Defend Truth


From stumped to trumped, in one day


William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa, Ashoka and a Linc Fellow.

Monday was a day of extremes. When we received the judgment by Icasa that we had won we were all elated. Just in case you missed it, I'm referring to the complaint we, i.e. Media Monitoring Africa together with our partners SOS coalition and the FXI, brought against the SABC decision to ban coverage of public protests. We were elated not just because we had won an important victory but because it helped reinforce a sense of logic and rationality that in the past few weeks seems to have deserted those in leadership at the SABC. A few hours later, however, we sat trying to make sense of the press conference that had just been given by the SABC board and SABC COO.

As we watched we realised that perhaps the only real difference between Donald Trump and the SABC COO is the absence of bad hair. In many respects the two are similar. Bold statements and mixed metaphors, like a pig driving a car, you cannot be sure just how bad your hallucination is, but you know something is awfully wrong.

The crisis at the SABC – and yes it really is a crisis: 11 CEOs in seven years is one tiny indicator – is profoundly worrying for a variety of reasons, the obvious ones being the apparent need not just to slip on the slippery slope to censorship and apartheid-style logic but to dive down the slope covered in butter. Aside from the decision by the SABC to ban coverage of public protests (and yes it really is that bad – just ask them to show you their news stories on the public protests outside the SABC and you will see they don’t even need to be violent to not get covered), we know of too many instances of direct editorial interference across the SABC platforms. Where journalists seek to speak out they are suspended without due process or even evidence as to why they have been suspended. In addition to that we see that the latest in a string of payouts is now R18-million to former CEO Frans Matlala. As the public we are kept in the dark as the broadcaster is bled dry.

But it isn’t those elements that are the most concerning, rather it is the adoption of an approach now made famous by Donald Trump that is a crisis of a different order.

The SABC COO and SABC board are bullshitters. Borrowed from a concept described by American philosopher Frankfurt who wrote on Bullshit.

The distinction is this:

Frankfurt’s key observation is that the liar, even as he or she might spread untruth, inhabits a universe where the distinction between truth and falsehood still matters. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care what is true or not. By his or her bluffing, dissimulation, and general dishonesty, the bullshit artist works to erase the very possibility of knowing the truth. For this reason, bullshit is more dangerous than lies, since it erodes even the possibility of truth existing and being found.”

There is ample evidence that Trump is a Bullshitter. Our own Eusebius McKaiser has written about the same concept here in relation to defending our president.

Until recently it had not been quite so clear that the strategy of bullshitting had been adopted by senior SABC executives until Monday. The SABC’s press conference on Monday afternoon was a masterclass in bullshitting. Faced with an adverse finding and then difficult questions, the response was simply to make stuff up. If you want to experience what taking hallucinogenic drugs is like without taking them, watch the press conference here.

The conference is riddled with the outrageous and bizarre, from claims the EFF wasn’t a registered political party in 2014 (despite them now being represented in Parliament) to explanations that the blanket ban isn’t so much a ban as a veil that you can see through.

As a tool for a wily politician the use of bullshitting is useful to fend off criticism and ensure you get your central ideas across. We have to hope that voters are not as gullible as Trump assumes and will call him on his bullshit, which might provide amusement, but is hardly appropriate as a quality for a world leader. As a tool for those in power of the country’s public broadcaster it represents something more dangerous. The SABC is not an ordinary broadcaster – contrary to the imagination of the SABC top management it belongs and should be answerable not to voices in their heads but to the public.

Furthermore, its role is to adhere to, promote and practise the highest standard of ethical and professional journalism, each concepts that require adherence to facts, to accuracy, diversity, reason and rationality. Instead we see the SABC’s leaders running in exactly the opposite direction, which should have seen them removed from their positions and sent to work with Donald Trump. To add to the danger we have seen tacit support for them from the Minister and Parliament’s portfolio committee on communication.

In dealing with the crises we have been seeking to engage those who subscribe to basic morals, ethics (including the basic concepts of right and wrong) and professionalism. But such tactics don’t work with those who simply don’t care for the truth. It isn’t so much that they may be unwilling to engage in a debate as much as it would be a futile exercise, as the basic rules of logical argument, refutation and evidence don’t count. In addition, the problem with bullshitters is that they have no regard for systems or processes and happily dismiss and disregard them. Just ask the suspended journalists for the reasons they were suspended and whether due process has been followed. The obliteration of editorial control and systems is another tragic consequence of bullshitters in power. They pose more than a danger therefore to immediate processes like the Icasa ruling, they are also responsible for fundamentally destabilising a critical public institution.

So we have two core challenges. How do we engage with those who have no regard for the law, ethics, evidence (if this sounds harsh, incidentally, don’t forget that the SABC COO admitted that he doesn’t believe in scientific research) or reasoned argument? The second challenge is how do we respond to those who allow this defiling of our public broadcaster to continue? The ANC came out today with some strong and positive comments on the SABC, including reaffirming their commitment to media freedom – problem is of course that the mess they find themselves in is entirely of their own creation and could have been prevented years ago.

With the local elections coming up, ask your local candidate for their view and commitment to media freedom and how they are working to stabilise the SABC. If they cannot answer with evidence, vote for somebody else.

Removing a bullshitter requires significant pressure and overwhelming evidence of how ill suited to the task the person is. There is more than enough evidence, clearly there isn’t yet sufficient pressure, which is why we are calling on advertisers to pull their adverts from the SABC. It might hurt advertisers in the short term, losing a valuable tool, but in the long run their brand will benefit from a functioning public broadcaster with credibility.

So make your voice heard, support our campaign to ask advertisers to do the right thing and suspend their adverts. We need brands like Checkers, Chicken Licken, Vodacom, Clientele Legal, Black Label and SAB, and First National Bank to dissociate themselves from censorship and bullshit and show that they too care for our democracy. DM


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