Colours to the mast…

With the 2011 Municipal Elections not far away (don’t forget to register to vote this weekend, folks) the election machinery of our erstwhile political parties is once again being dusted off after a couple of years in the shed and already the first posters (albeit registration posters, rather than election posters) are being blown off the streetlamps all over Cape Town.

This election will be the first one since the inception of The New Age (TNA), the national daily newspaper whose owners, the Gupta family, have those infamously tight ties to Jacob Zuma. While TNA denies that it will be merely a mouthpiece for ANC propaganda, there are those who have their doubts, namely the scathing Mandy de Waal in the Daily Maverick last September when the paper was launched:

aside from the obvious currying ANC favour, the editorial focus appears fragmented.

and her “you do the math” implications:

The New Age has moved some way from Essop Pahad’s protestations in July that the newspaper was a purely private venture. “I have said in the (PR) statement that it is not a pro-ANC newspaper, but let me repeat it please. It is not and will not be an ANC-affiliated newspaper to start with because this is a purely private venture.”
Pahad is a director and senior advisor to TNA Media which publishes The New Age.

She doesn’t stop there either – listing a whole raft of reasons why she believes Pahad is not being completely honest and why it’s obvious that The New Age is merely propaganda in return for influence at the highest levels and thus should not be trusted to deliver an independent viewpoint.

And do you know what? She may well be right.

But then, what of her own vehicle, the Daily Maverick? A smaller outfit than TNA, certainly and we are told:

funded entirely through advertising

rather than directly from the pockets of Jacob Zuma’s best mates, which is reassuring. As is their assertion that:

The Daily Maverick is run by an independently owned, private company with no affiliation to any other media group (or political party or religious organisation.)

So why then, when I stumbled over to their site this evening, did I find a prominent DA MP preaching the gospel according to Ms Zille on their Opinionistas page?

“Ian Ollis is DA MP”

Colour me confused.

Doubtless, the Daily Maverick editors will claim that Ollis is merely writing in his personal capacity, but firstly, how is the reader supposed to know that? Nowhere (as far as I can see) are we told that these are Ian’s thoughts and not those of the DA (save for the pithy last line of his second column on why the DA and Cosatu should but won’t help each other to oust the ANC from government: “And this is all just my view. Of course.”).
And just how different would Ian’s feelings be from those of the political party he has served for 12 years, anyway?

Secondly, if these are just his personal views, why exactly is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Labour being allowed to air his personal views on his political opponents: “Cosatu and the ANC are still not accustomed to genuine [sic] listening to the public at large” on a site “with no affiliation to any… political party”.
Why just Ian Ollis of the DA? Where are the ANC MPs, the IFP MPs, the FF+ MPs (each presumably writing in their personal capacities, of course)?
Where is the balance?

At the very least, the inclusion of Ollis’ columns is a poor decision by the editoral staff of the Daily Maverick in that it obviously compromises the independence of their product. At worst, they could easily be accused of  hypocrisy when one reads the vitriol with which they went after The New Age for that newspaper’s alleged tacit support of a single political entity.

However I look at this, The Daily Maverick’s integrity is thoroughly compromised.

13 thoughts on “Colours to the mast…

  1. Uhm, no the editors of The Daily Maverick will most certainly not argue that Ian Ollis writes columns in his personal capacity, with no link to DA policy and thinking. He’d have to be schizophrenic to pull that off – which would definitely disqualify him from being published on the site.

    We do, however, argue that we have long sought to secure regular columns from senior ANC leaders, senior government officials, and others who can fairly be described as mortal enemies of the DA. Not in search of some mythical balance or objectivity, but because we’re bloody interested in what they have to say.

    To date we have failed in those efforts. We did, however, manage to give Gwede Mantashe and Zwelinzima Vavi a platform to talk to some our readers in person at our first ever conference, The Gathering, last year. There were no representatives from the DA, or any other party, political organisation or union group. That didn’t bother us, nor anyone else that we know of.

    That’s the way the cookie crumbles. Perhaps, this year, we’ll manage to attract Helen Zille to The Gathering 2.0. Perhaps, soon, we’ll convince an ANC MP to write columns for us. But we’re certainly not going to stop publishing columns by Ollis until we do so just to avoid accusations of bias.

  2. Phillip de Wet > Thanks for taking the time to comment, Phillip.

    I wrote this post because when I read Ollis’ column on the draft labour laws I was amazed that you had published it. It really did come across as a party election broadcast. Now, as I understand it, you are telling us that it is essentially a statement from the DA.
    Now, I have no issue with you (or anyone else) giving a platform to any one political party, as long as you stand up and say you’re doing it.
    But you haven’t done that and your publication was highly critical of The New Age for not being open and honest about their (alleged) pro-ANC bias just a few months ago.
    The argument that you have been looking for columnists to represent that other political viewpoints cuts no ice. Again, there is no mention of this on your site, so how is any reader of meant to distinguish between you publishing one side while looking out for someone to write the other and the Daily Maverick acting as a welcome mouthpiece for the Democratic Alliance.

    As for the invitees to The Gathering last year – well done. But that was a single event to a select group – the equivalent of Ms Zille being invited to the launch of TNA (although I don’t believe she cracked the nod) – and this is an ongoing column ahead of important national elections. Big difference.

  3. You misunderstand what I said above, what The DM has previously said about The New Age, the relationship between personal and party political opinion, the difference between an editorial line and analysis, just how dangerous the myth of balance in journalism is, the simple answer to a simple question, and the political leanings of our editors.

    That is rather a lot to get through.

    It’s simpler (and, I think, far more productive) to skip all that and look at this practically. What is it that you, as a reader, expect from us? To not run a column by an opposition MP unless or until we have one from a governing MP too?

    At a quick look such an approach to objectivity – a concept we reject entirely, but that’s a different discussion – would require us to remove every column currently on the front page. If you extend it to articles, only a handful of pieces would survive the purge, and all of those would be on motoring or the arts.

    That wouldn’t serve you in any way, so clearly I’m missing something.

  4. Phillip de Wet > You’re right – a site based solely on motoring and the arts would leave me cold.

    What I would like to see is some clarity. I think that would help a great deal. Clarity in some sort of editorial piece that explains why the DA has a voice on your site and the ANC – for example – doesn’t. I think you’ve gone some way to providing an explanation for that here, but visitors to your site aren’t psychic and might not be as well informed as we here are now. You put yourself neatly in my position in your comment above – now put yourself in the place of a reader of one of Ian Ollis’ columns, but without the knowledge you’ve shared with us here.

    It looks like you are campaigning for the DA.

    Despite me not being “one of you” and my hanging around with bacteria rather than journalists (what of it?), I do recognise the difference between an editorial line and analysis. But as I said to Branko Brkic earlier, it’s the choice of columnist, not their opinions that bother me here. And it’s you editors who decide whose thoughts are published. Presumably there is some degree of thought and consideration that goes into that process – not just any Tom, Dick or Helen can send you a column and expect to see it posted the next day. So in that way at least, you do have editorial control over the opinion pieces which make it on to your site. Whether you have further input into the individual columns, I have no idea – I hope not.

    There’s a big difference between a DA-supporting member of the public airing his/her views and a DA MP doing the same on a public forum. Thus, I think it would go a long way to make it clearer that you (the DM) are not aligning yourself with any one political party if you were to explain on the site whether Ian Ollis is writing as himself, as the DA or as himself and the DA.

    What’s there (or rather what’s not there) at the moment seemingly goes against your stated “independence” and raises some nagging doubts about your neutral stance going forward.

  5. Let me lay those doubts to rest immediately: The Daily Maverick is not neutral. Never has been, never will be. That would be a fate far, far worse than being called a DA mouthpiece. Or anti-Semitic, anti-Palestine, pro-Obama, pro-Bush, anti-cyclist, pro-Assange, anti-Mbeki, pro-Motlanthe, baby killers or blasphemers, to quote from the current top 10 list.

    But we’re about as independent as we can be until declaring ourselves a sovereign nation; sadly that won’t happen until at least 2016.

    We’ve made it very clear that we aren’t aligned with any political party; you quote from our declaration of independence above. More importantly, the very nature of what appears on the site (not to mention the occasional fist fight between contributors) stands as proof of that. That seems to work for all but one tenth of one percent of all readers, and I doubt an editorial would make a difference to that group.

    As for the explanation on personal vs DA you want on Ollis columns, here’s my best attempt at a draft. Which we won’t publish, partially because it is stupid and partially because we think our readers are media literate enough to not need it.

    Columns are written by individuals and published by publications as the expression of the views of that individual. Organisations, political or otherwise, can not write columns, they can only issue statements. The Daily Maverick does not (as a general rule) publish statements, but does publish columns, which are written by and attributed to the individuals who write them.

    Some individuals are employed by or affiliated to specific organisations or political parties. Such employment or affiliation is generally expected to colour the views of such individuals. Depending on the position of the individual there may be a dynamic interaction between the views of the individual and the positions of the organisations or political party. This may not always be reflected in a column written by an individual, which may or may not subject the individual to disciplinary proceedings or, less probably, praise and promotion.

    Individuals who write columns may consult on the ideas underlaying that column, or even the actual content of the column, with other individuals, formally or informally, consciously or unwittingly. Presuming employment by a specific organisation or political party, such consultation is likely (though not certain) to reinforce the organisation or political party line in the final column, depending on the degree of policy unity within the organisation or political party. Other influences on the columns written by individuals may include, but is not limited to: the composition of the last dinner party the writer attended, the nature of recent casual conversations with strangers in lifts, blood sugar levels at time of writing, atmospheric pressure and a need to impress others with lucidity or multi-syllable words.

    Some columns are not written by the individuals who purport to have written them, but by other individuals who are not credited as authors. Although the purported authors still take responsibility for such ghost-written columns, The Daily Maverick rejects this as duplicitous. However, the editors are unable to conclusively verify an absence of such ghostly intervention in every case.

    Some columns are privately circulated to friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, bosses, subordinates and automated agents (such as spellcheckers) of the writer in draft form prior to submission. With the exception of the last, The Daily Maverick frowns on such consultation to the extent that it introduces views that are not those of the purported writer, but encourages it to the extent that it allows the writer to crystalise ideas or avoid a failure of logic or common sense.

    Instead we can just publish the column with the dude’s name and photo at the top, and his affiliation at the bottom.

  6. Phillip de Wet > What a comment. It’s made it up there into the top three of all time comments on 6000 miles…, just behind that one about George Bush Snr being responsible for the HIV pandemic and the one threatening to send my dismembered body parts to Canada over my views on the Brandon Huntley affair. (I may have deleted that one.)

    OK, point taken. Obviously, I don’t quite measure up to the calibre of your “media literate” readership and should therefore probably not read you.
    I understand that tagging that sort of disclaimer onto every column is obviously unworkable and therefore agree that you should publish with the dude’s name and photo at the top, and his affiliation at the bottom.

    Just maybe try to spell it correctly next time. 😉

  7. Indeed. I think cringe-worthy cases of finger trouble like that is a greater risk to our reputation than editorial choices like the one we’ve been arguing about. We certainly find them mortifying. Unfortunately they’re also hard to avoid with a small, overworked and sleep-deprived staff. We hear you, and we’ll try to do better.

  8. So The New Age is an ANC mouthpiece and The Daily Maverick is a DA mouthpiece ? Who would’ve guessed ? It’s like reading the YOU or watching Carte Blanche, you know what you’re gonna get before you turn the page or press the button.

  9. Phillip de Wet > Well, we’re all aiming to improve here, aren’t we?
    You on your basic grammar and spelling, me on my media literacy.

    Heather Mills > Which is why you don’t switch them on or buy them. Phillip – take note. 😉

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