It’s good that journalism is cleaning out its dark corridors
If it doesn't, there will be nowhere for good journalists to go, and bad men will stride on with renewed vigour
As the Sunday Times apologises for disseminating false narratives, and SA journalism calls for self-reflection and self-correction, many local journalists and columnists are no doubt asking themselves the same unnerving question: have I been someone’s stooge?
At least that’s what I was asking myself last week, thinking back over the years that I’ve been a columnist and wondering if I’d ever submitted propaganda instead of my own opinion.
I concede that to some they are the same thing. I have been described by foam-flecked Marxists as a cheerleader for white supremacy, while there are a few slabs of raw meat on the far right who insist that I’m part of a Judeo-Rooinek liberal cabal hell-bent on bringing communism, Satanism and the 19th century to SA.
I also know how silly it is to claim that my opinions are truly my own, given that everyone’s opinion is simply a curated collection of other people’s opinions.
Still, I like to think that some of my notions are home spun, and so I wondered: had a news editor ever told me what to write?
The short answer was no. Ferial Haffajee once phoned me – a terrifying experience – to ask if I was sure that calling Yemen “the armpit of the world” was entirely fair. I was a 28-year-old asshole at the time and said yes, and she acquiesced.
The only other instance of editorial nudging I could remember was when an editor asked me if I’d write something about Donald Trump calling Africa a “shithole”, which was a bit like asking me if I’d like to breathe a combination of nitrogen and oxygen. And that’s it.
Nonetheless, I think I can see how the bastards get to journalists. It’s ego.
I’ve felt it myself. A lack of editorial contact can make for a lonely working life but it can also slowly give you the sense that you are infallible. After all, no intervention implies that you need none.
And that’s not even taking into account the effects on one’s ego of rubbing up against power. I imagine that it requires extraordinary self-knowledge and deep cynicism to speak to presidents and receive tip-offs from senior politicians and not start feeling that you yourself are a mover and shaker; possessed of select knowledge; a little bit special.
Last year I was called by a man who wanted to insert his narrative into my column, and who planned to do it by appealing to my vanity.
He had a major scoop, he said, involving some sort of financial skulduggery, that would really put me on the map. I found this last bit slightly offensive since I am already very famous in parts of Kenilworth in Cape Town, and I suggested that he contact a real journalist.
Ah, he replied, but some journalists have an agenda, whereas I was an impartial teller of truths. A straight arrow.
Fortunately for me and whichever people might have been injured had I agreed to blunder forth with his story, I knew that he was wrong. I am not impartial. I have biases, which I call opinions, with which I attempt to entertain my readers.
I managed to avoid hearing the details of the story, wished him good luck, and ended the call. But proper journalists don’t have the luxury of being a wilfully ignorant columnist. They are compelled – perhaps even professionally bound – to listen to a hundred narratives a day and to weigh up which to pursue. And if the voice at the other end of the line massages the right insecurities and whispers to the right ambitions ... We keep praising our recently heroic news media with metaphors invoking castle ramparts and ironclad battleships, but the Sunday Times apology has reminded us just how vulnerable journalism is to abuse by the powerful and reckless, and how quickly public sentiment can turn against it.
Thankfully we will never run out of the raw material out of which excellent journalists are made. Proper journalism is a calling, and there will always be those who, for some inexplicable reason, desire only to spend their lives clinging with their teeth to the ankles (and sometimes the throats) of bad men, no matter the danger, exhaustion, loneliness and miserable pay.
But if journalism itself doesn’t act boldly, now, to clean out its darker corridors, and we lose faith in it, then there will be nowhere for those young masochists to go; and bad men will stride on with renewed vigour, their ankles and throats unmolested, their wickedness uncontested.
If inept, naïve or – God forbid – corrupted journalists supply the powerful with even a drop of poisonous doubt, trust will die, and along with it the press’s ability to point fingers. And once that happens, it’s help-yourself time at the buffet of power.