It begins, of course, with the smear campaign against Julius Malema.
“Wha-at?” one might legitimately ask. “How can anybody smear Malema? That’s like a campaign to make a sewage worker stink!”
Heh, indeed. In fact, however, Malema’s noxious speeches have, in the main, simply put in plain words what was implicit in the statements of the whole Zuma entourage and the whole press posse which embraced them. Malema’s odious remarks about the victim of Zuma’s notorious sexual assault were no worse than what Jeremy Gordin has said repeatedly in print, but Jonathan Shapiro has never drawn Jeremy Gordin farting in the face of the public. Shapiro knows that Gordin is “one of us”, and therefore exempt from criticism. (If there is ever a reason for the establishment to nail Gordin, we will know this because his face will appear hostilely caricatured in a Shapiro cartoon.)
So Malema was made a media scapegoat, which was convenient for everybody. Most South Africans tend to take political stances which are the opposite of what the newspapers tell them to take, so Malema’s vilification made him popular. Meanwhile, during the period when the ruling class was laying off Zuma and forbade the press from launching attacks on him, the general memes to be ultimately deployed against Zuma could be tested on Malema, who was in many ways Zuma’s unofficial spokesman.
Then he went too far, and said something serious about the nationalisation of the mines. Not only was this something which upset the ruling class because it threatened their profits, but it upset the Communist Party and the trade union movement (because it threatened the profits of their leaders, and also because it outflanked them from the left — and if they lost their monopoly of left-wing rhetoric it might have become widely known that they never actually pursued or supported truly left-wing policies). So Malema was attacked from all sides, booed at a carefully-choreographed rally, and denounced by the usual tame corporate politicians and pundits.
But Malema did not back down, having perhaps become accustomed to being insulted (which is part of the problem with smear campaigns; if the victim is not destroyed, the experience strengthens).
So a different tack was taken; Malema had to be politically discredited. Hence the “lifestyle audit” campaign, under which Malema and (increasingly) a number of other ANC leaders were “investigated” and found to be living beyond their means. There was, of course, plenty of evidence to be found that Malema was a high-living businessman whose pretensions to working-class or socialist principles were pure fabrication. As such, of course again, Malema’s situation was identical to that of his opponents in the Communist Party and the trade union movement. Indeed, it is probable that it was the Communists and the trade unions using their corporate connections to find out damaging information about Malema and leak it to the press, because this is how “investigative journalism” works in South Africa (and pretty much everywhere else).
But Malema was not discredited. Part of the problem is that it is rather hard to discredit a Zumaphile; everybody knows that they are all a bunch of crooks and therefore revealing that one of them is dishonest is not going to make anybody fall over backwards with surprise. (“I’m shocked! Shocked to see gambling going on here!” “Round up the usual suspects!”) Another part of the problem is that there is no evidence that Malema has done anything criminal. If his companies received tenders unfairly (which is extremely likely, of course), we have yet to see any hard evidence.
It is also striking that the two newspapers which have most desperately pursued Malema and which have invented a good deal of the smears about him (if he owns a mining company, surely this is not obviously good reason for him to call for the nationalisation of mining companies?) are City Press (controlled by Media24, the Afrikaner apartheid press) and the Sunday Times (controlled by Avusa, and thus ultimately by Tokyo Sexwale with Anglo American behind him). And both newspapers are edited by alumni of the Mail and Guardian. Well, well, plenty of room for conspiracy theories here, not so?
Now, something quite unusual has happened. This is that one of the City Pressj ournalists, named Dumisane Lubisi, engaged in attacking Malema, has undergone his own “lifestyle audit” at the hands of the ANC Youth League, as revealed by the League’s PR man, Floyd Shivambu. The unusual thing about this is that politicians seldom hit back at smears, certainly not at the level of the smear artists themselves. Shivambu claims that Lubisi is living beyond his means, and suggests that this has something to do with Lubisi’s behaviour.
Well, the press has of course got their collective frilly panties in a hideous bunch and is squeaking with horror and terror. Editorial after editorial poured out proclaiming that it was utterly unacceptable for journalists to be treated in the way that they treat everybody else. This is a threat to press freedom (a chant delivered whenever journalists are gathered together, as meaningless as the Latin phrases memorised by illiterate medieval priests).
What does this mean? Nobody is defending Lubisi, which is strange. Surely journalists cannot all be familiar with the private life of a senior journalist at another newspaper. It presumably means either that Lubusi is guilty, or that the journalists are assuming that he is guilty. Instead, everybody is simultaneously declaring that journalists should be above scrutiny. Nobody should have the right to threaten to expose them if they do not stop criticising and exposing the formerly private lives of politicians. This is presented so unanimously that it is obviously orchestrated (and indeed we even know how it is being orchestrated — nominally through the National Editors’ Forum, though presumably it is also happening through corporate channels).
It is, however, complete nonsense. Threatening to expose a journalist’s private life is a completely empty threat unless there is something dirty in that journalist’s private life. Shivambu is not threatening to beat up journalists who attack the Youth League, he is threatening to tell the truth about them. The only reason why a journalist could be afraid of this, or be in any way discouraged from printing the facts as the journalist sees it, is if that truth contains something damaging to the journalist.
But if that is true, then we, the public, need to know that. If a journalist has a dirty secret, that means that the journalist can potentially be blackmailed. If the Youth League, not exactly famous for its brilliant investigative techniques, can find out that dirty secret, it must be fairly widely known. In that case, the journalist is a biddable person and can be controlled. We, the public, deserve to know that.
Furthermore, there is an excellent chance that the journalist’s dirty secret has something to do with journalism. Perhaps the journalist has accepted bribes in exchange for favours (running one story, suppressing another), or has run someone else’s story under the journalist’s name (which is apparently a very common practice; according to Nick Davies, some 80% of the news in Britain derives from PR releases, spin-doctors or wire services (themselves dominated by special interests) and 70% of news stories are run without corroboration). Perhaps the journalist has knowingly lied on behalf of economic interest, personal or corporate. There is no way of knowing unless the truth comes out.
The fact that the journalists are united in proclaiming hostility to the truth coming out is unsurprising. It does, however, create the impression that all the journalists have something to hide, which is probably the case. Very likely, behind the scenes, all South African newspapers are colluding, just as all supposedly independent South African corporations in a given market collude. No doubt the collusion is ideological.
However, the newspapers cannot openly admit this, for to do that would be to shatter the carefully-constructed illusions of white liberal superiority which they foster and to surrender to the black South African sense that everything is rigged against them. What they have done, however, is to tacitly admit this. The newspapers have basically behaved as if they are guilty, and demanded that they not be prosecuted — very like Jacob Zuma’s behaviour in the run-up to his non-trial. Everybody can see this, and therefore the newspapers are discredited. (Probably not completely discredited, because hardly anybody believed them in the first place, and anybody who did believe them will no doubt be ideologically prepared to believe their preposterous disclaimers.) The question one has to ask is, why is it that the newspapers have blundered so clumsily into a far from well-constructed trap?
The answer seems to be that South African newspapers have not had to confront anyone liable to hit back for a very long time. The Mbeki regime learned early that the judges would uphold the press’s right to smear and lie. For unknown reasons, they decided not to use the same techniques as the press, and did not smear and lie in return (although this did not stop the press from denouncing them for trying to tell the truth). The Zuma regime, however, has a different approach and is under different circumstances; they are prepared to smear, and lie about, each other, and falsify their policies, so they obviously have no scruples when it comes to dealing with the press.
Their only handicap — and it is significant — is that they have been able to make use of the press for their political purposes in the past, so many in the Zuma regime do not want to alienate it. On the other hand, they are aware, thanks to their friendly relations with many journalists, that the press is every bit as internally divided as the ANC. Therefore they can pick and choose journalists to smear, and use innuendo to attack the rest (who can easily be intimidated into docility, for they have no courage or moral standing). Thus the method of divide and rule can be applied against the press. It is for this reason that the editors and managers have panicked; their fear is that if the Youth League’s policy succeeds then it will surely be taken up by the rest of the ANC, and then journalism will spin out of the exclusive control of editors and managers. It could become a little like the situation under Bush II in the United States, when, thanks to judicious lobbying, bribing and bullying, the Republican Party’s spin-doctors were in almost complete control of the national press.
The panic is because the editors and managers have no real idea of how to deal with this. Their control of their journalists is extremely feeble; how can you fire a journalist for running a story that you don’t like, given the ideology of freedom of the press? Backed by the formidable financial resources of Chancellor House, such a journalist could destroy an editor’s career with great ease. The Youth League has thus shown the ANC how to break the logjam in South African political journalism — which would be a desirable thing if it were not that it would simply replace the sclerotic reactionary ideology currently dominating the press, with a differently sclerotic subservience to Luthuli House.
But fortunately, Jacob Zuma says he doesn’t want this to happen. He has attacked the Youth League’s activities at the National Press Club, in exchange for being declared Newmaker of the Year again. (In other words, Zuma is trading a fake subservience for the possibility of real control.) One might ask why he is doing this. It is probable that he simply wants a quiet life; if he allowed the ANC to attack the press, the press would hit back at him and he would have to stand up for something, and he lacks the self-discipline and intellectual resilience which carried Mbeki through his long period of being smeared. Besides, Zuma has no real capacity to deal with the press, and therefore if the ANC takes on the press and wins, this would place more power in the hands of people who are not necessarily beholden to Zuma. Lastly and not least, the press would undoubtedly try to destroy Zuma by revisiting his criminal record, and it is possible that Zuma is not certain that he would be able to survive such a direct attack; it was the press’s efforts to cover up his criminality which made it possible for Zuma to suborn the judiciary and escape prosecution.
Of course, there is another problem here. Zuma is basically siding with the white ruling class against his own party’s interests. Those who would like to take on the press will be unhappy. Those who dislike the press’s incessant sniping at the ANC — probably most of the electorate — will also be unhappy. It is possible that Zuma is storing up trouble for himself in future.
But if Zuma has one certain characteristic, it is that he never worries about what his present actions may lead to in future.
Going Under The Press.
It begins, of course, with the smear campaign against Julius Malema.