Perhaps the only thing that surprises here is that some of us are surprised by Helen Zille's attitude, says the writer. File picture Jeffrey Abrahams
Perhaps the only thing that surprises here is that some of us are surprised by Helen Zille's attitude, says the writer. File picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Zille showing ANC tendencies

By Eusebius McKaiser Time of article published Mar 17, 2015

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The Cape Times is not the nexus issue for voters. There is a deeper worry here, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, should thank God – if she exists - that being arrogant and abrasive in public office are not medical conditions. If that were so, she would be in the ICU as I type.

Her latest rehearsal of this arrogance and abrasiveness was on Tuesday morning in an interview with Talk Radio 702’s John Robbie. She barked at him for even mentioning the fact that the Western Cape government had ended its subscription of the Cape Times newspaper. And then returned to Redi Tlhabi’s show to lie about the DA’s casual and uncritical acceptance – not! – of other provincial government’s entitlement to pull subscriptions too. How that squares with the DA’s relentless questions to the ANC about its relationship with The New Age, I do not know.

It is worth unpacking the issues here. Because, frankly, the Cape Times is not the nexus issue for you and me as voters. It is the attitude towards media freedom, and the abuse of taxpayer money for party political aims, that justify the criticism Zille has received from many quarters now, including the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), senior journalists who do not work for the Cape Times nor for Independent Media, many journalists who are rightly hard on the African National Congress, civil society leaders, analysts, callers into talk shows that cannot be described as ANC homelands, and many members of the public on social media platforms.

Perhaps the only thing that surprises here is that some of us are surprised by Zille’s attitude. She is actually just being herself, and consistently so. Still, the fact that her attitude is predictably waspish, and her mode of engaging reporters or anyone she disagrees with angrier than ANC veteran Blade Nzimande could ever match, does not mean that that attitude ought not to be fully critiqued.

How did it start?

In case you have not been following this story, the Western Cape government decided to end its subscription to the Cape Times. Director-general Brent Gerber sent a letter to all heads of department to not “renew or initiate further subscriptions” of the Cape Times. This was a provincial cabinet decision based on a “concern” for the “ongoing decline in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times”. For this reason, the conclusion of the provincial cabinet was that it would be “fruitless expenditure” to continue subscribing to the Cape Times.

Nothing in the memorandum explains what the cabinet regards as the criteria for “quality reporting” nor does the memorandum bother to cite evidence, in line with this unspecified set of criteria, of the “ongoing decline” in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times. And presumably an ongoing decline would merit many examples of decline over time, and not just one article. This memorandum cites zero examples.

But perhaps Western Cape heads of department are not used to being furnished with reasons for executive orders, so there was possibly no need then for justifying the “request” with evidence-based reasoning.

In the absence of clear justification, this is a blatant abuse of taxpayer money on the part of the Western Cape cabinet. It is now well known that the Cape Times has new owners, and a new editor, and most of its former columnists no longer write for the paper which means potential narrative changes all over the paper. (The irony is the Cape Times is yet to read like a paper with new owners and staff, in my view.)

Still, the provincial DA government, like any government, would have to forge a new strategic relationship with the paper’s new reporters, columnists and editor, as happens everywhere, to strike that balance between not trying to muzzle a paper or trying to be intolerant of media freedom, while, as is perfectly acceptable, trying to ensure the paper reports on the party and the provincial government, in a manner the party secretly desires.

That is healthy contestation between political parties and the media. We need politicians to report and analyse fully and accurately on political parties, especially the ones in government. The political parties and various governments, in turn, need the media to help get their narrative out. And, along the way, reporters, editors and contributors have a duty to give the reader and the voter accurate information about political parties and government.

All of this, I am afraid, is theory. In practice you sometimes get a government – call it, for argument’s sake, the Western Cape DA-led provincial government – so gatvol that it cannot influence the copy of a newspaper, that it starts attacking it publicly and withdraws subscription.

What is that if not an abuse of taxpayer money for party political ends? If it isn’t that, we would need justification for the decision, surely? And a few spurious attempts have been made. Let’s examine these.

Defence One: “Plagiarism!”

Apparently there was some really shoddy story in the Cape Times that is several years old and stolen from somewhere else, and now regurgitated, about Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and education. Presumably the article, allegedly not just plagiarised, also peddles lies about the provincial government. For good measure, let’s assume the reporter didn’t bother, as is required ethically, to get a perspective from the provincial government. I think that is what happened.

No, no, I am not being lazy at all. I tell you why I do not care for the details of the online newsletter entry that Zille wrote last week about this alleged piece of shoddy journalism. Because it is utterly irrelevant to the actions that the provincial cabinet took.

To be fair, then, I am happy, without even reading that newsletter entry carefully (though I just did and wish I can have that 10 minutes of my life back), to assume that Zille is 200% accurate in her critique of that particular article. Let’s be melodramatic for purposes of argument: Assume it is the single worst example of plagiarism in the history of South African journalism, spitting on the glorious history of amazing former journalists like one Helen Zille. Worse plagiarism than a former Sunday Times columnist who does not have a doctorate but is now an ambassador.

What must happen now? Simple, as Sanef pointed out: you complain to the newspaper, and you complain to the Press Ombud. You then wait and see how your complaint is dealt with. If they find your critique accurate and fair, they will sanction the paper. And the paper will deserve to have egg on its face.

The Mail and Guardian experienced that in a brilliant example of self-regulation working, about two weeks ago, in an article on the ANC that was not entirely accurate in its chosen headline, and aspects of the body of the piece. The ANC got some satisfaction; the M&G took it on the chin, and life continues. The incentive for the reporters is to avoid another embarrassment, and the ANC will continue to struggle to make a case for why self-regulation is not workable.

Enter Zille. Despite telling us at every opportunity she gets that she was a journalist herself, she plays with the money of the provincial government to express disgust with this one piece of reporting, instead of going through the very channels that, as a former journalist, she ought to know all politicians should use in the first instance. Has she forgotten these journalistic channels or is there another motive at work here like, I don’t know, an attempt to bully a newspaper and have a chilling effect on any irritating reports about the DA?

And this is why I do not care for the facts about this singular report. Because the bigger problem here is Zille’s deliberate by-passing of existing mechanisms to lay a complaint. This betrays an agenda aimed at telling newspapers what to say. If I am wrong, can anyone sympathetic to this DA decision explain why they did not take the newspaper to the industry watchdog? The cry of “plagiarism!”, even if accurate (and I am agnostic on that issue since it need not be settled to get why the DA is out of order), is a complete red herring. This is about a thin political skin.

Defence Two: “Consumers can choose!”

I almost choked on my coffee when I heard Zille try explain to John Robbie, with the patronising tone of someone impatiently chatting to a child with learning difficulties, that this decision is as innocuous as deciding you no longer want to shop at Checkers and now prefer Woolies. Consumers can buy what they want. Newspapers are not entitled to subscriptions from anyone. Just like an author or a musician cannot complain if someone doesn’t want to buy their books or CDs (but don’t tell AKA that, please!)

This is a ridiculous analogy. Individual consumers can do with their private money as they wish. If I don’t want to buy the Cape Times, for whatever reason, I do not need to explain that to anyone. But if a government uses my taxpayer money to buy, or no longer buy, a product or a service from a particular supplier, they have to explain to me as the taxpayer why they took that decision. They are accountable to me because they have been granted that lawful discretionary power at my behest as a resident, voter and taxpayer of the Western Cape.

What is shocking about this defence, if you give it just 10 seconds’ thought, is the implicit assumption that the provincial government is a private consumer spending its own money! It is not.

There is a deeper worry for me here, still: The analogy implies that a provincial government’s expenditure ought to properly be viewed as a matter of taste. That assumption underpins the impatience Zille showed towards the breakfast host - how dare Robbie demand a long conversation about a simple matter of taste that she is entitled to? Some like pineapple in their green salad, others go “Yuk!” Some subscribe to the Cape Times, others go “Yuk!” No, Premier Zille, public power must be exercised rationally. That is the democracy you fought for as a progressive journalist reporting on the death of Steve Biko. Yes?

So this idea that public expenditure is the equivalent of a private consumer choice must be hit out of the park for a gigantic six, by all taxpayers, regardless of your political affiliation.

Defence Three: “It wasn't a DA decision anyway!”

Zille, throughout her radio interview, insisted that the DA took no decision about not renewing subscriptions to the Cape Times. Again, she wagged her finger – surely she was gesticulating as she asked this?! – asking the interviewer whether he knows of something called the separation of party and state. Poor John Robbie just froze. I can’t blame him. Shame; this is not what he would have expected from the DA, yeah? More on that in the concluding thoughts.

This is disingenuous. In other words, I must believe – and trust me I do – that Baleka Mbete is incapable of separating her roles as party chairperson and national speaker of Parliament, but I must not believe that DA politicians could ever blur the lines of party and state? Why are DA politicians uniquely virtuous as political animals?

Let me get this right then: Zille is asking us to accept that the DG who sent out that memorandum to heads of department was taking an apolitical decision based solely on objective criteria about journalistic quality and financial hygiene? Riiiight. And in other news: President Zuma paid back the money this morning.

What showed that Zille herself does not believe this distinction is when she told the anchor she had provided the evidence for why the newspaper’s journalism is poor, in her online newsletter. Since when do you hide the justification for a government decision in a party newsletter? What would Zille say if President Zuma explained his views on Nkandla, in response to MPs’ questions, on the ANC's web page?

If you get the separation of party and state, then the DG’s letter would have furnished reasons for the decision, you would not be rebuking a talk show host for not having read your party’s online archive of your views as party leader.

Concluding thoughts

It is pleasing to see consistency from journalists on this crucial issue. Senior reporters and editors across the media recognised that their personal and professional views about their competitors do not matter in the collective fight for media freedom. We must be as suspicious of a DA government bullying the media as we are of an ANC government doing so.

A sample of such views – and there are many more – include the following: Mail and Guardian columnist Verashni Pillay tweeted: “Helen Zille’s attitude towards journalists has long been extremely problematic. I wouldn't trust her for a second with media freedom.”

The Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak weighed in: “Self-hating ex-journos with Saviour complexes are ipso facto against media freedom.”

Political reporter Qaanitah Hunter confessed: “As one of the youngest political reporters in the country, the only time I ever felt intimidated was when I wrote stories about the DA.”

The Sunday Times’ Piet Rampedi initiated a very interesting discussion on his Facebook wall, which is worth stalking still, including a series of questions such as: “How many other newspapers/media houses were subjected to that exercise and how did they fare compared to the Cape Times? When did the WC government start determining the value extracted from newspapers/media houses?”

And there are many more such thoughtful critiques that are now archived online. They show the integrity of the media fraternity in critiquing all power, be it the ANC-led national government or the eight ANC-led provincial governments, or the DA-led government of the Western Cape.

And, to help out the trolls, I am not remotely interested in defending the ANC’s track record on media freedom. The yearning for a Media Appeals Tribunal remains constitutionally and ethically unjustified. The attempted gagging of the City Press by ANC politician Jackson Mthembu remains an example of an ANC comrade not getting the democracy he signed up for, and shamefully so. And in my own career I have experienced the wrath and arrogance of ANC politicians, like one who complained to a former boss that I was not defending the ANC on my show, and another, Matthews Phosa, who shouted at me for being late (actually he was early) when I did a pre-recording of Interface with him years ago.

But here’s the snag for any voter who loves this country more than they love political parties: What must a democratic-minded voter do when Zille shows ANC tendencies?

Eish, ndinentloko ngoku.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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