Gareth van Onselen analyses one of the media's periodic fits of hysteria
On moral outrage and bad journalism
"After all, it is morally outrageous that moral outrage should be used as an excuse to perpetuate the outrage of censorship of others." AC Grayling.
The British moral philosopher AC Grayling has written that what moral outrage always aims at is censorship. It is an interesting point, and ironic too; for so often the morally outraged purport to be acting in defence of those civil liberties we enjoy, rather than against them. On closer inspection, however, that claim falls at the first hurdle. And the second. And the third.
Indeed, on closer inspection, unthinking moral outrage is nothing more than just that - invective; that unrestrained hysteria perpetuated by moralisers and which accompanies their umbrage at some or other ostensible offence. Words without reason, and unreasonable words.
It is both unprincipled and irrational and, were its impulsive desires enacted, the consequences would inevitably be profoundly undemocratic. Thus, taken seriously, the implications inherent to any morally outraged threat (for that is what it is, a threat) represent to the mature society a great danger. And yet, at the same time, in order that those implications might be lifted above the absolutism that outrage surrounds itself in, one is obliged to take it seriously.
It is a catch-22 situation for those that would want to speak out against it: engage with it and risk giving it a legitimacy it does not deserve or remain silent and risk endorsing its compelling nonsense. No one wins when any public concern is reduced to self righteous anger. But reason and principle compels one to say something. And so that is what I shall attempt to do here.
What defines this misplaced moral outrage? Three things. First, it is hysterical. Its language is loaded with hyperbole, its claims are exaggerated and its logic is unconstrained by rational consideration. For these reasons it is also true that, because moral outrage overextends itself, it is quite often funny to the outside observer not caught up in the frenzy it creates.
Little wonder then, that when two morally outraged forces meet, the resultant exchange is merely an exercise in exponentially upping the ante. Or that such moral outrage lends itself to absolutism: something is either completely good or utterly bad, unquestionably right or unspeakably wrong; us, and them. In no time at all, reason is outlawed all together and all that remains is wild accusation.
Second, it is unprincipled. Because it is impulsive, the consequence of some unthinking response to a raw emotional urge, it is not grounded in a coherent set of values or ideals (despite its vociferous claims to the contrary). It is a moment unto itself. A fit of pique. The reasons for this vary. Sometimes it is because the departure point was not a principled concern.
Other times because the principle at stake has been misunderstood. Most often it is some combination of the two. Third and by extension, its consequences are often absurdly undemocratic. And how could they not be if, by its very nature, it is the aggressive amplification of amoral indignation? No good can come of that.
Of course, it is quite possible to be rightfully outraged at some moral injustice, but in order that it is distinguished from the unthinking self-righteous anger identified above, such an expression must be grounded in a set of values against which the subject of that outrage is gauged. Detached from those values, the ‘moral' part of ‘moral outrage' is lost and all that remains it outrage. It is the latter of those two types of outrage to which Grayling refers and which, sadly, is prevalent in South Africa today.
A case study in hysteria
By way of illustration, and with the benefit of hindsight, let us look in some detail at the reaction to the DA's decision to remove from their press statement mailing list the Sowetan journalist, Anna Majavu.
The facts are as follows: For some few years Anna Majavu has, in the DA's opinion, acted in a manner contrary to the requirements of good journalism. Her stories, the DA believes, are often biased - chosen and written in order that the DA might be presented in a poor light. That opinion and belief is well documented and the DA has over time created a powerful body of evidence to this effect. It is a body of evidence the party is happy to debate in public, in order that its veracity might be tested, although, to date, that request has not been made of it. Over this same period, the party has made many attempts to deal with the problem through the numerous channels available to it. None to any avail.
It says much about the scale of the problem that, in its 10 year existence, in which it has dealt with hundreds of journalists, the DA has not resorted to such an action before. It is worth pointing out too that during this same period many negative stories have been written about the DA by a wide variety of journalists with which the DA has no argument.
We believe them to be an accurate reflection of either poor conduct or poor judgement on our part for which we should rightly be criticised. On those occasions that comment is not fair, we often reserve our response because nothing is perfect. Certainly the DA is not. The advantages of self-regulation and an independent media, however, far outweigh its relatively small disadvantages. And so, in making this decision, our benchmark was not favourable reporting, but fair and accurate reporting - the hallmark of any professional journalist.
As the body of evidence grew and as the problem failed to resolve itself, so the DA decided to act more decisively. It had no right to prevent the journalist from writing but it could protest against the quality of that writing, and as such, it decided to remove that journalist from its mailing lists, to that end. Our words and our positions are our own and we may do with them as we please, as is the right of any citizen in a democracy; we chose not to make them available to Anna Majavu.
The freedom to speak is also the freedom not to speak. There exists a well-established phrase for such a decision in journalism - for good journalism recognises the fact that no person is obliged to speak to the media against their will - ‘no comment'. For all intents and purposes, then, the DA had no further comment for this journalist.
Hyperbole and Hitler
That decision was made in September 2010 and for six months Anna Majavu received no press statements from the DA. The seven other Sowetan journalists did, as did the paper's general news desk. Anna Majavu was not prevented from attending DA press conferences nor were her questions unanswered. Her queries were facilitated and her requests for comment were accommodated. But the DA's protest remained in place and she received no statements.
For some reason unknown to the DA, sixth months later, in February 2011, the Sowetan ran a story announcing that Anna Majavu had been ‘blacklisted'. It evoked a substantial response. That story - and the response to it - is best described as moral outrage; and a study of its nature reveals it marked by all three of those characteristics described above.
To clarify, I refer to ‘the media' in this piece. It is a generalisation, by which I mean the media that responded to this story and carried the comment of those unions and commentators that responded in turn. There were many who did not report on this story and a tiny minority who reported on it in a balanced fashion; obviously, this does not apply to them.
Let us start, then, with the hysteria.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa said the DA's decision amounted to "dastardly censorship"; that the DA was "Nazi-inspired" and the decision itself was "inspired by Nazi's propagandist Joseph Goebbels (sic)".
The ANC Caucus described the decision as "careless" and "shameless" and the DA's conduct as "unacceptable" - as it represented "a backward tendency that was prevalent during the apartheid era".
The South African Municipal Workers Union said the DA's behaviour was "immature", that its decision was an "undemocratic process" and that it "abhors the DA's censorship".
The Freedom of Expression Institute said the decision was "childish" and "outrageous" and the Press Gallery Association that it "smacked of unacceptable double standards", that it was an "illogical" and "ill-conceived and ill-advised".
Ronald Suresh Roberts wrote: "The DA openly regards the media as its own hireling". The Congress of South African Trade Unions stated that "the DA's vindictive action reveals their utter hypocrisy" and that the party's liberal values had been "exposed as a sham".
In order that he might be able to inject into proceedings some sort of racial agenda, the Times' Abdul Malazi wrote: "Democratic Alliance blacklists black journalist". When the DA pointed out to Mr Malazi Anna Majavu was, in fact, white, he simply changed the sentence to: "Democratic Alliance blacklists white journalist" (presumably reversing the DA's racism in turn).
Anton Harber said it was "stupid", "foolish" and "pathetic". Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes said it was "idiotic". Business Day editor Peter Bruce said the decision was "really foolish". Justice Malala said it was "utter rubbish". William Sauderson-Meyer said it was "utter crap".
The South African National Editors Forum said it was "preposterous". Right 2 Know "condemned" the DA. And, as if to set the bar so high no one else might exceed it, Pierre de Vos described the decision as "even more" than astonishing.
The decision to remove Majavu from the DA's mailing list was categorised as a "ban", a "blacklisting", a "boycott" or "censorship". The Right 2 Know campaign called on the DA to "lift its ban". The Sowetan "condemned" the DA's "insane ban". Barney Mthombothi said both the DA and Julius Malema "ban journalists". Mathatha Tsedu said the DA's move was to "effectively ban" Majavu. The FXI, Sowetan, TimesLive, Abdul Malazi, Samwu, (who described it has "disgraceful"), the ANC, Cosatu, the PGA, the Citizen and Brendan Boyle, among others, all labelled the DA's decision as "blacklisting".
Peter Bruce called the DA to "drop" its boycott. Pierre de Vos argued the "boycott" amounted to hypocritical racism. Thabo Leshilo said the decision amounted to "censorship". And Sanef got in two bites at the cherry, calling on the DA to "lift its ban" because, if it did not, it would make the DA "guilty of censorship". Various other institutions described the decision as "censorship".
The DA was described as hypocritical. The Right 2 Know campaign "condemned party leaders for their hypocrisy". The PGA and Sanef said it was hypocritical and amounted to double standards. Pierre de Vos said the DA had one set of rules for the ANC and a different set for itself.
Various other individuals and organisations, including the ANC, Abdul Malazi, Samwu, and Cosatu all argued there was a fundamental contradiction between the DA's decision and its opposition to the Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill.
There were other forms of outrage, but those above represent the three most prominent patterns.
(As an aside, anyone who doubts moral outrage is a threat, consider this: Samwu "demanded" the DA remove Majavu from its blacklist and "warned" the DA about "its behaviour". Others demanded the DA apologise; that the DA rethink its position and that the DA act now or risk further anger. Each threat was made without any reference to the evidence.)
I have neither the space nor the inclination to interrogate the veracity of all of the claims made but I shall deal with each pattern in general terms. First, the nature of the DA's decision: agree with it or not, it was logical and certainly it was considered - it took three years to make. It was not inspired by Nazism or apartheid and it had nothing to do with democracy. It was simply a protest - a decision to withhold comment from a journalist, a right every South African citizen can claim (indeed, in America, there is even a constitutional amendment dedicated to the idea).
Second, the description of the DA's decision: the DA removed a journalist from our mailing lists. We did not "ban" anyone. Anna Majavu is free to carry on her business writing whatever she wants, whenever she wants and as she sees fit. We did not "blacklist" anyone. What we did was protest against her longstanding and continuous misrepresentation of the DA in her hard news stories.
Protest is a valid form of resistance and, like withholding comment, is anyone's right to do. (Just on a pragmatic basis, a list implies more than one person and, if anything, we did not add her to a list, we removed her from one.) We did not "boycott" anyone. We did not "censor" anyone. The DA did not and could not edit or shut down her work. An interrogation of every word reveals each to be an exaggeration.
Third, the hypocrisy: There is no contradiction between the DA's position on either the Media Appeals Tribunal or the Protection of Information Bill and its decision to remove Majavu from its mailing lists. The state should not vet the work of journalists nor should it hide information from public scrutiny.
The DA stands firmly opposed to both these ideas. Withholding comment has implications for neither of these two sentiments. It is perfectly possible to hold a critical opinion of and to protest against the conduct of a journalist and to stand opposed to those two developments.
Here is a simple question, why did no newspaper carry the headline: "DA removes journalist from its mailing lists"? After all, that is what happened. That was ‘the news'. By the same token, why did no newspaper carry the headline: "Hilter-inspired, apartheid-loving hypocrites, ban, censor and blacklist journalist"? Because if its sensation and hysteria that sells, well, why stop halfway? No. Neither of those would do. One needs just enough hysteria to create frenzy and just enough objectivity to feign credibility. Such is the modus operandi of the modern media.
Of course, the problem with responding with such ‘vigour' is that one is left fairly breathless when something serious or profound does in fact take place. The ANCYL is a case in point. So infused with vitriol is its rhetoric, it is almost impossible to distinguish their position on those more fundamental developments from their position on some trifling, petty concern.
And, as a consequence, good and bad become absolutes. Murder and offence are elevated to the same moral standing. Ambiguity is banished and, with it, human nature. It is divisive, the kind of attitude that generates ‘us versus them' thinking and, make no mistake, that kind of absolutism is the foundation on which authoritarianism is built.
Words without reason
Perhaps all that rhetoric and exaggeration would be excusable were it grounded in evidence. That is, if one could make a case for some fundamental principle being violated. Certainly, it was widely claimed that some such principle had indeed been trampled upon by the DA, but quite why that was, was more difficult to say. Sanef, for example, said the move "flies in the face of the DA's founding liberal values, including commitment to press freedom". It went no further.
The Right 2 Know campaign argued the DA's decision "flies in the face of its stated commitment to press freedom and transparency." How, exactly, it did not say. Ronald Suresh Roberts argued "The DA's illiberal logic merely confirms its loosening grip upon its own unearned ‘liberal, reputation"', but had no explanation for way the right not to speak was illiberal.
The ANC caucus said it amounted to "a serious onslaught on the freedom of the press and the right for access to information". But why this was so, it did not elaborate upon. And so on and so forth. As far as explanation goes - a reason why the DA's decision was illiberal or untransparent or restricted press freedom - none was forthcoming. That's because there isn't one.
Quite why the media required of these institutions no argument in support of their case before reporting it is hard to say. Not that this stopped the possibility the DA was in fact Nazi-inspired or apartheid-motivated being evoked in the most vociferous terms and splashed across the papers.
Why is that? It is because moral outrage is unprincipled; it cannot gauge itself against values or ideals. There is nothing illiberal about removing someone from a mailing list; if anything it is to exercise choice itself, the very essence of liberalism (the alternative being that the DA has no choice, that the media will determine its communications agenda). Nor are there any implications for transparency. The DA is not hiding anything from Majavu. She can read our comment on our website (where all our statements are posted) or in the papers the next day.
And, importantly, even if she could not, there would still be no implications for transparency. Not talking to someone does not mean you are not transparent. If it did, it would mean the DA was obliged to send its press statements to every journalist in the country, which we are not. Indeed, the party often narrow-casts stories and statements - if they are of regional interest, only to the media in a particular province; if they are on a story broken by a particular paper, only to its journalists and, if it is a story we wish to break, we often give it as an exclusive to one media house. We exercise the discretion to choose who we speak to everyday. And, I might add, so do the public when they chose which newspaper to read. Certainly there are no implications for press freedom.
We are not telling anyone what to write. But we do believe that whatever is written should be fair and objective. That requirement is not some partisan agenda. It is the principle by which the media itself operates. Presumably, when it is violated, the media itself would speak out against it.
This raises an interesting question: Why is it, at no point, has any one - Sanef, the PGA, editors and opinion makers alike - given any consideration to the possibility that Anna Majavu is, in fact, biased? Certainly one cannot expect the DA to be taken at its word, just as someone who brings a case before a court of law cannot automatically be ruled in favour of.
The evidence must determine the merits of the case and the DA is more than happy to argue its position. But no one seems interested in the evidence (to quote Anton's Harber's highly critical blog on the DA's decision: "I am not going to deal with the merits of Majavu's reporting"). None of the bastions of media freedom, so quick to put out statements, have at any point said: ‘If Anna Majavu is indeed biased, there should be repercussions, because that would be unacceptable. Thus the evidence needs to be interrogated and the truth of this allegation determined'.
Rather the motives of the complainant - the DA - are the only concern. True enough, as I say, the DA must explain itself. But so should Anna Majavu. And the media, which so often evokes self-regulation as its primary right, should put it into practice.
If moral outrage had a face, it would be that of Pierre de Vos. For many years now he has grown fat gnawing and chewing on the corpse of political correctness. Often, his outrage compromises his judgement, certainly his logic, as it has again done in this case. Relying on those poorly reported stories which suggested the DA's decision was based on an isolated incident, he builds his entire case around the single Majavu story the DA took to the Press Ombudsman.
Based on that story, he argues, the DA should have investigated the public representative implicated in it, rather than complain about the journalist. Its failure to do so reveals the party as hypocritical, he says. But does he apply that same logic to the DA's complaint? Of course not.
That would be to dampen the screeching morally outraged crescendo he so carefully builds up to. The DA is obliged to investigate. The media is not. The DA is absolutely wrong. The media is absolutely right. That is the unthinking (and poorly researched) position of a moraliser and, perhaps more disturbingly, somewhat hypocritical for a person trained in the law.
So what do those parties so aggrieved by the DA's action think of Anna Majavu? Numsa believes she is a "progressive journalist par excellence". Peter Bruce believes the DA should "publicly apologise" to her, as does the ANC caucus. Cosatu "deplores the suggestion that a former trade unionist is incapable of reporting accurately and honestly". Outside of the DA's critical comments, the possibility that she might in fact be biased was not entertained by anyone. Just to be clear, not the fact that she was biased, merely the possibility. Why is that?
Presumably none of these parties have archived and analysed three years of Majavu's stories about the DA (see this example by way of illustration). And, of course, to use what seems to be a very popular phrase, it ‘flies in the face' of the Press Ombudsman's ruling which everyone seems to assume lies at the heart of the matter (it doesn't).
Nevertheless, everyone is fairly sure the DA has done this ‘excellent', ‘progressive', unbiased, objective journalist a gross disservice. So gross, in fact, the evidence is of little interest. On what basis do they arrive at that opinion? Here's a radical question: Should Anna Majavu apologise to the DA? I guess we will never know. No one wants to know the answer to that question.
But perhaps the best way to reveal the absurdity of much that has been suggested would be to take it seriously. Let us do that then. Let us describe the society and the nature of the media in the world that is contained in those public responses to the DA's decision.
First, in such a world, all press statements from all political parties would have to be sent to all journalists. Presumably, if this is the consequence of some fundamental principle, it would be legislated for. Apart from the profoundly undemocratic nature of such a suggestion, there are several even more undemocratic logical implications that flow from this.
For one, what would happen to those statements not issued; in other words, if a political party decided not to respond to a story? Surely that too would constitute it withholding its comment from journalists? So, to be accurate, all statements, on all issues would have to be sent to all journalists. How would they know the political party in question had honestly put all its thoughts to paper? What if it was withholding something, even subconsciously?
Second, as the Freedom of Expression Institute puts it, it would be "the prerogative of editors and not political parties to appoint journalists and judge their capacity and performance". Again, several implications flow from this. For example, everyone would have to read every newspaper.
If only editors could judge the performance or capacity of journalists, the public would not be able to exercise its discretion in choosing what to read or, indeed, in determining which journalists and stories it believed to be excellent and which it believed to be poor.
All would be equal and everything would be read. No opinions on quality would be arrived at outside of the media itself. Of course, if an editor happened to be biased, well, that would throw a spanner in the works somewhat. Perhaps I will leave the FXI to sort out that conundrum.
Third, although rendered somewhat redundant by the previous point, the right to protest poor journalism would be outlawed. One could not display any unhappiness or discontent with poor journalism outside those channels determined by the media itself. As Brendan Boyle put his distaste at the DA having an opinion on what qualifies as good journalism: "So now they decide who is a ‘real' journalist?" Only the media will determine what constitutes good journalism.
If those channels do not work; in other words, if they do not result in poor journalism being corrected, well, to once again quote the Freedom of Expression Institute, all must have faith it "will come out in the wash".
The world I am describing is not a democratic one. It is an autocracy. And the chief beneficiary of those limited rights advocated in all of the rhetoric I have outlined above is the media itself: an all-powerful force, beyond any scrutiny outside of its own gaze, with a first principle right to everyone's thoughts and words and against which no one might protest, and certainly about which no one might have an independent opinion.
One can see why Grayling describes moral outrage as having as its primary purpose censorship.
Ironically, were I to put that sentiment as it is written above to any journalist, they would decry it in the most powerful terms. ‘Under no circumstances,' they would say. And yet, there it is, lurking implicitly in their very reaction and the unthinking comment for which they require no explanation.
Any discussion with a journalist on this issue appears to follow this pattern: First, there is outrage that some abstract principle - transparency, press freedom, liberalism - has been violated. After some discussion about particulars, it is generally accepted no principle has been violated, rather that the decision was evidence of poor political judgement on the DA's part. Once it is agreed that, poor or not, that judgement is the DA's alone to make and that the evidence would have to be interrogated to determine its veracity, finally, in some attempt to revert again to principle and avoid that assessment, the action itself is restated in different terms. (One journalist told me, exacerbated, "What the DA did was actuallygointo their mailing lists and remove a journalist's name!" Correct. That is what we did. Saying it with effect does not invest it with some hitherto unseen motive.)
Of those three steps, the most curious is the second, for it concerns the media's domain directly. Why is it bad political judgement? Because of the fallout? But, as we have seen, the fallout was largely the media's own reaction (many unions cited extensively the PGA or Sanef statements). Is there perhaps something of a confession hidden away in there? That the media cannot be trusted to report on any subject concerning one of its own in a fair and objective manner?
After all, if the DA's decision was met by unfounded hysteria, surely the media - the public's bulwark against sensation and misrepresentation - would sift through the rhetoric and report to the public only those facts salient to it? Perhaps not.
The real test is this: if Anna Majavu is biased, what will the media do about it? Will its reaction be as intense as it was to the DA's suggestion? Will Sanef and the PGA release a statement? Will the FXI and the Right 2 Know campaign speak out against her? To these questions, we will never know the answers. Because there appears to exist within media circles an unwritten rule: never criticise another.
In this sense, self-regulation extends only so far. It is ironic, given the emphasis put on liberal doctrine in response to the DA's decision. Accountability and competition, the two cornerstones of excellence, are applied only so far and not to the media itself. There is no other set of institutions that works in this way in South Africa. The judiciary criticises itself; often a higher court will powerfully rebuke a lower court's judgement.
Political parties constantly monitor and critically comment on each other's conduct. The state has various mechanisms, from the Public Protector through to the Public Service Commission, in order that it might critique its own performance. And the private sector is defined by peer review, critical evaluation and assessment. Not so journalism. It is true they might carry some generic critique; rarely if ever particulars.
No newspaper has an opinion on which other newspaper is of a poor quality or which journalist is below standard. If a poor story is written by a journalist, even if the Press Ombudsman finds a story to be fundamentally flawed, you will not find the next day a nation-wide set of editorials speaking out against it.
Each to their own is the rule (although, curiously, talk with any journalist off the record and they are willing to give you their express opinion of who is up to scratch and who is not). The test here is not of the DA, but of the standards to which South Africa's media holds itself. Either it can shoot the messenger, drown it out with invective, or it can interrogate and respond to the message conveyed. If any precedent is to be set, its nature is the media's to determine. The decision it makes in this regard will say much about its attitude.
It is true there exists an environment in which the media is under intense pressure to justify and defend those mechanisms it relies on to regulate itself - primarily the Press Ombudsman - and to safeguard against the state's encroachment on its independence. That is a worthy and necessary fight and one to which the DA remains steadfastly and resolutely committed. But, if that environment only results in generating mindless moral outrage on any incident that involves some explicit or implicit criticism of the media, that is to the detriment both of the fourth estate and our constitutional order.
Reason, not irrationality, should be the guide by which we exercise our judgement. Evidence, not rhetoric, should be the gauge by which we measure the veracity of a claim. Logic, not sensation, should be the framework by which we craft an argument; and principled position, not political correctness, should be the rationale by which we arrive at a position. If those are the rules by which we wish our public debate to conducted, then they are the standard by which we should measure any transgression, certainly any complaint.
And they should be applied equally, both to those doing the complaining and by those responsible maintaining excellence and enforcing accountability. I wonder, how much weight do those principles hold in South Africa today? Are they cherished? Are they understood, promoted and protected? Or are they just words? Empty shells we evoke to shield the deep and fundamental desire to express our collective anger? Now there is something to become outraged about.
On Monday 14 February 2011, some two days after the Sowetan first broke the news about the DA's action, Majavu gave an interview to the website ‘themediaonline.co.za'. That interview contained within it the following quote from Majavu: "I too am guilty of once taking Ferial Haffajee off the Samwu press list for two weeks! She was then an associate editor at the Financial Mail and her publication had run a profile on the Samwu general secretary where they superimposed a viking's hat onto his head. It was childish and when she asked to be put back on, I did so."
In light of the above, that is a remarkable admission. And you will note from the comment, Majavu does not contest the principle at play, only her reason for invoking it. Saying it was ‘childish' is probably accurate, it seems like an overreaction to a disagreeable but by no means unjustifiable picture; in other words, saying it was a childish move is a comment on the quality of her judgement, not on her right to make that decision in the first place - poor or excellent judgement regardless.
That she seems to concede. The media never picked this up and, when it was brought to their attention, never commented on it. This tells you two things: First, moral outrage is not some uncontrollable force, it is a conscious decision. And, second, the media is capable of reasoned judgement too because it makes much sense to hold your tongue when your entire case has been pulled from under you by the poster child for your cause.
Gareth van Onselen is the DA's executive director of special projects. This article is written in his personal capacity.
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