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The Huffington Ghost: Be afraid, editors, of your own failings

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The Easter weekend was enlivened by a stunning hoax against Huffington Post South Africa, edited by Verashni Pillay. An inflammatory blog post calling for the disenfranchisement of white men turned out to be written by a white man. Why editors everywhere should be afraid, and Pillay should resign.

NB: The views expressed in this article are mine alone. I do not purport to speak for the Daily Maverick or its editor, Branko Brkic.

With a respectful hat-tip to columnist Tom Eaton, I’ve stolen his headline. It’s too good not to use; I can’t compete. His post is also a great summary of events involving the Huffington Post South Africa up to the evening of Saturday, 15 April. Let me recap.

In the early hours of Thursday, 13 April 2017, the South African arm of the Huffington Post (HuffPostSA) published a post entitled: “Could it be time to deny white men the franchise?HuffPostSA is a blogging platform owned by Media24 and edited by former Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Verashni Pillay.

The post was ostensibly written by a purported graduate philosophy student and consummate feminist named Shelley Garland. The reasoning was that white men largely caused “some of the biggest blows to the progressive cause”, such as Donald Trump’s election, the UK’s Brexit vote, and the municipal election victories by the Democratic Alliance in four large South African cities. The “progressive cause would be strengthened” by denying them the right to vote, which would also provide an opportunity to end the “theft and violence” of modern capitalism and redistribute the wealth owned by white men. Even for a radical socialist feminist, it was an outrageously extreme position to take.

As Eaton points out, the blog post garnered a great deal of criticism, and a click bonanza for HuffPostSA. Its blogs editor, Sipho Hlongwane, publicly bragged about a chart of page views that spiked every time they promoted the incendiary post.

The initial criticism focused on the unconstitutional and anti-democratic proposal, and its divisive race-baiting. One commenter said that if you search-and-replace “white” or “male” with any other race or gender, the piece would be widely reviled as racist, sexist hate speech.

But beyond the reprehensible content, Cape Town writer and editor Laura Twiggs smelt a rat. She began an impressive private investigation into the post, including contacting the supposed author. She soon concluded that the author was obviously a fake, and challenged HuffPostSA to account for its glaring oversight.

HuffPostSA ignored her, however. Instead of exercising caution and investigating the claims, editor Verashni Pillay doubled down. On Friday afternoon, she strongly defended the post, and dismissed its critics as alt-right racists. She wrote:

Garland’s underlying analysis about the uneven distribution of wealth and power in the world is pretty standard for feminist theory. … It would appear that perhaps much of the outcry derives from a very poor reading of the article – or perhaps none at all. Dismantling the patriarchal systems that have brought us to where we are today, a world where power is wielded to dangerous and destructive ends by men, and in particular white men, necessarily means a loss of power to those who hold it. A loss of oppressive power. Those who have held undue power granted to them by patriarchy must lose it for us to be truly equal. This seems blindingly obvious to us.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we agree or endorse everything in Garland’s blog. The point of our Voices section is to invite a wide array of voices and views.

We hope, as reads continue to rack up on this blog, that those who are tempted to fire off an angry email to us would first engage with the underlying analysis in Garland’s blog.”

This response is contradictory, in that it appears to agree with the substance of Garland’s blog post despite its objectionable content and despite the fact that a number of the “facts” on which it was based were patently false.

For example, the claim that 97% of the stocks listed on the JSE stock exchange is owned by white people, mostly men, contradicts the JSE’s own figures. In response to President Jacob Zuma’s false claim in the 2015 State of the Nation Address that blacks own only 3% of shares on the stock exchange, the JSE reported that 23% of its top 100 companies were owned by blacks, either directly or through pension funds, unit trusts and life policies. By contrast, South African whites owned only 22%. Most of the rest was held by foreign investors.

Another claim, that whites own nearly 90% of land in South Africa, is likewise patently false. The biggest error in that claim is that it disregards state-owned land. Under apartheid, it was considered to be under white control, for obvious reasons. The transfer of power from the racist National Party to the non-racial ANC, however, implies that state-owned land is now held in proportion to population demographics, i.e. it is for the most part in black hands. Adding other changes in land ownership, from land restitution and land redistribution programmes, to private sales to the burgeoning black middle and upper class, suggests that black land ownership in South Africa is closer to 40% or 50%.

This is not to suggest that all is well and that racial equality has been achieved, of course. It is true that black people remain disadvantaged by past and present discrimination. They remain, on average, much poorer than their white counterparts. They also bear the brunt of crime, and of the government’s inability to deliver basic services. But from a fairly recent position of outright state oppression and dispossession, the situation is slowly improving, and is not as dire as Garland’s piece would have you believe.

Readers also reacted to the advocacy of discrimination against people based on their race and gender, which contravenes the South African Press Code, and the proposal to disenfranchise people based on their race and gender, which is simply unconstitutional. Such suggestions directly threaten this country’s already fragile democratic project. However vitriolic the responses, most were based on a perfectly good reading of the Garland piece.

Late on Saturday afternoon, after nearly three days of basking in the glory of clickbait page views, and more than a day after being made aware of the problem with the author’s identity, the offensive post was finally taken down. So was Friday’s full-throated defence. The original post and defence can now only be accessed via internet archive sites.

Pillay admitted that the blogger, Shelley Garland, “cannot be traced and appears not to exist”. She added an insipid affirmation of HuffPostSA’s commitment to the Constitution and Press Code, without admitting that the piece was in breach of either. She’d leave that determination up to the Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, she wrote.

The irony is that HuffPostSA, under a deliberately outrageous clickbaiting headline, has itself said: “Fake news is easy to spot”. It linked to another post, offering “5 tell-tale signs” of fake news. Number five reads: “Research the author of the article you’re reading. Use Google to see other works produced by the journalist named. That will give you an indication of the authenticity of the story.”

So, by the time Tom Eaton wrote his excellent commentary, we knew that someone who did not exist had submitted a blog post to HuffPostSA, containing false “facts”, inflammatory race-baiting, a dramatic and unconstitutional proposal, and outrageous left-wing and feminist rhetoric. It was published without even the most basic due diligence having been conducted on either the author or the content. When criticism began to flood in about the content and the identity of the author, Pillay doubled down with a powerful defence of the piece. Only two and a half days after publication did she finally realise she was in trouble. She removed the offending post, but primarily on the grounds of not being able to identify the author.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) Chief Whip in Parliament, John Steenhuisen, wrote: “When will you be resigning @verashni ? Zero credibility after this rookie error, not the first time either. @HuffPostSA credibility is shot”. His reference to “not the first time” is pointed. Just over a year ago, during Pillay’s brief spell as editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, she co-wrote and published a story about DA leader Mmusi Maimane being “tutored” by former National Party state president, FW de Klerk. It turned out to be entirely false. Her co-author turned out to be a disgruntled former DA member. She wrote an embarrassing retraction three weeks later, after the DA had incurred considerable reputational damage. She admitted to a long list of errors of judgement and lapses of editorial integrity. In her resignation letter to readers, less than a year after being appointed, she played the sexism card: “the unfortunate truth is that women editors will always have it harder”.

Steenhuisen repeated his call for her head on Sunday while Pillay was a guest on 702’s Talk at Nine with Karima Brown. He didn’t hold back, and gave her a proper roasting, as did Brown herself. Yet Pillay’s answers remained limited to promising identity checks on bloggers in future, and saying it would have been better had the content of the offending post been discussed among the editors, but that it wasn’t. This seems disingenuous (as Steenhuisen told her), because the editors had plenty of time to weigh the content in the two days before it was taken down, during which Pillay herself strongly defended the piece.

Also on Sunday, Ferial Haffajee published a response that fiercely criticised the content of Garland’s post: We cannot argue for the disenfranchisement of anybody. Haffajee is editor-at-large at HuffPostSA and the former editor of City Press. She has almost two decades in age on Pillay, and is vastly more experienced and respected as an editor. Her maturity was reflected in the first well-considered post on the subject at HuffPostSA.

For its part, Media24, HuffPostSA’s parent company, declared itself “outraged”, and published a strongly-worded promise to investigate. According to the company’s CEO, Esmaré Weideman, the incident “has been hugely damaging not only to the Huffington Post South Africa brand but also to Media24”.

The biggest Sunday bombshell came when the alleged perpetrator of the hoax came forward. As early as Friday, Roman Cabanac of the Renegade Report, a podcast in the CliffCentral stable, confided in me that “Shelley [Garland] is a figment of my very white friend’s imagination. … We are trolling Huffy Post (see clarification) by writing outrageous articles. We’ll expose them soon.”

On Sunday, they published a blog post with details of the pseudonymous hoaxer, including the email correspondence between “Shelley Garland” and HuffPostSA. (There is no permalink; this link requires you to scroll past a long introduction of the podcast to get to the story, and will probably only remain useful until their next blog post goes up.)

The creator of the hoax, who chooses to remain anonymous, presumably for fear of retaliation, identifies himself as a liberal white male. The Renegade Report post includes an email with the author’s views on the incident, and a comment from the crew: “The crux of the matter is that this massive error highlights the all too common issue of ideological narrative trumping any editorial integrity.”

Waldimar Pelser, the editor of Rapport, agreed on Twitter: “So #ShelleyGarland is a white male with a warning to all journos who so eagerly publish that with which they agree.”

It is all too easy for editors to be furious with the hoaxers at Renegade Report. Trying to trap journalists in embarrassing mistakes seems a harsh thing to do in a media landscape that is underfunded, understaffed and under pressure from forces aligned with the dark side of the state and big business.

The hoaxer points out that Daily Maverick’s editor, Branko Brkic, was first offered the piece. “To his credit”, he writes, “he saw the nonsense for what it was and didn’t even reply.” But Brkic told me he doesn’t want to gloat, because the fear of making mistakes haunts him too.

When you receive dozens of unsolicited submissions and publish 10 or 20 feature-length articles every single day, with only a handful of staff and without much capital to support the enterprise, the pressure is on. Even the best editors are at risk of making errors of judgement. One can easily imagine a more sophisticated, less blatant piece making it past even a mindful and responsible editor. The damage to their credibility would do the country a disservice, since it weakens the critical institution of a free press against formidable opposition from the government and special interest groups.

However, while I understand the resentment, I’m not convinced by this line of thinking. After all, HuffPostSA merely needed to follow its own stated policies to catch this piece. Those are policies that any editor needs to apply, without fail, especially in a climate in which powerful organisations – not just anonymous hoaxers – make concerted attempts to discredit the media and get so-called “fake news” published to advance political narratives.

All journalists and editors should fear making mistakes. I do, all the time. This is healthy. It protects us, to some degree, from people who seek to subvert the media, such as the former Gupta PR firm, Bell Pottinger.

Yet no editor should fear being tested by bloggers or podcasters, whether they are well-intended or malicious. Only those who are negligent in basic editorial procedures and blinkered by ideology, both of which Pillay was, would get caught. Those are the failings they really should fear, if they wish to restore and sustain credibility in the media. If editors fail such a test as comprehensively as Pillay did, calling them out does the reading public a service.

So I support the calls for Pillay to resign. Not because she was hoodwinked by a blogger whose identity she didn’t confirm. That was merely a mistake. I believe her greater crime was that she was so enamoured with the radical ideology this phantom preached that she ignored every possible consideration – incorrect facts, racial divisiveness, unconstitutional remedies, extremist politics – that should have disqualified the post on its merits. She ignored basic principles of editorial integrity, including the HuffPostSA’s own stated guidelines.

Ironically, she confirmed the white right’s suspicions that one can write anything, however outrageous and offensive, as long as it targets white males. In her radical left-wing zeal, she gave ammunition to the radical right.

The Renegade Report and the anonymous hoaxer exposed the political bias and editorial incompetence at HuffPostSA. But it isn’t fair to say they damaged the credibility of HuffPostSA or the media in general. Pillay did this all by herself, especially when she wrote her defence of the hoax post. And she has done it before at the Mail & Guardian, which unlike HuffPostSA is a respected media organisation and a bastion of professional journalism.

Perhaps Media24 should offer the position to the far more experienced, principled and respected Ferial Haffajee. HuffPostSA would still just be a site full of amateur and unpaid bloggers, instead of professional, paid journalists. But with a real editor at the helm, perhaps their worst excesses might be curtailed (as, to his credit, Branko Brkic has more than once done with mine).

Clarification: After publication, Roman Cabanac sent me the following message: “My original message about ‘we are trolling the Huffington Post’ was made in error. My friend wrote the piece and unilaterally sent it without my knowledge. After I found out, we thought of doing more but the story got out of hand. DM


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