Mixed messages from PnP et al

A lot has already been said about the allegedly “proposed” Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) and the despicable Protection of Information Bill (PIB), not least in that post last week on here.
And so it continues with Gareth Ackerman, chairman of local retail giant Pick n Pay weighing in with his opinion:

Pick n Pay recognises there is a close link between economic and political freedom. The economic freedom on which business depends flourishes best when citizens are able to rely on an unfettered flow of information that is free from excessive government control and regulation.

And since so far, 99% of the criticism of these proposals has come solely from “the media”, creating an “us versus them” scenario, they leapt upon his words with gay abandon, obviously delighted to have an ally outside their close-knit ranks and quoting his ever so luscious soundbites one after another.
In the Times:

The business sector should not believe itself exempt from this duty of responsible citizenship, and we thus have no hesitation in adding our voices to those who have expressed their misgivings about the consequences of the governing party’s proposals.

And with cautious optimism in the Daily Maverick:

“Any erosion of our open society, now that we have achieved it, will only impede economic growth and national prosperity,” he said.
In airing these views… Ackerman may have opened the door for others of a similar persuasion to do the same, which may finally move the debate beyond an increasingly acrimonious to-and-fro between the ANC and political bodies on the one hand, and the media itself on the other… Ackerman has effectively called on the business community to stand up and be counted.

Of course, these words come from the same company that recently banned certain newspapers from its shelves, which had at least one columnist from er… The Daily Maverick up in arms:

After a couple of pesky complaints about “nudity” and bad language in the Afrikaans newspapers, Sondag and Die Son, Pick ’n Pay decided to no longer carry these papers on its shelves. This was despite the fact that the Sunday weekly is sold in supermarkets in sealed plastic bags.
Speaking to the Saturday Star, Ingo Capraro, Sondag’s editor, said the decision was disturbing: “The constitution enshrines freedom of choice, freedom of association and media freedom. Pick ’n Pay’s decision to decide on behalf of its customer what they are allowed to read flies directly in the face of freedom of choice.”

Pick ’n Pay appears to have taken the decision unilaterally, without any consultations with media or civic or watchdog organisations. The company acted as judge, jury and executioner… this would be a very bad time for Pick ’n Pay to start playing media censor.

Local tabloid the Daily Voice was also withdrawn from sale , although apparently it is now available “in selected Pick n Pay stores”.  So presumably T&A are not ubiquitously offensive. I’m not sure how one would go about deciding exactly which stores would have open-minded enough shoppers allow sale of such publications, but I’d be willing to be surveyed if it involved commenting on a series of pictures.

And yes, this is entirely different from “freedom of the press”, but then as Gareth has told us, all these freedoms – media, press, freedom of expression, political freedom, economic freedom, freedom of choice – are interlinked. Right?

But then, this isn’t the first time that PnP have made unilateral decisions and statements over the freedom of expression. Who could forget the whole 2009 “blasphemous” (or “unneccessarily offensive” as I thought), SAX Appeal magazine debacle, when PnP pulled the magazine off the shelves after receiving “several complaints”:

Pick n Pay spokesperson Tamra Veley said that “students putting the magazine together should be extra careful while documenting, reporting and cartooning their work to avoid blatant disrespect of any faith, culture and race. We therefore made the decision to remove Sax Appeal from sale in Pick n Pay stores.”

But Freedom of Expression Institute executive director, Jane Duncan, said last night that blasphemy was no longer a recognised ground for restriction of publications: “So arguments to restrict the publication on this basis do not hold water”.

Look, I’m not stupid (no, really, I’m not). I recognise that Pick n Pay is a business and a business needs customers to keep going. And to keep the customers spending money, you must keep the customers happy. That’s obviously why they chose not to sell those newspapers and to withdraw the SAX Appeal magazine from sale. And yes, Ivo Vegter is correct in his assertion that one must:

…distinguish between the legal right to publish, and the right to sell what you want.

But I fail to see how the media can suddenly flip-flop and conveniently accept the support of Gareth Ackerman and Pick n Pay in their vigorous campaign against the MAT and PIB. It seems hugely hypocritical to me and has a more than faint smell of desperation about it: it seems that when you’re struggling, you’ll accept help from any quarter – even one that has blatantly stood against the same principles you’re fighting for on several occasions previously.

To me, that devalues your message, your campaign and with it, your chances of success.

4 thoughts on “Mixed messages from PnP et al

  1. Is there really any inconsistency in Pick ‘n Pay saying that they won’t support sell SAX appeal or TnA tabloids and at the same time defending freedom of expression?

    Are PnP *obliged* to stock all newspapers? All student magazines? All brands of baked beans? As you point out, these will all come down to business decisions.

    PnP never suggested that SAX appeal should be banned. They never suggested that you should not be able to lean out of your car window and buy one from the 1st year dressed in only a black bin liner at the Paradise Road traffic lights (and why anyone would choose to buy one from PnP when this is the alternative is beyond me!)

    At the same time, they know that restricting access to information is bad for investment and bad for business. A voice from big business to articulate this has been seriously lacking in the current debate. So big up to Gareth, really.

    Maybe it’s the media’s “flip-flopping” reaction that is troubling you. I have more sympathy with you here. For the same publication to hail Gareth Ackerman as the champion of free speech only weeks/months after berating him as an oppressor is disingenuous. BUT, I think the mistake lies in their overreaction to PnP pulling SAX et al, rather than their current reaction to his stance on his public utterings.

    Personally I think it was a cowardly move by PnP to pull the publications. But if I want them, I can find them elsewhere, which won’t necessarily be the case if the PoIB and Media Tribunal become a reality.

  2. As you know, I was no fan of the decision to pull Sax Appeal from the shelves. But freedom of choice and freedom of speech are separate battles. Overlapping in many respects, sure, but if you want to claim hypocrisy on the part of the media, you need to justify it by showing how they are flip-flopping on the same principle – not that they are arguing seemingly opposing positions on two separate principles.

    On the broad issue of a free press and the threats presented by the MAT and PIB, the media can welcome support from quarters that they know to be influential, while at the same time wishing that those quarters allowed for greater freedom of choice, or made their choices around what to stock based on principles more interesting/robust than assuaging the sensitivities of consumers. PnP has never – to my knowledge, and having been intimately involved with the Sax Appeal case – stood against a free press as a general principle or philosophy.

    Instead, they argued that freedom of expression is in conflict with the sensitivities of a significant proportion of their clients, and that costs outweighed benefits in terms of possible reputational damage. That’s a business decision, and to interpret it as a philosophical one so as to paint them as being opposed to free speech in general – in order to justify a claim of hypocrisy on the part of the media – is a rather simplistic analysis. Mea culpa, in the sense that I’ve made similar claims myself.

    If this is a free speech issue, then one would need to show how the Sax Appeal/Son sort of case inhibits the free flow of ideas/information. And even if one could do that (given alternate channels of availability), you’d still need to refute the quite plausible claim that there’s a world of difference between not stocking something for specific reasons (tits,ass,god-mocking) versus a bill or bills that allow for the unavailability/censorship of a very non-specific and ill-defined set of threats, which are defined by exactly the people that the media are trying to serve as watchdogs of.

  3. Dylan Edwards > You’ve got it exactly right in your supposition around the issue which is really troubling me. But it’s nice to have background for readers who aren’t local and/or aren’t up to speed with the background, context or latest events.
    I’m well aware that PnP’s decision on the newspapers and Sax Appeal was entirely driven by their concerns around business and their “reputation”. But it does still amount to a restriction of freedom of expression. You are perhaps correct again when you suggest that the media overreacted to those newspapers being removed from sale. Of course, media overreaction is something which really needs to be kept under control, but that’s not another story.
    Whatever the reason for their “flip-flopping”, it remains “flip-flopping” and it is hypocritical to now welcome the support of an individual whose organisation you were criticising for pulling newspapers just a couple of months ago. Even more so when that individual’s support emphasises the fact that all freedoms are interlinked.

    Jacques > As I mentioned above in my reply to Dylan – I’m not for one moment suggesting that PnP’s decision was anything but business based. And in that, they have done nothing wrong, albeit that their spokesperson unjustly cited blasphemy as their reason (excuse) for removing SAX Appeal from sale. (But again, Ackerman’s “linking of freedoms” refers – in my opinion, if you go down that road, you can’t conveniently pick and choose which freedoms you’re going to link.)
    I realise that the issues of the MAT and the PIB are, in that way, unrelated to the PnP issue. But the media embracing Ackerman’s support demonstrates their fickle nature. It’s shallow, playground politics and therefore, as I said, it does nothing to enhance their reputation in my eyes nor to strengthen their case.

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