This is why this website is not about to start censoring Julius Malema

This is a long column. A very long column. But I felt as disinclined to censor myself on this one as I do the leader of the EFF.

I’m no fan of the EFF. By now, anyone who knows me knows that. Even back in the days when, as a personal favour to Floyd Shivambu, I proofread and edited their sacred founding document, the party’s 2013 manifesto with its “seven cardinal pillars”, I had my doubts about them.

In case you’re wondering how that came about, there were thoughts at the time I might write or ghost-write some sort of biography/autobiography – call it the Chronicles of Juju, if you will – which I was feeling increasingly disinclined to do, and which I’m happy never happened.

I was working in a newsroom then, during the time Julius Malema and company were building up to what would become their new party. I’m still working in a newsroom today. Over the years, I’ve seen the extent to which many journalists have changed in attitude towards Malema. It’s been interesting.

Malema was once the enemy of our enemy, and we thought that made him our friend. Malema, of course, knew he wasn’t. He even told us he wasn’t. But we didn’t seem to be listening all that attentively between all the insults he was dishing out to the man he called the Butternut Head.

In those early days, it was rare to find journalists who simply said they didn’t like the EFF. There was something almost celebratory in the media about the launch of this new party as a challenge to the ANC in the wake of the horrors of the Marikana massacre; obviously most of it was predicated on the antagonism many journalists felt towards the then president, Jacob Zuma. But we were being naive. I said so repeatedly, and felt somewhat ignored. I don’t mind being ignored, by the way. I’m only too happy being a nobody whose every opinion doesn’t change the weather. But I have my views nevertheless.

Malema was a useful, sharp and jagged weapon with which we thought we could beat Zuma. And half-beat him to death with it we did. We revelled and glorified every time Malema aimed a jab in the direction of “ZANC” or “Zupta”.

We thought we could use Malema, and we did. There wasn’t enough reflection going on at the time about how he was using us in return.

At one point, one of the white editors I was working with at a weekly newspaper wrote an impassioned column about why he had voted or was planning to vote EFF, and it even sounded half convincing. He spoke of the need for a change to the status quo, since we live in a country that is hostile to the poor. Change is needed. Obviously. To him, the EFF represented a way to achieve some of that desperately needed change.

I remember telling him: “Well, I guess there’s some good news and some bad news then. The good news is we do seem to have a new defender of the constitution, who is fearless, tireless and outspoken. The bad news is it’s Julius Malema.”

He tried to argue the point that the EFF should somehow be seen as a greater idea or “movement” than Malema alone.

But no. Anything that involves Malema will always be entirely about Malema. It’s not even hard to figure out why – the guy embodies literally every textbook quality of just about every demagogic dictator who’s ever lived.

Fast-forward to the end of 2018 and it’s now apparently becoming hard to find a journalist in any major newsroom who’s openly a Malema fan. Columnists and editors are shamelessly calling for us to treat our reportage of the EFF more circumspectly; Max du Preez even wrote yesterday that we should be giving less airtime and coverage to the EFF because they are “assaulting our democracy”.

This is the kind of suggestion we at The Citizen are most familiar with. We often get complaints from readers about how we report “too much” on the EFF and their sayings and doings. It’s the same with the BLF, who many people (particularly white people) don’t want us to report on at all.

It was in 2016, when I entered the world of online journalism, that I began to comprehend just how voraciously almost any article on the EFF and its leaders is consumed and how widely it’s shared.

Just writing a headline like, “Hey, it’s Floyd Shivambu’s birthday today” will get more reader interest than “Here’s all the Guptas’ corruption”. Stories about the EFF are like crack cocaine to people reading news on the internet, and I’ve realised it doesn’t matter whether the audience is white, black, Indian, coloured or whatever, everyone reads about Julius Malema, whether they love him or hate him. It’s because they love him or hate him that they do. Characters who engender such strong feelings will always get attention, and Malema knows that only too well. He knows he’s a walking, talking headline machine – and it brings in money to an embattled media industry.

As a result, just about everyone in our industry writes about Julius Malema in one way or the other.

People would stop making and selling cocaine if the world stopped buying it. But that isn’t about to happen. Just like no one is about to stop reading about the EFF and its leaders. But they probably will stop reading about them, at least on the current dominant websites in South Africa, if the Max du Preez school of thought on how to present the news takes hold. That won’t be a good thing.

When Ferial Haffajee – a woman I’ve worked with and respect and admire – recently did a Twitter poll to find out how many journalists would be standing in solidarity with her to stop reporting on the EFF, I answered “not me”.

I understood why she made this call. The EFF has said some awful things about her, as well as other people she cares about; it’s acted atrociously; I agree it’s bad that the EFF has banned the Sunday Times from its events (apparently).

However, there I was, looking at her poll, thinking The Citizen has pretty much been on an EFF blacklist for more than three years already anyway. I did a quick poll of my own among our journalists and editors on whether anyone at our paper ever gets a reply on any question they ever pose to the EFF. Everyone said no. We’re not on the EFF’s Christmas card list. They hate us. So what?

Welcome to the club, Sunday Times, what took you so long?

None of this has stopped us from reporting on the EFF. It actually makes life easier when the people you’re reporting on just ignore you all the time. You can just say “they didn’t comment”, and write whatever you were going to write anyway.

As for Max du Preez’s argument that it’s irresponsible to blindly report on what Malema might say without somehow verifying it factually first or editing out the “incendiary” bits … that sounds like a great idea on the surface, but the moment you stop to think about how this may happen practically, it kind of falls to pieces. Corporate media has already signed up to a Press Code that holds us to a high standard of ethical reportage. We don’t need a “Max du Preez clause” that could easily end up becoming a more intellectualised version of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s much-vilified banning of live protests. Motsoeneng had some strong arguments for that idea too, but censorship is censorship, regardless of how nicely you try to dress it up.

The EFF has its own distribution channels for its messages. It’s huge on social media and doesn’t really need the “mainstream” media to get what it wants out there to whomever it wants. The EFF could probably easily fill stadium after stadium in town after town all over this country with no help at all from “the media”.

If the corporate media as a whole were to stop reporting on the EFF, I assure you that would simply create a big vacuum and something would arise to fill that space. That something would probably be awful. And we will have brought truth to the lie that “the media” is some sort of homogeneous thing.

We “mainstream” media people may not be perfect in what we do, but at least we try to report accurately and to reflect the facts as best we can. Du Preez’s paternalistic suggestion that professional media people – as some sort of self-appointed overlords of The Truth – should cherry-pick which messages from Malema to serve up and which not, will only lead to a breakdown in the trust relationship between ourselves and our readers/viewers/listeners.

People will soon catch on that they aren’t getting the full picture, or that it’s being presented in a heavily sanitised way, and they’ll stop consuming what we have to sell them. No one wants to feel like they’re being treated like a bunch of children. And, like my colleague Daniel Friedman pointed out in his own column yesterday, simply refraining from reporting on the EFF is not about to make them go away.

Audiences will turn to the “something else” for their news about the EFF. And we will struggle to get them back.

On this website we shall continue to report on all the good and bad about the EFF (as we do every other political party), as it happens, as completely as we can – and then trust in our readers to make up their own minds. If they come to conclusions I may not like, well that’s just tough cookies for me, isn’t it?

I’m not here to tell people what to think or how to think it; I’ll happily share my opinions and as many of the facts as we can, but the rest is up to the people, whether we like what they do with it or not; whether they gobble up Malema’s lies wholesale or not. That’s on them, and it’s on Malema. It’s not on us.

That’s how democracies work, Max du Preez. It’s not an “assault” on a democracy to report every bleeding word Malema might say. It is an assault on democracy when you openly sign up for censoring Malema or anyone else.

The most dangerous unintended consequence of what might happen with presenting a sanitised Malema (or whoever) to the public is that they may then never get a full picture of the kind of person he is, and they may be able to get away with some day wheeling out the lame excuse that they were never “warned” about him or weren’t informed enough. That cannot be entertained.

In a recent documentary about Donald Trump, one person points out that the now US president learnt early in his career that most reporters simply repeated whatever he told them, uncritically, mainly because they didn’t know that what he was saying was nonsense, or because they thought it probably wasn’t their job to editorialise.

That’s not great, I admit, but that’s what being a reporter is. When I put a reporter on a story, I expect that person to accurately capture what was said and done and to follow the rules about giving people the right to reply, and so on, all the way through the news cycle. I expect them, especially young reporters, to keep it simple. I learnt early on there’s no such thing as objective reporting anyway, there’s just an attempt to offer up as many sides of any given story as possible. And hopefully, somewhere along the way, the full truth emerges. Often, no one knows what the truth is, and that’s nobody’s fault. It can take years for “the truth” to emerge, if it ever does.

It’s not journalists’ fault if the person whose words we’re reporting just so happens to be a psychopath whose primary medium is lies. It’s not our job to decide who the psychopath is and to treat him or her differently.

That’s the trouble with psychopaths and conmen. They’re hard to identify and to expose. Over time, they may be, and part of me still believes the bulk of our voting public isn’t going to choose Malema as our president, because hopefully they can see he’s toxic and that he’s cynically using valid issues such as fighting poverty and promoting radical land reform to sucker them in. But I don’t know. There are some things we’re better off not trying to control, just like many a parent outside of a matrimonially controlling culture has had to learn the tough lesson that you can’t tell your son or daughter who to love and who to marry. They have to make their own mistakes.

If Malema happens to allege that Pravin Gordhan has a sneaky offshore account somewhere into which he secretes all his evil white monopoly capital money, are we as “the media” to somehow decide – simply on the basis that we may happen to currently like Pravin Gordhan a bit more than we like Julius Malema – that Malema is lying and there’s no chance that Gordhan has done anything worth questioning?

And do we then just not report that Malema said this? Why? Because we decided it’s not true? Who bequeathed us such powers?

If this becomes our new reality, does that mean that from now on how a person is reported on should be determined by whatever the current view of the particular journalist reporting on them is, and the general “mood” of “the media” towards that person? As determined by who? Max du Preez?

The greatest irony about this time in our collective love-hate relationship with Julius Malema is that these new calls for the media to stand “in solidarity” to stop reporting on the EFF may in fact be coming when the EFF is feeling under the most pressure of scrutiny and doesn’t want any more attention from the media.

It may suit Malema down to the ground to hear that certain journalists may soon no longer be reporting on him.

It struck me as somewhat ironic that one of the very journalists, Pauli van Wyk, who has placed so much heat on Malema recently with her reports on his alleged VBS crimes quoted Max du Preez enthusiastically yesterday, apparently endorsing the idea that it’s even possible, in our political climate, to know which statements are defamation and which are not, and for us to expect journalists to be able to decide who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are and to thus report what they’re saying with their good guy or bad guy status tag in mind.

It’s a noble and hopeful idea to think that journalists are capable of being such human lie-detectors, and that we’re able to separate fact from fiction in mere minutes within the pressures of a daily news cycle – when it can take fully staffed courtrooms and commissions of inquiry years to do the same thing, and even then not be completely sure.

I’d love to live in a world where journalists have these awesome powers, and never get it wrong. But that’s not this world. Sorry Max, we can’t all be infallible, though we’ll keep trying. For us to suddenly create the expectation that we, as journalists, can live up to Max du Preez’s impossible standard of reportage is not something I could, in all honesty, ever commit to. And I’d encourage you to distrust any journalist who thinks or says he or she can.

Quite a few of us have good bullshit detectors – sure. But let’s also keep in mind that, in the process of all this, we’re probably once again being outsmarted by Malema and playing right into his hands. Because once the media has decided en masse to censor him, he’ll just be able to say: “You see, I told you they were Pravin’s Private Army. I told you they were Ramaphosa’s Defence Force. Just see.”

And there we’ll be, looking guilty.

Let’s also never lose sight of the fact that Malema represents an important demographic that feels its struggles are never heard, and that this particular loudmouth represents their best hope of getting something out of life before they die. We know he isn’t, but they don’t know that, and they have bitter few other heroes to look to for hope. The last thing we want is to empower Malema to tell them: “You see, they are ignoring me. Because, really, they are ignoring you.”

He is a master of cynically making attacks on him seem like attacks on the many poor and disenfranchised people he has adroitly rounded up as his primary constituency over the years; his “base”, as they say in Trumpville. We need to be careful that how we report on Malema (or don’t report on him) doesn’t make it seem that we aren’t interested in uplifting the poor in this country, and that we in fact hate Malema because we hate the poor.

Because even if that isn’t true (and I sometimes wonder), Malema will sure as hell make it seem like it is. And then, good luck trying to keep him out of Mahlamba Ndlophu.

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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