Categories
Politics

Journalists in politics, and the myth of objectivity

The news of Donwald Pressly’s suspension from Independent Newspapers (allegedly following his putting himself forward as a candidate for the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 elections) has given rise to some discussion on journalistic “objectivity”, and whether journalists should be members of political parties. I’m largely in agreement with Eusebius McKaiser’s views on this, but want to add a few comments of my own.

Both Pressly (and previously, Brendan Boyle) were suspended when it emerged that they had put their names forward for internal consideration by the Democratic Alliance (DA), in a process that is meant to be confidential. They had not yet been appointed to any position, nor been selected or assigned to any ranking on the Party’s list of candidates. Leaving aside the leaking of this information (itself involving ethical issues), they had indicated that they would be willing to leave their current jobs for a career in Parliament, rather than already taken up jobs involving representing a political party.

In other words, they already held the political viewpoints that made this a plausible career choice for them. All that changed was that those viewpoints were made more public. And despite already having those viewpoints, their ability to report fairly on matters political hadn’t been called into doubt before this, at least not to my knowledge. As a friend remarked, “both are excellent and ethical contributors in the public sphere, and, in their professional lives, have upheld the journalistic standards expected of them”.

Despite already holding these views, and doing their jobs (at least) competently, the view seems to be that once readers are made aware that you hold those views, you can no longer be trusted – even if you (arguably) write the same sorts of things before and after. This seems to imply that readers are unable to judge the content of the writing as presented to them, including considering whether details are accurately presented in whatever it is that they are reading, and whether or not the journalist is trying to nudge them into taking one side over another.

In other words, readers need their hands held, but more importantly, their hands are being held by an arbitrary fiction. First, arbitrary because not only do most people already hold political views, but also because it’s only certain forms of view that get counted in these situations. If you’re a member of Greenpeace, you can’t be “objective” in the strong sense demanded of Pressly and Boyle. If you’re a democrat, or a constitutionalist, or a non-racist, you’re expressing a view – but some views are deemed to not impugn your “objectivity”, while others apparently do.

And the arbitrary defining line between objectivity and not is simply party membership, regardless of what you write, or how you write it, because judging whether you’re making sense on the page is apparently beyond us. This seems a paternalistic, and infantalising, view of my competencies as a reader.

Then, objectivity itself is an impossible standard to set. What you’re looking for is balance, not objectivity, because we’re simply not capable of what Nagel called “the view from nowhere”. Whatever you write is going to include certain sources, exclude others, chase some leads and not others – and all of these decisions are made by a person, with existing beliefs. In other words, by a subjective human agent. But his or her job is to offer as balanced a report as they can – and this involves being aware of your biases to the extent that you are able, so that you can compensate for them when necessary.

So, I disagree strongly with how Boyle and Pressly were treated. We need to develop new norms about this, in my view – the traditional interpretation of ‘objective’ journalism simply isn’t sustainable, and was always a myth that we were simply afraid to acknowledge. Awareness of biases is what should be cultivated, with people being deployed on a different desk only when bias is interfering with accuracy. Anything else is, to my mind, awarding yet another victory to paranoia and fear-mongering – assignation of guilt by means of whispers and innuendo, in a way that rewards readers for the logical error of making ad hominem judgements about journalists.

Then, there’s also a practical problem, in terms of timing – both Pressly and Boyle are being asked to give up their jobs months before an election for the hypothetical possibility that they might become DA representatives. That doesn’t seem fair, and is most probably unconstitutional.

Having said all that, of course editors need to respond to the market as it is, not how I’d like it to be. So I can understand why these journalists were suspended, while still hoping that we can realise it’s an error to respond in this way.

Categories
Daily Maverick Politics

Mantashe wants to help you “Know your DA”

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

130418daThe headline “DA’s campaign a desperate propaganda” left me quite sure that the text was going to be one of those overwrought reader-contributed op-eds, or at worst a product of Jackson Mthembu’s excitable pen. The content did little to challenge that assumption, leaving me quite surprised to see the name of ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, adorning the foot of the column in question.

The campaign he refers to is of course “Know your DA”, the first of the Democratic Alliance’s campaigns for the 2014 elections. The campaign attracted criticism right from the start, when Helen Zille’s launch speech neglected to mention Tony Leon, who led the party throughout most of its growth from 1.7% to 12.3% of the national vote.

I’d be annoyed by this if I were Leon (though not as annoyed as Rhoda Kadalie apparently was, in comparing Zille’s “airbrushing of history” to that of Stalin (she’s since deleted the tweet), but I think I’d nevertheless understand the reasoning behind leaving him out of the launch speech. The man who was the face of the 1999 “Fight back” election campaign – at the time, derided as the “fight black” campaign – would be quite a hard sell in a 2014 campaign that centres on the DA’s role in fighting apartheid.

Not because Leon played no role, of course, but rather because election campaigns are often about attention spans and caricatures rather than facts. In the case of Leon, we have “Fight back”, the merger with the New National Party, and support for the death penalty. In the case of Helen Suzman, we have the sole consistent voice against apartheid in Parliament for the 13 years from 1961 to 1974.

Suzman was a national treasure, and it strikes me rather bizarre that FW de Klerk has a Nobel Peace Prize while she (twice nominated) does not. But it was her principled contribution to ending apartheid that led Nelson Mandela to speak of the courage and integrity that marks her out as “one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa”.

It’s that association the DA is aiming for by showing the image of Mandela hugging Suzman, rather than the image being an attempt to appropriate Mandela as a DA supporter. For better or worse, most South Africans regard Mandela as a moral authority. His endorsement of someone’s character therefore carries significant weight, as the ANC – never shy of invoking the Mandela brand – seems to realise.

Mantashe claims that this is propaganda. On one level, of course it is, just as all electioneering is propaganda of a sort. Expecting the “Know your DA” campaign to talk about “all its history and not just the struggle parts”, as an anonymous “PR and marketing expert who has done political campaigns before” did in this weekend’s City Press, is absurd – we always try to present ourselves in the best possible light.

Not only because nobody has the time to hear or present a comprehensive history lesson in each speech, but also because the alternative is unreasonable. While electioneering, we don’t expect Jacob Zuma to remind us that he was charged with rape, or took a shower to avoid HIV infection. It’s not propagandistic to highlight the things one is proudest of, and if it is true that the DA of today still represents those values Mandela recognised in Suzman, it’s legitimate to point this out.

My view is that they represent fewer of those values than I’d prefer, yet enough of them to make a poster and campaign like this one risky, but nevertheless legitimate. It’s somewhat opportunistic to highlight Mandela’s recognition of Suzman, but it’s not dishonest.

If we understand propaganda to mean a selective presentation of facts to inappropriately or dishonestly influence someone’s beliefs, then I’d suggest that Mantashe himself has a few questions to answer following Sunday’s column. In it, he asserts that what has remained throughout the “evolution of whatever trend among the white minority … has been either brazen advocacy for white domination and privilege or some elaborate schemes for its retention in the guise of liberal policies”.

That’s Mantashe’s interpretation of DA policy, and some of you might share the interpretation. And while he and you are of course free to do so, there is of course another side to the story, and Mantashe knows it. That story involves not only those mentioned in Zille’s launch speech, such as Seremane, Balindlela and de Lille – but also a large group of emerging leaders from the youth structures, many of whom are not white liberals.

Mantashe speaks of the “disdain with which the DA treats transformation” as if it becomes true in uttering it, or perhaps through repeated refrain – and what would that be, if not propaganda? Again, the DA might be wrong in how it approaches transformation, but that’s an entirely separate question to whether they are sincerely wrong, or whether they are lying about their intentions to buttress white privilege.

As Mantashe points out, the “combination of desperation and dishonesty is a lethal one”, and if the DA’s “Know your history” will be perceived as an exploitation of struggle history, we’ll know about it once the ballots are counted. But 20 years after our first democratic election, it’s certainly possible to question whether the ANC are the sole – or more importantly, the best – custodians of our freedom and our future.

And yes, it is also an interesting and legitimate question whether Suzman would support the DA of today. Just as interesting and legitimate, in fact, as the question of whether or not Mandela would support the ANC of today.

Categories
Morality Politics

So now non-racialism is racist too

The Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) have launched a new advertising campaign. Here’s what many South Africans on Twitter and Facebook have been talking about today:

And in the curious place that is South Africa, this poster is somehow racist. It’s one thing to criticise the very idea of non-racialism – you can argue that a political party that is trying to encourage us leave race out of our analysis is naïve, and you can even argue that non-racialism can’t serve as an antidote to racism because we need to focus on race. But if you believe that race shouldn’t matter, as I do, then highlighting the fact that some people are still inclined to see relationships between different races as wrong – or even simply remarkable – is perfectly consistent with a commitment to non-racialism.

That’s what this poster does. It simply highlights the fact that some people would look twice at an inter-racial couple, and reminds viewers of the poster that in the ideal DASO future, this wouldn’t happen. As I pointed out in a Twitter exchange, my regular interactions with students at the University of Cape Town confirm that it’s simply not true that South Africans don’t need to be reminded that inter-racial relationships are okay. Yes, they (they meaning the DASO target audience, ie. youth) might be well aware that the Immorality Act has been repealed, but this doesn’t mean that social pressure to date people with similar pigmentation has disappeared. It’s still a very real pressure, which I hear about (or overhear people talking about) on a regular basis.

This is perhaps again simply an instance of the Twitterati imagining that they are the only arbiters of good sense and reason, imagining that they speak for everyone. And one is sometimes fearful of that possibility, seeing as the Twitterati can say some profoundly stupid things. I was told, for example, that it’s “racist to presume non-racialism is about who you have sex with”. As I said in reply, this poster is but one example of what non-racialism would entail – namely that nobody would care if people were having an inter-racial relationship.

Was the poster meant to include depictions of every possible instance of non-racialism to avoid being racist? It seems that it should have, which would have made for a pretty large poster. And even if it had tried to, someone would still have come up with something that’s wrong with it. Perhaps the art direction was racist, or perhaps it’s somehow sinister that the DASO logo covers the black woman, and not the man (this is not a joke – someone did say that. It does so happen that the black woman has breasts, which is a more likely contender for why the logo was placed where it was).

Should DASO’s poster have featured two white people? Of course not – that would be racist. Should it have featured two black people? Of course not – that would have been described as desperate. Should it have featured a gay couple, whether inter-racial or not? Perhaps (although that would also have been described as desperate) – but one can understand that they did not, partly because the majority of the market is heterosexual, and partly because they might have been cowed by the amount of (obviously unjustified) offence that would have caused.

What this sort of thing goes to show is that if you want to find a problem, you’ll do so – regardless of the intellectual contortions necessary. As I said at the start of this post, it’s entirely possible that non-racialism is misguided, even impossible. But making the claim that this poster is racist – in the context of inter-racial relationships being an actual issue for some – is an entirely unsympathetic, and unjustifiable, analysis.

UPDATE: The stupid doesn’t stop there. The African Christian Democratic Party say the poster is “shocking” and promotes “sexual immorality”. Furthermore, “in a country with high levels of Aids and an overdose of crime, especially the high incidence of farm murders this year, this poster sends the opposite message to the country than needed”. (Apologies to the ACDP for initially mis-attributing these quotes to them.)

Categories
Morality Politics Religion

Brief thoughts on Jack Bloom

While I’ve previously commented on the illiberal nature of some of Helen Zille’s recent public utterances, at least she’s mostly kept her personal religious beliefs out of the equation. Sure, they no doubt inform her conservative moral stance, but her arguments and proposed interventions are nevertheless supported by arguments (regardless of your, or my, views on the quality of those arguments).

By contrast, Jack Bloom (DA Leader in the Gauteng legislature) seems to have no qualms in putting God at front and centre as a potential answer to South Africa’s ills, regardless of the diversity of belief among those who voted for his party (not to mention a large number of those who work for his party). In fact, God seems to have been here all along, not only facilitating the “transition from Apartheid”, but also working abroad in spurring the abolitionist movement against slavery, and inspiring people to formulate the “democratic concepts that led to the American Revolution”.

There’s no question that Bloom is sincere, and that he believes religion can play a role in encouraging people to think about their moral obligations. Sadly for those of us who think morality can only be principled if also secular, he’s in agreement with the DA’s general position here, where the party says that religion “should serve as a moral and spiritual inspiration“.

But even this view (the mistaken one, that morality and religion are easy bedfellows) is at least comprehensible, given that our country is mostly religious. Comprehensible, not reasonable, because if we need more prayer and less politics (as Bloom argues), surely the ACDP would have a far higher share of the votes?

What’s most egregious about Bloom’s opinion piece is that he by and large simply makes things up as he goes along, plucking historical events out of the timeline and – without any evidence (unless you count dubious correlations as evidence, which you shouldn’t) – attributes them to prayer and religion. It’s true that Lanphier drove a large Christian revival movement in the US during the mid-1800’s, yes, but to say that it was the Christianity – rather than basic human compassion or economics – that informed the abolition of slavery is an entirely circular argument, which assumes what it purports to demonstrate.

The American Revolution – also offered by Bloom as evidence for the power of prayer – seems more plausibly explained by something like the first 13 colonies revolting against rule by the British Empire, regardless of whether some or many the revolutionaries were religious. Their desire to be free doesn’t need religion to make sense, and it seems entirely spurious – and again circular – to use this as evidence for us needing more prayer and less politics.

And then of course there’s the elephant in the room: namely, that the data overwhelmingly suggest that on any benchmark of morality you care to pick, secular countries usually outperform religious ones. Corruption? Check. Divorce rates? Check. Crime? Check. Do a comparison for whatever measure you like using something like Google’s public data explorer, or read a simple and short book like Sinnott-Armstrong’s Morality without God.

One of the saddest aspects of public utterances like this from DA leaders, for me, is the fact that the DA has one clear advantage over other contenders in the political arena: the effective, and entirely pragmatically motivated, delivery of goods and services. That’s their clear competitive advantage, and the drum they should be beating more loudly than any other. But when a DA official – and a highly placed one at that – tells us that he hopes to outsource his job to God (at best) or collective insanity (at worst), it only reinforces the fear that populism is taking the place of common sense.

Bloom closes his piece with “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen”. Seeing as all the existing studies of prayer’s efficacy show no effects (or in at least one case, negative effects), don’t hold your breath.

Edit: This post as well as a reply from Jack Bloom can be found on PoliticsWeb, where you’ll also find some entertaining comments. Also see another Christian perspective from Jordan Pickering.

 

Categories
Daily Maverick Morality Politics

The Erasmus judgement on Makhaza

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The Erasmus judgement in the Makhaza toilet case, handed down on Friday last week, makes for depressing reading, as would the details of the lives and conditions of most poor South Africans. The judgement itself contains a hint of this, where (in section 136), an affidavit related to the City of Cape Town’s counter application is excerpted, in which Thembisa Princess Sokabo tells us that:

The toilets we have in Nkanini (i.e. the one to five households toilets) are generally in an appalling state, notwithstanding the City’s attempt to maintain same, to the extent that members of the community generally do not use them. They are always blocked and filthy, and are not appropriate for human use. Due to the fact that they are communally owned, people do not take responsibility and personal pride in them. Not only are the toilets filthy and unsafe, but they are a health hazard to people in general and to children in particular as they have burst pipes which are overflowing with faeces.

Despite the fact that many South Africans are forced to live in sub-optimal, unhygienic, and sometimes even degrading conditions, Makhaza has become one of the focal points of debate around service delivery in the Cape. By extension, Erasmus’s Makhaza judgement has rapidly become a stick that Tony Ehrenreich is using to argue that the ANC would do a better job than the DA of defending the interests of the poor.

This could well be true, although we should remember that the ANC has already had a chance to champion the interests of the poor in the Cape. But while the ANC’s return of 45% of the vote in 2004, along with the 11% of votes garnered by their partners (the New National Party) in that election, brought them to power in the Province, their support dwindled to 32% in the 2009 election. If we are to take the notion of democracy seriously, this indicates that voters wanted to give someone else a chance to govern, and exercised their right to vote correspondingly.

That was of course a different time, and the fact that the ANC lost control of the Cape can’t demonstrate that an ANC government in 2011, and Ehrenreich as Mayor of Cape Town, won’t do better than previous incumbents. The chaotic nature of ANC politics in the Western Cape, along with floor-crossing and the death (and now, zombified re-animation) of the NNP – not to mention the short history of democracy in South Africa – make trends difficult to pin down.

None of these complications should however obscure the fact that there is a difference between fact and fiction – and in particular the kind of fiction that emerges in the run-up to elections, when selective factual details are plucked out of context and presented as damning evidence for a fiction. In this case, the fiction in question is that the DA government in the Western Cape is somehow at war with the poor, based on the ‘fact’ that they constructed unenclosed toilets in Makhaza.

Except, they didn’t – or at least didn’t intend to. What they did try to do was to collaborate with the residents of Silvertown to ensure that they all had enclosed toilets, by spending their budget on providing the toilets and plumbing connections, while trusting the assurances of the community that they would build their own enclosures where necessary. This plan failed, and cynics could argue that it was always likely to fail, or that the demands of dignity for the residents required that this detail not be left in the residents’ hands in the first instance.

Of course, we can never know whether the residents would have built their own enclosures, because the City of Cape Town eventually resolved to provide these for the 3% of residents who had not built them for themselves. And then, as we should also remember, they were prevented from doing so by the repeated destruction of the enclosures by the ANC Youth League.

You could argue that the DA has been somewhat naïve in their approach to this issue, as they undoubtedly were in the case involving the delisting of the Sowetan journalist, Anna Majavu. There is evidence of such naïveté, in that this was a relatively predictable PR disaster.

In the context of the South African sensitivity to class divisions and poverty, an approach which involved a relative absence of paternalism (here, in which services are provided in partnership with the community) was clearly risky. Any failure, at any link in the chain leading to enclosed toilets for all, would always have been spun as a failure on the part of the DA, with the roles of other agents ignored or elided. Worse yet, any protestations of good will on the part of the DA can immediately be spun as further evidence of callous neglect.

Sadly, the safest strategy may well be to do the bare minimum – and also to do it in a way which minimises the chances of failure, by swooping in and delivering from on high rather than by attempting to involve communities in their own upliftment. If this is the lesson that Ehrenreich or the ANC want the DA to learn, they might well have succeeded.

But in doing so, they could well have simultaneously built a rod for their own backs, because the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the Makhaza judgement makes it appear no less than a capital crime to leave toilets unenclosed, regardless of the circumstances leading to that eventuality. According to Jackson Mthembu, the unenclosed toilets show a “total disrespect for black dignity”, and demonstrate that the DA “is a racist political party”. In fact, the “Makhaza judgment remains a chilling reminder showing on whose side Zille and his [sic] bunch of racist lackeys are on”.

In light of this strong reaction, as well as the claim from Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka that unenclosed toilets would never be tolerated under ANC governance, what are we to make of the unenclosed toilets in the informal settlement of Rammulotsi, in the ANC-run Moqhaka municipality – some of which have been unenclosed since 2001? Or those in Kwadabeka, outside Pinetown in the eThekwini municipality, where the ANC garnered 67.52% of the vote in 2009?

Perhaps the real lesson here is the reminder that in politics – and especially, in the weeks running up to an election – facts sometimes simply stop mattering. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be this way, and perhaps increasing numbers of citizens are starting to realise that the truth doesn’t always correspond to the claims made in political speeches, especially when those speeches concern the actions of competing political parties.

Let’s hope so, because as with all decisions, those made while voting should be informed by the facts, rather than by faith. And Makhaza is one settlement, in one Province, in one (mostly poor) country. We should ideally cast our votes for who we think will do the best for that country in the long-term, and not simply based on caricature, and misrepresentation of those facts.

Categories
Daily Maverick Politics

Freedom of the press doesn’t entail facilitating bias

An edited (see strikethrough in text) version of this column for The Daily Maverick

Reactions to the Democratic Alliance’s delisting of Sowetan journalist Anna Majavu have ranged from outrage to disinterest, although it’s fair to say that outrage is the dominant tone, with one organisation (the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) going so far as to say that the decision was “Goebbels-inspired”. However, very few people seem to have considered the argument in favour of her delisting.