Defend Truth


Huffington Post and the Press Ombud: Two wrongs don’t make a right

Recovering Mad Man, occasional writer, wine enthusiast, coffee addict and unpredictable wildling, Justin is a lifelong student of behavioural economics, politics and the irrational human psyche. Commercially he focuses on the intersecting stacks of media, marketing and technology, particularly in the telecoms, consumer technology, retailing and media sectors. His opinions represent no organisations or interest groups and he receives no recompense save for namedropping. He also likes nuts. Follower discretion @justininza is advised.

The saga of the Huffington Post Shelley Garland blog and the subsequent Press Ombud’s findings is indicative of the sorry state of our nation: ideologically confused with a short-sighted capacity for tolerance and a gross under-appreciation for the constitutional rights we should but don’t appear to enjoy.

I was one of the vocal critics of Huffington Post’s unqualified publication of the pseudonymous Shelley Garland blog as well as former editor Verashi Pillay’s defence of it. My reasons had nothing to do with the substance of the blog and everything to do with the absence of editorial oversight, as evidenced by how the writer’s patently false claims were published verbatim. It’s easy to see how the idea of stripping a generation of white men of the vote might appeal to a wide range of ideological positions. After all, it’s one of the more innovative ideas I’ve seen in a while. That doesn’t make it a good idea, it’s not. It’s a dangerous idea because it’s punitive and regressive. However, I resolutely defend the editor’s right to publish it, as I do her right to defend it. Offense is in the mind of the offended, no matter your ideology. I defend it for the same reason I repeatedly defend Zapiro or Julius Malema or Ayanda Mabulu’s right to offend, in the precious interests of freedom of speech and association.

The notion that an editor should be ideologically neutral is fallacious. Editors aren’t robots, nor should they be. Ideological influence is both desirable and necessary. The right to adopt a position is enshrined in every sphere of life. The Huffington Post is not a state-owned public broadcaster, it’s a privately owned publication. It can and must reserve the right to exist by free market forces alone.

If I sound confused I’m not. I despaired when I read it, not because it was poorly argued and factually incorrect, but because it was immediately obvious that publishing it devoid of editorial caveats was irresponsible and damaging to the credibility of a fragile media industry. It’s not difficult to conclude that whomever made the decision to publish the piece verbatim was either ideologically blinded or woefully inept, neither of which is acceptable.

The minimum requirement is to insert an editorial caveat distancing the title from patent untruths masquerading as facts. If that had transpired, Pillay’s defence of the piece would never have provided a platform for a backlash. This was a gross failure on the editorial team’s behalf, but does not provide grounds for sanctioning them outside of the private agreement between employer and employee.

Calls for Pillay’s resignation ricocheted with alarming falsetto in the echo chambers of social media. Prominent among them was DA Chief Whip, John Steenhuisen. He (and others) ought to reassess these self-righteous claims. We must reject outright the notion of public calls for resignations of persons not in public office. I argued somewhat futilely in 140 characters against a tide of opinion that held fast to the notion that because the media is a matter of public interest and influence, the public has a right to demand a say in the sanction of an alleged breach of the media’s own self-regulatory code. This is exceptionally dangerous ground, one indistinguishable from vigilante justice.

Pillay herself submitted the piece to the Press Ombudsman, a move that raises suspicion as to motive. Three other parties did so too, and the Ombud released his findings on Saturday to the collective dismay of clear-headed media people. Firstly, it’s vital to distinguish between the law and self-regulatory codes of practice, a trap even some media lawyers failed to escape. The Press Council Code falls into the latter category, and while any quasi-legal code is subservient to the law, it does attempt to mirror the Constitution. For purposes of brevity I’ve not dissected the code or the Ombud’s ruling here. Suffice it to say that the ruling is so poor the Ombudsman appears to have been as ideologically blinded as the editorial team. To begin with, he failed to deal with the matter under the appropriate chapter. There are only two chapters, one encompassing media generated content and the other user-generated content. It appears to me that the entire ruling is based exclusively on the former, when in fact it’s the latter that applies.

That such a basic application of the officer’s duty was ignored amounts to a greater injustice than the sins of HuffPost’s editorial team. The finding that the article constitutes hate speech is a gross misreading of the code in every respect, as Jacques Rousseau elegantly articulates here.

Moreover, the complainants ought to reflect on their knee-jerk response to this matter. Their heads of argument read like a thought police complaint. Afriforum submitted the reportage “amounted to hate speech, unfair discrimination, sexism and racism”, which is an absurd claim if one has bothered to read the code. Even more absurd was the King complainant’s claim that the blog remains on the internet, even though Huffington Post took it down, and therefore it can still be accessed. The fact that electronic publications are in a real sense permanent, “places a very real burden and responsibility on editors, reporters and media houses alike to ensure that their work meets relevant constitutional, ethical and Press Code standards and can withstand objective scrutiny”. Breaking news Mr King, your complaint is also on the internet as a permanent reference to your deficiency in intellectual reasoning.

There are many lessons from this sorry saga. The first is that editors have an obligation to clearly distinguish between their own content and user-generated content. That’s why this article sits under the OPINIONISTA banner. The second is that private media is private, in spite of its public influence, and media owners have every right to inject their own ideological biases should they choose to. If their stance offends you or fails to satisfy your requirements, go elsewhere. The third is that the public and many institutions really need to brush up on their understanding of self-regulatory codes of conduct as well as the laws governing free speech. And lastly, that everyone needs to treat our constitutional rights with more dignity before crying wolf.

The consequences of poor public vigilance is a government gleefully looting our future while we distract ourselves squabbling over the contents of a prank blog. The consequences of the Ombud’s appalling ruling is a grinning Jimmy Manyi lining up legal hit squads to quash editorial freedoms critical to our democracy. The consequence of those cheering on the Ombud’s ruling is a stifling order issued against their own interests. Be careful what you wish for, fellow South Africans. While we squabble over ideological ghosts our collective future is being stolen from beneath our noses. DM


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