live in this metro, not at all surprising. But before the DA gets too excited about Election 2016, let's recall that these numbers are similar to what we saw in 2009. Back then the DA wanked itself silly about the possibility of a Cope/DA coalition ousting the disastrous ANC. In 2011, the ruling party limped over the line, just. It really would be a shame if the same script played out again this time around.”
Now I’m sure I have on occasion written stuff that’s very complimentary or supportive of the ANC (when necessary and warranted) over my 12 years of writing on South African politics, though I struggle to find any that dates from my time at Independent. But looking at the above, how would any reporter in the group conclude that the best way to advance at Independent is to kowtow to the ruling party? How do you get that signal from an editor who has stated, in public and in writing, his desire to see the ANC lose the election in a major metro? Why are people, journalists no less, so quick to speak out of their arses, with virtually no attempt to at evidence-based argumentation?
This has been a debate that, while interesting, I now realise to have been completely fake. At issue is not the desirability or otherwise of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ in journalism. It is one’s stance with regard to the ANC, the government, and the state. This is how the dominant clique represented by Thamm has subtly defined these values over time. In their universe, objectivity and neutrality is mouthing ideologically loaded shibboleths while outwardly pretending their practice of journalism is value-free. It is assuming, without so much as a nod to self-examination, that their world view and value system is the universal norm, and moreover insisting that this norm should be obvious and acceptable to the rest of us. This crowd likes to misappropriate Edward Said’s definition of the role of the public intellectual as “speaking truth to power”, and have turned it into a meaningless platitude. For them, “truth” is opposition and “power” is the ANC (and its alliance), a redefinition of terms coupled with an unwillingness to admit that, in South Africa especially, power is diffuse and resides in spaces outside the public and the political, spaces in which they themselves still hold sway. Far easier to repeat empty slogans about speaking truth to power than to admit that you (your class, your race, your gender, your language) are the wielder of significant cultural and discursive power.
Thamm engages in this self-servingly narrow definition of power when she ends her article by patronisingly defining ‘good journalism’ as being about “holding power to account, whether it wears black, green and gold, blue, or red.” Never mind that in the 1400 words preceding this, not once does she demonstrate a failure on our part to hold “black, green and gold” power to account. In fact quite the opposite, she ruffles our hair because some of our group titles had come in for some stick at the weekend for their “critical reporting” on the ANC. For the record, and speaking for myself only, I do not wear criticism from the ANC as a badge of honour that proves my independence to the likes of Thamm or anyone. I treat the ill-founded criticisms from ANC (and other) politicians the same way I do back-handed praise from self-appointed arbiters of good journalism: with disdain. And in the unlikely case that you are interested in allowing my work and my words to define who I am with no interference from you, here is my personal creed and my approach to journalism:
I do and say and wear what I like. I go where I like. I write what I like. I write truth to power, both the overt political kind exercised by the ANC and others, and the subtle but oppressive cultural power of South Africa’s dominant elite as represented by you, Marianne Thamm. That fact, and that fact alone, is what truly discomforts you. DM
Read more: Cape Town racist club assault: The tragedy and danger of an ahistorical upbringing by Marianne Thamm