Defend Truth


The Other News Round-Up: Blatant Lies First

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you the odd-report-out. This week: the elephant in the room at The Gathering – the half-truth.

Earlier today a friend of mine asked what the collective noun is for narcissists, which led to some great submissions: an echo, a bloat, and my personal favourite: an I-pod. And then I wondered: what’s the collective noun for liars?

Turns out there isn’t one. The traditional “pack” is borrowed from a pack of lies, and the suggestions weren’t concluded: a fibbery, a fallacy, a lair of liars. All great, but I’m wondering if it isn’t easier just to ask BLF if their name is patented yet.

In case you missed all the action (though truthfully there wasn’t much) BLF rocked up at The Gathering with five tickets, wanted a sixth, and were sent on their not-so-merry way after dropping a couple of F-bombs on reporter Pauli van Wyk. They were promised a refund and sped off in an Audi registered to Brian Molefe. Which first, Lindsay Maasdorp defended by saying it’s perfectly all right for his friend to lend him a car; later, Andile Mngxitama posted a picture of himself and Maasdorp laughing uproariously with the caption: “They say we rocked up in what? Ok…”

Make of that paradox what you will.

I’m writing this missing the post-Gathering dinner, and that might be because I’m already feasting on a hearty helping of humble pie. Being a bit of a sucker, I was firmly of the opinion – when BLF first made their appearance – that they were potentially a relevant voice. We need to listen to young, angry, disillusioned people, I argued. Like the message or not, it’s there, so if you don’t listen, that’s your funeral.

I’m sadly not joking. John Vlismas was the comedian on stage today, and he’s gone home.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. I’ll hang my head an extra five minutes just for you. Ja-no, I thought they were a bit heavy on rhetoric. But ag, we are all young once, before bills come knocking and we turn into Dilbert. And fair enough, long before Bell Pottinger waved their wands, white monopoly capital was an enduring problem. Our leaders have since neatly circumvented this by simply referring to “monopoly capital” but I don’t think it’s that simple. Blindly delete the word “white” and you’re a hop, skip and a jump from “all lives matter”. But focus only on racial distribution and you run the risk of simply transferring disproportionate wealth from one quarter to another. You have to acknowledge disproportionate white privilege and the risk of simply transferring it.

BLF – and others of their ilk – do not acknowledge that last point. They seem perfectly happy with disproportionate wealth, as long as they’re in the inner circle. As long as they’re friends with the Guptas; as long as they’re in the Audi driving away. That’s not empowerment or emancipation, that’s saving your own ass. It’s the telling of a half-truth to drive an agenda of personal gain, amidst catastrophic cost to the poorest citizens. And so they tell just enough truth to play on legitimate anger, neatly edit out the relevant points about their own failings, and seal the parcel in outrageous fiction to fuel their cause. And then what? Ride off into Guptastan? BLF is offensive precisely because they bastardise and exploit a very necessary message. They wrap elitism in a “revolutionary” package.

Half-truths like this are the most dangerous lies. That’s when people start believing you. It is not the fact that BLF is partly right that makes them more honest. It makes them that much more deceitful. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.

It’s so easy, when you’re called on your bullshit, to just keep going back to that one kernel of truth as a defence, and ignore the mountain of lies you’ve left next to it.

That’s how fake news is justified, isn’t it? A means to an end? We know, because fake news isn’t as new as we think it is, that these garnishes of untruth range from the absurd to the devastating. We may chuckle learning that an April Fool’s joke in 1957 had the BBC’s phone lines ringing off the hook, as citizens called in to find out how to plant their own spaghetti trees to harvest pasta. We may have let out a small snort when we read that the Pope allegedly endorsed Donald Trump or, better yet, that Rage Against the Machine was supposedly reuniting to make an album honouring him. (This last was one of the best-performing fake news pieces of 2016.) But we have only to take one look at the White House to see where that got us. And then the darker stories emerge: as early as 1782, Benjamin Franklin circulated a fake newspaper claiming the British had hired Native Americans to scalp colonists, hoping to advance the American Revolutionary cause.

How do you spot the truth when the truth is stranger than fiction?

It is telling that BLF speaks of being barred from events by White Monopoly Capital, not acknowledging the threat that they represent both to media freedom and to the safety of individuals. When you have been dishing out death threats like it’s your job (oh, wait…) you cannot pretend you are coming around for a civil chat. BLF speaks of a failure to accommodate people who have a different point of view. Well yes, I guess it is that, if your point of view is that our security guard’s children should die and ours is that they should live.

One way to navigate towards truth: support legitimacy. Google South Africa director Luke McKend told The Gathering it was an ambitious undertaking to determine algorithmically what was fake news, but that a possible approach might be a communal, real-time method of verification by users. Of course, this isn’t a perfect solution, as it privileges those with internet access or may perpetuate the existing problem of echo chambers.

But the other, repeated call throughout the day was for support, in whatever form, for independent media. If BLF is right, I sure hope White Monopoly Capital was listening, especially to Daily Maverick CEO Styli Charalambous’ observation about funding. Outside of Nando’s, he said, many people want to fund independent media, but they’re chicken. (We know he was dying to say that.)

Seriously, though. It’s an important point, the relationship between financial support and media freedom. Truly independent media are typically not swimming in money, but a really robust media community can’t grow on fresh air. The calls came in many guises: calls for advertising support across platforms, calls for buying different publications, calls for increasing access to more diverse media at grassroots level. There was also a call for individuals to commit to paying for good journalism, whether it was obligatory or not.

It’s ironic that the very people most trying to squash media freedom are under the misimpression that journalists are flying home in their money helicopters to lie in their money baths before going to sleep in their money beds. Maybe the Gupta-funded media create a bit of a misunderstanding by cheerfully throwing kajillions at a no-show by Nicky Minaj, but back here in the real world, independent media are in a daily fight for survival, and misinformation about obscene riches and corruption is dangerous. Senior journalist and panellist Marianne Thamm put it: “If journalists are warned that they are facing job cuts over potential loss of revenue, that is not a state of mind in which one wants to be reporting.”

Co-panellist and veteran editor Ferial Haffajee responded: “But it is a very real one.”

Let’s just say journalism is usually a job one chooses for one of two reasons: either because you’re really passionate about it, or because you stink at maths. But you’ll notice that neither of these reasons involve immeasurable wealth, riches and political influence.

In some ways, it irks me that BLF – so symbolically – once again hijacked an important media platform with a whole lot of nothing, and here we all are, playing along, our attention diverted from crucial issues of growth and development by another unnecessary fight for basic freedom. From – what exactly? As the inimitable Vlismas put it: that’s the first time an Audi departed with two extra airbags. But it’s also true that their behaviour is emblematic of so much we must contend with and be alive to.

A luta continua. If today was any indication, we’re swinging hard. DM


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