Secrets and Lies.

There are some very loudly orchestrated complaints about how the new proposed secrecy bill and the hinted-at media tribunal will destroy journalism in South Africa. The orchestration and the complaints are predominantly coming from journalists, of course. This is very like the nineteenth-century campaign by crooked shipowners against the introduction of the Plimsoll line which was intended to prevent overloading and thus discourage the then-common practice of sending out unmaintained, overloaded ships with scratch crews and then taking out a whopping insurance policy on said ships. (When the Plimsoll line was made compulsory, one innovative crooked shipowner painted it on the funnel.)
Now, what is all this about? Currently, South African information classification is in chaos, like everything to do with intelligence operations in this country. The draft bill is intended to bring order to the chaos by identifying the procedures for classifying information at various levels of secrecy and by fixing penalties for violating these procedures. Order, one would think, is good. Also, all governments do things which they don’t want the general public to know about because a serious fuss might injure the national interest, whatever that might mean in practice.
Meanwhile, journalists at the moment are more or less immune to penalties for telling lies. If a journalist is caught lying about anything to do with government or ANC, the vast conglomerate employing the journalist will send lawyers in defense. The judiciary has established a clear precedent that any lie told about the government or the ANC can be defended on the grounds of “public interest”; that is, even if the journalist knew it wasn’t true, it might have been true, so the public has a right to be misinformed. (None of this applies to opposition parties and obviously not to private citizens, though journalists very rarely lie about opposition parties or about private citizens of any significance — of course, only very wealthy private citizens can take newspapers to court.) This looks like a problem in need of a solution which a media tribunal might exist to provide.
On the other hand, can we trust the government not to abuse such powers? At the moment, the South African media enjoy rights similar to those enjoyed by the American media. (The difference between them is that the American media can, generally, be drawn into line by waving the flag and appealing to patriotism, concepts which the South African media find incomprehensible.) The proposals would make South African law more like British law, enabling the government to suppress information which it found embarrassing and to punish newspapers and journalists stepping out of bounds. The British government routinely abuses such powers to bring the media to heel (one of the last holdouts, oddly enough, was the BBC, eventually squashed by the Hutton Commission for telling the truth about the Iraq War).
If the media were brought to heel in South Africa, if it were banned from printing sensitive information and terrorised into compliance with government doctrine, this would make very little difference in the media’s service to the public interest. At the moment, the media can make up political lies, meaning that we do not know whether what we read is true — so people believe the media according to their political preconceptions. The media are also unanimously in pursuit of a narrow political doctrine, essentially neoliberalism with a lick of white racial supremacy. So, if the media were instead forced to conceal truths rather than invent lies, and cleave to an ANC-oriented political line, all which would have changed would be the doctrines being presented. The essential practice and the moral bankruptcy would not change.
Most political journalists, where they are not making stuff up, depend on leaks and smears. Leaks and smears are either manufactured for the occasion (mainly by the right-wing, mainly foreign-funded think-tanks which have taken over civil society) or they are provided for political purposes by factions within the Tripartite Alliance — this latter is where almost all the reliable information in the media comes from. This latter is a very convenient procedure for Alliance politicians, so it is not going to be stopped by legislation. All which might have to happen would be that some of the politicians would have more trouble getting their leaks published than others — but this would probably depend very largely on how much political and economic pull their contacts possessed.
However, it is one thing to say that journalists are sluggards, crooks and liars. It is another to pass the Promotion of Sluggards, Crooks and Liars Act of 2010. Even if it made the situation no worse, it would make room for the situation to get worse, just as journalists under apartheid used apartheid media legislation to excuse their corruption and toadying. The fact that the journalists whining about the proposed curbs are politically bigoted and personally dishonest does not make the curbs a good thing.
That being settled, there remains an interesting question: what is the agenda behind the proposed curbs on the free flow of information? Is it likely that South Africa suddenly has a spurt of state secrets? If we had a dynamic state it is perfectly possible that there would be some legitimate secrets; if the government were importing thorium from North Korea to fuel a clutch of breeder reactors, or running guns to the Colombian resistance, or in possession of footage of Robert Mugabe getting a blow-job from Peter Mandelson, it would be prudent to prevent the information from getting out. However, we don’t have a dynamic state and we probably have few secrets of any importance from anybody. Commercial secrets may be important, but they don’t really need special laws to protect them — they just require the existing commercial laws to be enforced, instead of being winked at, as now.
One plausible reason for the new information classification bill is essentially personal. The President is a former ANC spook whose power-base depends heavily on former ANC and MK spooks. One of his cronies, Mo Shaik, who is remarkably incompetent by any sane standard, was recently put in charge of South African spookdom. Spooks are not brave combatants or brainiacs; they exist not to provide information, but to control its flow. If people knew what spooks know, they would know that the spooks know very little, so to preserve their illusion of competence, spooks rely on secrecy. Spooks also rely on bureaucracy, as a shield behind which they can conceal their ignorance and incompetence. Also, of course, bureaucracy plus secrecy is a shield for corruption, and the Shaik family is monumentally corrupt, a corruption which the present government shares.
If this is so, then the media is making a fuss about nothing (which is the media’s speciality, of course). Of course, the media would do this anyway. In order to hide their fundamental corruption, they are brandishing these proposed curbs as an attack on the people’s right to have the media tell the lies the media want to tell to them, instead of the lies someone else wants the people to hear. A sober examination of the media’s treatment of all this is generally disgusting, although there are a few still, small voices to say that all this matters not at all, because the ANC is not actually going to go through with these curbs. Certainly, if it is all a matter of the vanity of incompetent spies and a hangover from the absurd notion that the press, which sucked Zuma’s poisonous tit throughout his campaign, is somehow anti-Zuma and needs to be forced into the paths of unrighteousness, we need not take this crap seriously. It is all then a public relations campaign on every side.
But what if there is more to it than this? The question of the media tribunal is something which one would not really expect the ANC to pursue seriously. Now that power is in the hands of the crooks who clustered around Zuma, it no longer matters all that much that they shriek at each other like fishwives with Tourette’s in the pages of Business Day and the Mail and Guardian. This is entertaining, and serves to hint at who is on the way up and who down, but it does not decide anything. Hence a media tribunal will not make a major political difference to the interests of the people who are ostensibly calling for it.
On the other hand, if journalists are called before a media tribunal to answer for their political bias, unless they are carefully prevented from doing so, they will reply that they have been bought by politicians, and that their political analyses were written for them by politicians’ spin-doctors. In other words, a media tribunal could completely discredit what remains of the perception of journalistic integrity, but would also reveal the horrible fact that the facade of journalistic integrity (and of politicians’ supposed hostility to journalism) conceals the fact that journalism and party politics are two tentacles of the same corporate octopus. (Apologies to Paul the Psychic Cephalopod.)
In that case the politicians and the ruling class have good reasons for not upsetting the apple-cart and introducing a media tribunal. (Of course there could be a media tribunal along the lines of the military tribunals in the United States, held in secret and with nothing but the verdict made known — but this would destroy the whole political point of the exercise.) So, why are they enthusiastically talking about doing it? Why should we take them seriously? For we should — these are the same terms in which they talked about abolishing the Scorpions, and next to that action, introducing a media tribunal would be an almost trivial episode.
A few years back the press suddenly received some black or brown editors of white newspapers. Felicia Oppelt [note the Creator’s creative spelling here] took over the Daily Dispatch, Ferial Haffajee took over the Mail and Guardian, Mondli Makhanya at the Sunday Times. All are gone now, and white power restored, but the move was surely significant. It also coincided with the rise to centrality of black pundits who plagiarised the articles, language and ideas of white journalists. Many of these, again, are gone, or replaced at least by reliable American coffee-coloured sell-outs like Eusebius McKaiser. The reason for this experiment was, surely, that the whites who run the media recognised that having white faces fronting the media discouraged black people from believing a word the media said. The theory was that rubbish talked by black people would be believed by black people, since black people are notoriously stupid and racist. It doesn’t seem to have turned out that well, since the easiest way to win over a black audience is by jeering at Moeletsi Mbeki or Xolela Mangcu. However, the plan was, in principle, the same as the electoral strategy of the Democratic Alliance, which will probably succeed in the long run.
The problem with having black people as fronts is not just that they are black. No doubt the owners of our media are racist, but they aren’t as racist as that. No, the problem is that black people may have come from the wrong background. The owners are well prepared to identify white people who hold the wrong opinions, or might be seduced into holding the wrong opinions — the kind of people who might lead their newspapers down the wrong track, by failing to identify precisely what the ruling class wants, or even pursuing non-ruling-class agendas. But it’s much harder for white power-mongers to identify properly subservient black people. Recall the embarrassment of Wits University having to purge Deputy Vice-Chancellor Makgoba when he made trouble. Recall the way that Tsedu, the former black editor of the Sunday Times, failed to print Zuma smears on demand and had to be replaced. It’s much safer to have trustworthy, reliable white people in charge — and yet since everybody knows that they are only there because they can be trusted to tell the right lies, nobody with any critical sense believes them. Cleft stick city.
But what if there were a media tribunal? What if there were serious laws against revealing state secrets, especially if such secrets were artfully ill-defined? Why, then, you could practice self-censorship. Management would then have much more control over the content provided by the media — every editor would be concerned that if the wrong stuff were printed, management would have a copper-bottomed pretext for dismissal. And a perfect alibi for such control-freakery — it’s not I who is forcing you to suppress truths and instead publish lies, it’s the bad, bad ANC government! I am just as opposed to censorship as you are, but, regrettably, we have to acknowledge realities . . .
This is exactly the line the English press took under apartheid. It enabled them to pretend to rail at the oppressive government while secretly cooperating closely with it. The period since 1994 has been a nervous and tense time for media moguls precisely because there has always been a danger that some damned journalist might stumble out of line and inadvertently print something embarrassing to the ruling class. The Selebi and Agliotti trials show just how dangerous this could be — there have been heroically successful efforts to conceal the facts in both cases, erasing the tentative fumblings of a few investigators and commentators to suggest that something might be spurious about the ridiculous lies of the official narratives. With the media moguls and the politicians arm-in-arm in unshakeable alliance against truth, justice and democracy, we can expect a bright future for psychosis in South Africa.

2 Responses to Secrets and Lies.

  1. Venus-Mars says:

    Oh Creator, could you forthwithly strike down one Eusebius McKaiser

  2. Venus-Mars says:

    For never has an educated man of colour in south africa been such a painful embarrassment to the tradition of black intellectual discourse since Gatsha opened Zululand legislature with that 11 hour speech

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