OPINIONISTA

Helen Zille: From the Inside: The speakers of ‘truth to power’ who themselves peddle planted falsehoods

Dr Iqbal Survé, the man who put news manipulation on steroids when be bought Independent Newspapers, gave new meaning to the “pot-and-kettle” homily in his front-page response to the Sunday Times.

If Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko thought his apology, to atone for the sins of previous Sunday Times editors, would draw a line under the story about the extent to which the newspaper allowed itself to be manipulated for political purposes, he was mistaken. The apology, hedged about with qualifications, sought to assuage the newspaper’s culpability in disseminating three major fake “scandals” between 2011 and 2015: the SARS rogue “spy unit”, the Zimbabwe renditions, and the Cato Manor death squads. As it turns out, these scandals were manufactured by the Zuma network to destroy corruption-busting agencies, and the individuals who led them. Instead of laying the matter to rest, Siqoko’s apology opened a Pandora’s box of public scepticism over the many comparable examples where the speakers of “truth to power” (as many journalists like to style themselves) turned out to be peddlers of planted falsehoods. Of course, some will interpret my words as an attack on media freedom. That is nonsense. Media freedom is not confined to journalism, and is no defence for disinformation. Despite my cynicism, I applaud Siqoko’s move. It was a start. But I couldn’t help wondering whether the falsehoods that have now been exposed would have remained buried in the ANC’s vault if its elective conference in December 2017 had produced a different result. It is entirely plausible to envisage a scenario where the purveyors of disinformation would, by now, have established a monopoly on planted “scoops” to reinforce their slanted narrative, destroy their opponents, capture the state, and ultimately undo democracy. But, even with the benefit of the doubt, Siqoko’s apology remains incomplete because he fails to reveal who actually leaked these lies and why. The Sunday Times cannot credibly claim that the protection of whistle-blowers extends to deliberate news manipulators, with ulterior motives, who devastate other people’s lives, while trying to steer the course of history in their chosen direction. Back in 2014, when the Sunday Times was running its “rogue SARS spy unit” scoops almost every week, any attentive reader would already have smelt a rotting rat. My own experience (both as a journalist and target of various scandal manufacturers) has made me adept at doing so. Even back then, the “real story” behind the “leaking” of the SARS “Rogue Spy Unit” reports seemed so patently obvious that I wrote a column about it, titled Are we seeing the Zumafication of SARS? If SARS could no longer rely on the captured criminal justice system to investigate politically connected tax evaders, I asked, what exactly was SARS supposed to do, other than undertake its own investigation? Must [SARS] meekly accept that the President can manipulate state agencies to engage in all sorts of unlawful behaviour together with his business associates simply because they are politically powerful?” My analysis ended with this conclusion: I suspect that SARS refused to accept this situation. They fought back. And that is when President Zuma moved Tom Moyane in, through his "deployment" policy. The Revenue Services Act provides for the Finance Minister to make this appointment but the President seems to have taken the lead in appointing Mr Moyane.” And,” I concluded, “in the purge, Ivan Pillay and Peter Richer [two senior SARS officials fingered in the ‘scandal’] became the primary targets because they had insisted that Zuma pay ‘Nkandla’ tax, and the ANC pay its T-shirt customs duty. And that legitimate investigations should continue into the affairs of Zuma and the other ANC top brass.” Stripped of all the frills”, I said, “that is the core story.” And so it turned out to be. Except that this was merely the tip of the iceberg. By refusing to reveal how they came to be duped, and by whom, I suspect the Sunday Times is trying to hide some other core-truths about its news coverage during the Zuma years. Their sources, if exposed, will probably reveal “smallanyana skeletons” the purveyors of “truth to power” would prefer to keep under wraps. It was for these reasons that I read the media reaction to the Sunday Times’ apology with heightened interest. Dr Iqbal Survé, the man who put news manipulation on steroids when be bought Independent Newspapers, gave new meaning to the “pot-and-kettle” homily in his front-page response to the Sunday Times. After welcoming the apology, he proceeded to vilify the entire Tiso Blackstar group for “manipulating” the news, describing it as symptomatic of “a deep, rotten culture” among his media rivals. I chortled my way through this 1,691-word fulmination, ending up with a guffaw at the irony of the final paragraphs: It is a Shakespearean tragedy that the good reputation of everyone is besmirched by this corporate greed, manipulation and fake news and a complete disregard for the true values of our young democracy by these rogue and paid-for journalists,” he concluded. I didn’t have to look far for an example of what Dr Survé was talking about -- in his own newspaper. The front-page lead story in the same edition of the Cape Times perpetuated a rotten lie that the Independent Group has been peddling for at least a year about the Western Cape Education Law Amendment Bill, by dubbing it the “booze-at-school Bill”. Any rational person who has read the Independent Newspapers coverage of the Bill would be excused for believing that we intend selling alcohol at tuck shops during break. The truth is we are trying to STOP the widespread accessibility of alcohol at school functions, by defining the limited and contained circumstances in which the Head of Education may grant permission for an event held on school premises, after hours, to serve alcohol. This permission is required over and above the necessary temporary liquor licence, required in terms of the Liquor Act. The purpose is to bring, within the ambit of law, the many functions, held after hours on school premises, where alcohol is served, such as the hiring of school halls for weddings and 21st birthday parties. Or fund-raising events, such as wine auctions. In terms of the Bill, a permit will now have to be issued by the Head of Education, as well as a temporary liquor licence. When the draft Bill went out for public comment, the ANC, working with “Independent” Newspapers, put the outrage generating machine into over-drive, with headlines such as “Education Bill will see Schools ‘become Shebeens’.” We have explained the facts (patiently and often) to reporters of Independent Newspapers, to no avail. They are determined, in Survé’s own words, to manipulate the news “in the Goebbels tradition of propaganda”. But the damage extends beyond the massacre of facts. It has a significant human cost too. The Chairman of the Legislature’s portfolio committee on Education, Basil Kivedo, has been so harassed as he sought to steer the Bill through the parliamentary process that his doctor eventually booked him off on stress leave. On the basis of fake news reports, a range of individuals, ranging from his ANC Legislature members, to church groups and random members of the public, have accused him of seeking to introduce children to early drinking, (which is precisely what we are trying to shield them from). When I went to visit Basil, who has been confined to bed, he was a shadow of the man who, as an Umkhonto weSizwe operative, hid from the security police at my home during the States of Emergency in the 1980s. As strong as he was then, so dispirited and exhausted did he appear now, worn out by the repeated harassment, insinuations, and allegations of betrayal slung at him by people who have been duped by the “Goebbels propaganda machine” masquerading as newspaper reporting. After receiving at least 12 anonymous calls, of which some could be interpreted as threats on his life, Basil finally sought leave of absence. He is recovering while we press ahead in his absence. But why is this happening? News manipulation inevitably hides some other agenda, and I suspect it is this: This Bill will, for the first time, introduce proper accountability mechanisms in the public school system, and that is why the ANC and its alliance partner, the South African Democratic Teachers Union, are determined to derail it. Their strategy to misrepresent it as a “Booze Bill” is intended to facilitate public mobilisation against it. There are as many different agendas as there are manipulated news stories. And they appear in our newspapers, to a greater or lesser degree, far more often than we may wish to believe. Now and again, there are really big revelations – such as the manufactured scandals “leaked” to the Sunday Times – that belong in the same category as the Bell Pottinger revelations. I suspect there are many more chapters still to write. Perhaps the recently-announced Commission of Inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation (that lent much of the money to Dr Survé’s Sekunjalo group to purchase Independent Newspapers for R2-billion) will lift the lid off the next bubbling cauldron. DM

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