How things work

A great letter in today’s Cape Times from John Walmsley of the Nuclear Institute rebuffing the concerns of opponents to nuclear power in the wake of the troubles at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan.

I’m trying to get hold of the full text, but there was one thing which I found particularly pertinent, especially while the fracking debate continues on this post.

This quote from the letter:

The anti-nuclear lobby will make alarming public pronouncements that will be quietly trashed by professional health organisations in the technical literature.

Brilliant. Because isn’t this the problem? It was the problem with MMR, where the experts repeatedly stated that there was no link to autism, but the anti-vax groups preyed on the public’s fear and exacerbated the effect of Andrew Wakefield’s lies.

And it still exists with the anti-fracking parties spreading fear through emotionally-laden misinformation to advance their cause.
It closes minds and it means that the real information – the important, factual information – is hidden from the general public. Which, of course, is the aim of these people.

In some ways, analogies can be drawn to the issue that troubles me around the media and their inaccuracies: namely that they can shout about a subject  on the front page – however inaccurate their claims may be – often igniting a bitter, yet worthless debate based on nonsense, but then get away with publishing a tiny correction at the bottom of page 19 two weeks later.

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.

If you want media freedom

Ah – about time I passed comment on the Sunday Times journalist thing.
And by “thing” I mean the arrest of Sunday Times investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika on Wednesday by the Hawks. Since then, the charges against him have been thrown out, then (possibly) reinstated and he has now been freed on R5,000 bail.
Apparently, anyway – the waters around this are a little muddy since the media has got its panties in a right twist around the whole story and thus getting a reasoned and accurate version of what is actually going on is proving rather difficult.

What appears to be the case is that the charges allegedly relate(d) to a fax that wa Afrika allegedly received from the fax machine of a rural school in Mpumalanga, allegedly containing this allegedly fake letter of resignation allegedly from Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza.
Doesn’t look much like a cut & paste job to me, oh no. (cough).

Obviously, there was no question of wa Afrika having actually written this letter – there simply aren’t enough spelling errors for it to be a Sunday Times piece.

But the media is complaining that this was intimidation and a clampdown on journalistic freedom ahead of the debate over the already much debated Media Tribunal.
Apparently, wa Afrika was simply making his way to Rosebank Police Station to hand himself in when, in the words of his editor Ray Hartley, “somebody decided they wanted to make something more dramatic out of it” and he was arrested by several officers from the Hawks.

So his handing himself over at Rosebank was to be a quiet, understated affair was it, Ray?
Weird that he chose to walk there, rather than hop in a car. Weird that you helpfully had several photographers with him along with someone videoing his short walk from freedom. Weird that, since you object to somebody deciding they wanted to make something more dramatic out of it, Times Live rather dramatically published a dramatic picture of wa Afrika’s empty desk.

If I were a cynic, I might be tempted to think that they were using this to try and win hearts and minds.

Of course, Hartley et al are vehemently opposed to the Media Tribunal. The M&G quotes Nelson Mandela in a full page ad today and The Times published an emotive audio statement by SANEF Chairman Mondli Makhanya in which he “reflects on the dark days of apartheid”.

So why do we need this Tribunal? Well, as Jeremy Cronin of the SACP states:

Media stories, especially sensational allegations about prominent personalities, have legs of their own.
Saying sorry after the event is just not good enough. Sorry doesn’t undo the damage, whether the sorry is prominently displayed or obscurely tucked away.

And these apologies range from inaccurate stories about cricketers to inaccurate stories about Christine Qunta and Ronald Suresh Roberts, incorrect allegations of corruption against the SABC and wildly inaccurate allegations against Transnet and the Land Bank, leading Chris Moerdyke to say:

Whenever I see front page apologies, which seem to be more and more common these days, I am saddened that once again the mass media in this country has had to admit that they have got things wrong. For those who believe so strongly in the freedom of the press and the integrity of South African media, it is just plain bloody embarrassing.

Words that the Sunday Times editor at the time of those sensationalist Land Bank and Transnet embarrassments would do well to consider.
That man is, of course, Mondli Makhanya. Hmm.

And he would be the same editor that stated:

…our relationship of trust with our readers is paramount and no damage to this trust can be tolerated

back in December 2004 as he reluctantly dismissed an investigative reporter “on charges of acting contrary to the Sunday Times code of conduct by allowing a conflict of interest to develop and of bringing the Sunday Times’s credibility into disrepute.”

That investigative reporter? One Mzilikazi wa Afrika.

Cronin’s statement yesterday might have only touched on one part of the alleged reasoning behind the proposed Tribunal. Many more cynical individuals would argue that it’s more about preventing genuine and negative stories about the Government from being published. But while the SA media keep publishing inaccurate rubbish, they are helpfully generating a handy reason for the ANC and its allies to instate such a body.

Simply, if you want media freedom, you must use it wisely.

UPDATE: Should have put this in the original post, as it’s an excellent point. As you might expect, because it’s by me.

There’s another hugely important point I have to make here – given their legendary sensationalist and wholly inaccurate reporting (read here:, why would I be foolish enough to believe that same media on the possible effects and implications of a possible Media Tribunal? Why wouldn’t they spin this story like they seem to spin most others?
Why would I be so (rightfully) cynical about their other stories and articles and take this one at face value?
Why would anyone?


UPDATE 2: All the ANC wants to do is stick these sort of warning stickers onto your newspapers.