Karima Brown responds to recent media reports surrounding columnist Max du Preez.
Johannesburg - On December 30, the last Tuesday of 2014, the Cape Times, Pretoria News, Diamond Fields Advertiser and The Mercury carried a column by former Independent Media columnist Max du Preez titled "Zuma – SA’s one man wrecking ball".
The column pulled no punches in its criticism of the leadership of President Jacob Zuma. I can summarise the gist and tone of Du Preez’s column in the following quote:
“The devastation caused by that one-man wrecking ball – Jacob Zuma – will take years to rebuild, even if he were to leave office tomorrow.
Sounds a bit harsh? Well, I don’t think the serious damage this president has inflicted upon our political culture and our key institutions deserves softer condemnation.”
The piece hauled Zuma over the coals for crises experienced in various state institutions, as well as his own personal weaknesses including corruption allegations. It ended by dubbing time in office as "Zuma Demolition Inc".
The presidency was obviously not pleased, and issued a statement accusing Du Preez of racism, criticising us for not seeking their comment, and demanding a retraction of the piece from us as Independent Media.
I refused this demand point blank.
As a company we issued a statement asserting the right of all our columnists to hold and write whatever opinions they like, and our right as a media company to publish them. Our short statement simply said: “Columns and opinion pieces are covered in the press code under comment and the practice is that newspapers are not required to seek a response to comment pieces as long as it passes the test of fair comment. We stand by Mr Du Preez and his and our independence in this regard.”
On that note, the matter should have been closed as far as we were concerned, except that Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj wrote an e-mail to me pointing out that Du Preez’s column had stated as a matter of fact that Zuma had “a corrupt relationship” with his financial adviser and convicted fraudster Schabir Shaik, something which the column said had been found by “a judge”.
To understand the importance of this, you need to recall that in the months following Shaik’s conviction in 2005, the media had taken to reporting that the trial judge, Hilary Squires, had found that the two enjoyed “a generally corrupt relationship”. This continued until Squires wrote to Business Day, where I worked at the time, pointing out that he had never said anything of the sort. Even the Supreme Court of Appeal had erroneously ascribed this “quote” to Squires. At the time, a minor brouhaha resulted over this, although the higher court upheld Shaik’s conviction and Squires described their relationship as “a mutually beneficial symbiosis”.
Maharaj seized upon this and accused both us and Du Preez of perpetuating the untruth of a trial judge concluding there was a corrupt relationship between Shaik and Zuma. After careful consideration of the facts, and after communicating with Du Preez, I decided to issue a retraction of the “corrupt relationship” phrase in the column. Two primary considerations informed my decision:
Stating that a judge found anything relating to the relationship between Shaik and Zuma isn’t a matter of opinion, it is a factual claim. It therefore needs to be 100% accurate, and the information upon which it rests must be unambiguous and not open to interpretation.
By any reasonable interpretation, Du Preez’s assertion that “a judge” had found there was a corrupt relationship is a reference to trial judge Squires, who publically repudiated this claim.
This last point is important because in subsequent exchanges, Du Preez has implausibly argued that he meant the SCA, not the original trial judge. In my view, if this was the case, he would have supported the factual claim of a “corrupt relationship” finding by referring to “a court”, “the SCA”, or “judges” (five judges of the SCA heard the Shaik appeal and wrote the judgment). As an experienced writer, journalist and editor, it is unlikely that Du Preez would have allowed the ambiguity of referring to “a judge”, more so since he would be aware of the ‘generally corrupt relationship’ controversy of 2006.
In his explanation of the use of an ambiguous phrase, Du Preez says he was referring to Justice CT Howie of the SCA, who read the court’s judgment on behalf of the full bench of five judges. This is a highly dishonest ex post facto summersault. What Justice Howie read out cannot be described as the “the words of a judge”. It was the finding of a court.
Whether it is embarrassment at having repeated an eight-year old mistake, or sheer hubris, that makes Du Preez refuse to concede that he can make even the tiniest error, I will never know. But it is indicative of a general absence of self-reflection in our media and a refusal to hold ourselves to the same standards of probity we aggressively demand of others. It seems the notoriously thin skins of our politicians are matched only by those of our journalists and editors.
On reflection, the “corrupt relationship” statement in Du Preez’s column is a rather small part of a bigger whole. Even in our correction and apology, we were unequivocal about defending the rest of the column, and upholding Du Preez’s right to express whatever opinion he holds about Zuma and his presidency. That includes his right to spew out deeply racist statements such as this: “the debt [Zuma] owed to those who put him in power and his obvious view that he was more of an African chief than the president of a modern democracy led him on a different path.”
Du Preez has since sought in public to use our retraction of that statement and our apology for its inaccuracy to score cheap political points, and to posture as the victim of censorship and thought control by myself and Independent Media. The ‘letter of resignation’ that he sent to me and made public is absurdly dishonest, but also reveals a long held intention to disassociate from Independent for political reasons. While he is well within his rights to hold views and political outlooks that are different to mine or those of Independent, and to leave the group if he wants to, he has disingenuously sought to present his disenchantment as a matter of “principle”. The only principle at stake here is our principled duty to be accurate, and to own up when we’ve erred. It’s a principle I value, while he clearly does not.
Lastly, Du Preez’s resignation has become a rallying point for the malcontents and closet racists, both in and outside newsrooms and media houses, who resent the acquisition of a significant media asset such as Independent by black owners, and who have at every turn sought to challenge and limit our right to make what changes we see fit inside the group.
Ultimately the most disappointing, even shocking, thing about Du Preez’s public tantrum is a sense of entitlement and superiority so deeply ingrained that he asserts not only his right to an opinion, but claims the right to have his own facts too. What could possibly fuel such hubris?
* Karima Brown is Independent Media's Group Executive Editor.