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What IOL readers need to know

David Benatar on how the online portal trampled the audi alteram partem rule during his recent exchange with Xolela Mangcu

Independent Online, out of line: What readers of Independent Online (IOL) should know

According to a basic principle of justice, “Audi alteram partem”, one should hear from both sides of a dispute, and not from one side only. It is a crucial ingredient for reaching an informed judgment about which side has the stronger case. The principle is most commonly applied in legal contexts, but it is applicable also to the press. We should have no confidence in a medium that presents only one side of a debate. In disrespecting this principle, Independent Online (IOL) has demonstrated that it might more accurately be known as Partiality Online (POL).

On Monday 29 June 2015 I published a piece in the Cape Times under the heading “Those who seek changes must show that they are desirable”. In this piece I indicated that terms like “transformation” and “decolonization” had been bandied about as slogans at universities and that it was crucial to gain clarity on exactly what they mean in order to evaluate whether the changes they stood for were desirable ones.

My article was, I thought, a measured piece. It recognized the ways in which the curriculum has already been “decolonized” and “Africanized” and the ways in which this project might proceed. However, it also criticized some notions of “transformation” and “decolonization”, and attempted to allay some of the concerns of those who find universities “foreign”.

Three days later, a response by Xolela Mangcu appeared in the Cape Times under the inflammatory heading “Racially offensive diatribe has no place” and a subtitle which read “Benatar’s ideas ‘unacceptable’”. (Newspapers almost always impose their own titles on opinion pieces and letters and thus I presume that the title was the newspaper’s rather than the author’s.) To be fair to the Cape Times, the title was in keeping with the content of Professor Mangcu’s intemperate, ad hominem response.

However, IOL proceeded to post Professor Mangcu’s article online without making my original piece available to the much larger online readership. The many online readers who had not seen the print paper were thus unable readily to locate and read my contribution and see for themselves that it was not the “racially offensive diatribe” it was (libelously) alleged to be.

I responded to Xolela Mangcu in the following day’s print issue of the Cape Times (“Not enough space to address all Mangcu’s mistakes, but here’s a summary”, Friday 3 July 2015), but that reply too was kept from the online readership.

By this time, I was receiving requests from a number of acquaintances for my original article, which they were unable to find online. They too were struck by the unfairness and thus I wrote to IOL (on 3 July) to complain about the selectivity of the online opinion content, and requesting that they post my original piece as well as my reply to Xolela Mangcu.

I received no response and my request was not obliged. Yet, when Associate Professor Mangcu shot back with another volley of invective (“Professor dangerously blind to his own racial double standards”, Cape Times, Monday 6 July 2015), that was published not only in the print edition but also online.

At this point (6 July 2015), I wrote to the Press Ombudsman. I complained about the bias and requested various remedial actions, including the publication online of all my contributions to this “debate” as well as a public apology from those responsible for this display of partiality. I received a swift response from the office of the Press Ombudsman, indicating that the matter had been referred to the legal department of Independent Newspapers for their comment. (The Ombudsman, at least, was interested in Audi alteram partem!)

Despite this, my rejoinder to Professor Mangcu the next day (“Personal attacks not the answer, stick to the facts”, Cape Times, 7 July 2015) was not posted to IOL. Nor were any of my earlier pieces.

I wrote to the Press Ombudsman again on 13 July and 15 July indicating that five further contributions to this “debate” had been published online, but none of these were pieces by me. Two – including a letter – were by Xolela Mangcu. One was an “op-ed” open letter to me by Zubeida Jaffer (“Mangcu has a point, Professor Benatar”, Cape Times, 9 July 2015). [Bizarrely, when this piece was placed on IOL the author was listed as Mansoor (rather than Zubeida) Jaffer.] It came as no surprise that my reply to Ms. Jaffer was not posted on IOL.

Finally on 17 July, IOL posted my original piece and my initial reply to Xolela Mangcu online (with links inserted between those two items and his first response to me). This was between two and three weeks after they first appeared in the print edition, and one can reasonably suppose that most of those who had previously searched for these pieces would not now do so again. Thus, while those two pieces are now available to the wider online readership, they were not available at the most crucial time. No explanation was provided for the late posting. Moreover, none of my other responses have been made available online.

The same is true of those letters that defended me against personal attacks. Even in the print version of one of these letters a sinister edit was made. After Xolela Mangcu accused me of racism, my colleague, Dr. Elisa Galgut, wrote a letter in my defence. The editors saw fit to edit out her claim that “Professor Benatar opposes unfair discrimination of all kinds” – the only deletion they made to her letter. In other words, after allowing article upon article to make scurrilous accusations against me (sometimes highlighted in the articles’ headings), they deleted the few words to the contrary from somebody who actually knows me.

The last I heard from the Press Ombudsman’s office (on 24 July 2015), they were trying to establish whether Independent Newspapers would publish an apology. I have heard nothing further and am not aware of any public apology having been made.

One final curious fact: When I submitted my original piece to the Cape Times it was around 1850 words long. That is longer than most opinion articles in that newspaper but I provided a motivation for accepting it at that length. The editor replied, saying that they would consider it if I could reduce it to 1200 words, which I did. Yet, in the midst of the subsequent debate, the Cape Times published a 1866-word piece by Xolela Mangcu (“Always space for firm courage”, 13 July 2015), in which he ranted about an email – a document not in the public domain – that he had received from David Bullard. Professor Mangcu complained that “racists can get away with their words and actions without any prospect of going to jail”, and that this “speaks … to black powerlessness … and shows who is aligning with whom at UCT”.

Many of those calling for “transformation” and “decolonization” have complained about traditional “hegemonies” continuing to operate in South Africa. However, in the case of Independent Newspapers and especially its online division, it is absolutely clear that the views of people complaining about these purported hegemonies have now become hegemonic.