OUT TO LUNCH
Had it not been for my learned friend Jeremy Gordin’s review last week of Anton Harber’s new book, the snappily titled So, For the Record: Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture I might have remained in blissful ignorance of the vicious and damaging defamation that appears on page 27.
Naturally I rushed down to my local bookstore over the weekend to check for myself. I hadn’t been planning to buy the book, merely to thumb through it with the residue of sticky chicken wings on my fingers and check page 27. Unfortunately the bookshop had never heard of it but said that if I enjoyed political fiction they had some pretty good new titles in stock.
So the only evidence of slander I have is thanks to my learned friend whose integrity in such matters is beyond question. This is what he wrote last week.
On page 27, discussing the Sunday Times’ 1994 attempts “to catch up with the massive demographic, political and cultural change happening around it,” Harber writes that it was an “oddity” that the ST would hire a “right-wing [sic] British expat,” David Bullard, as a columnist.
Jeremy very sportingly goes on to defend me but a slur on my good name this vile and malicious cannot go unchallenged. In matters such as these one is faced with several options. Hire some expensive lawyers to sue Harber for every cent he has and reduce him to penury. But we all know that the legal system is clogged with politicians suing one another at the taxpayer’s expense and any litigation would take years.
A second and popular option among members of the ruling party would be to send the heavies to Parkview to break a few limbs as a warning. However, a third and far better option exists to those of us with a computer keyboard, a weekly column at our disposal and a highly intelligent and discerning readership and that is to “unpack” Harber’s comment and expose it for the nonsense it surely is.
The term ‘right -wing’ is now generally accepted to be synonymous with ‘racist’, ‘white supremacist’, ‘neo-Nazi’ and all those other intentionally damaging tags so cherished by the identity politics obsessed woke left. That was clearly Harber’s intention; to do as much damage as possible. The addition of ‘expat’ further suggests a temporariness and a lack of commitment to the country of one’s adoption and is intended to imply a colonial arrogance and white superiority issues.
I haven’t a clue what prompted Harber to label me right-wing as long ago as 1994. Maybe it was the burning crosses on a Thursday night down at Zoo Lake? Or perhaps the giraffe spit braais I used to regularly hold over weekends for my khaki clad buddies. Maybe he just misread the column title and thought it was ‘Out to Lynch’.
If Harber had bothered to do any research he would have discovered that the appearance of the Out to Lunch column in 1994 was my writing debut. In the words of the bookies, I had no previous form.
The late Ken Owen was the editor of the Sunday Times and Kevin Davie (now at Harber’s former publication the M&G) was the editor of Business Times. It was the latter who offered me a column in January 1994 and I doubt whether either of those esteemed gentlemen were looking for a ‘right -wing’ columnist. In fact, my guess is that would have been the very last thing on their mind.
So, with absolutely no clue as to my alleged political leanings or my talent for writing they went ahead and offered me a column complete with photo and byline. I have to admit at this point that I was allowed as a permanent resident to vote for the first and last ever time in the 1994 election and I confess to putting my X next to the Democratic Party. I realize that this may well further damn me in the eyes of Cde Harber and add grist to his mill.
As far as the matter of expat is concerned I can only offer the defence that I have lived in South Africa for almost 40 years. In 1994 I had already been here 13 years, paid lots of tax, married a South African woman, bought a house and helped develop the burgeoning financial market in this country. So I think we can kick that little nasty slur into touch.
One might have expected Owen and Davie to grow a little wary about this right wing oddity they had employed as a columnist but they were either too polite to mention it or they never noticed. The column quickly went from fortnightly to weekly and that was presumably because the readers wanted more of it.
Within a couple of years it was supposedly one of the most talked about columns in South Africa and the Sunday Times claimed at its peak that it reached 1.7 million readers every Sunday. To be blunt, I was a hot property and contributed significantly to the popularity of the Sunday Times and, therefore, its bottom line.
My right wingedness had still not been spotted.
Various editors came and went during the 14 years that this ‘right- wing’ columnist was permitted to ply his trade and Mondli Makhanya wrote in the foreword to ‘Out to Lunch Again’ (published 2005) “Out to Lunch is a dream column for any editor to have in their newspaper: it is an equal opportunity dispenser of lethal barbs”.
He then goes on to mention how column space in a newspaper is valuable real estate and how the integrity of the columnist is of the greatest importance. He continues “With Out to Lunch Bullard has treated the space – and therefore the readers of the Sunday Times – with utmost respect”.
So there we are eleven years into the column and still no obvious sign of the right-wing oddity that Harber’s radar picked up way back in 1994. It’s also worth mentioning that I was the well remunerated master of ceremonies at the annual Sunday Times Top Companies Awards for ten years and I doubt that would have been the case had there been any worries about parading a right -wing columnist in front of a high net worth and mixed race audience of 500 plus top business leaders.
So what is this really all about then? I fear Harber is suffering from a heavy dose of professional envy. Imagine what would happen if a plumber waltzed into an operating theatre while surgeons were in the middle of a heart transplant. “This doesn’t look too difficult” thinks the plumber and proceeds to perform a perfect heart transplant to the obvious displeasure of the highly qualified surgeons.
That, in essence, is what happened with me. One minute I was just another trader in the financial markets and suddenly I had a column in the country’s largest selling Sunday newspaper with pic and byline. No apprenticeship, no three-year journalism degree course, not even a diploma. No working my up through the years as a court reporter.
No hard slog on an investigative story in return for a ‘Sunday Times reporter’ byline. Just slap bang in the pound seats of journalism with all the attendant fame it gradually brought with it. Groupies. Regular upgrades on international flights. Free meals in restaurants. Free booze. Invitations to test drive Bentleys. Who wouldn’t be pissed off?
Of course, the column could have turned out to be a huge failure but it wasn’t and that is what really irked people like Harber, du Preez, Roper, Basson et al. It was a monumental success and its eventual demise in 2008 is still reverently discussed by those who actually had sufficient brainpower to understand what that final article was all about.
I admit that I have mocked Anton Harber in the past referring to him in print as “the bouffant haired Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies” and this has evidently upset him. I do find him a trifle pompous and self important and like many people with those failings he is not known for either his sense of humour or his self-deprecation. Which makes him an ideal target for mockery of course.
Another source of Harber’s animus no doubt is the success of my books, the author’s proceeds of which were all donated to charity ( a gentle hint Oh bouffant haired one). The first, published in 2002 went straight to the number 1 position two weeks before Christmas.
That must have rankled. The third, “Screw it, Let’s do Lunch” published in 2007 spent 14 weeks on the Exclusive best seller list and sold extremely well.
I checked out the sales figures for Harber’s last book, ‘Diepsloot’ published by Jonathan Ball , who were also the publisher of my first two books. (One might have thought that Harber would avoid a publisher known for associating with right-wing oddities). The verified sales figures are just below 4 000 copies sold which, although good for South Africa, are way below my sales numbers.
One would have hoped that a man with Harber’s profile would have resisted the temptation to write such tosh about a fellow scribe but I imagine that if you have been a loyal supporter of the ANC all along and gradually watched them destroy the country, then your anger and frustration at having backed the looting team must inevitably find an outlet and perhaps I should be flattered that I could be of assistance.
Hopefully this book will do better than his last one. Who knows, I might even buy it, if only to tear out page 27, frame it and hang it in the guest toilet wall. All I hope is that the other 335 pages are better researched and less motivated by jealousy and class hatred than page 27.
After I had finished writing the column I had sight of what Harber had actually written on page 27. He talks about how the Sunday Times was grappling with its identity and how contradictory it therefore was to “hire a right-wing British expat whose column, ‘Out to Lunch’, pictured him with a cigar and a glass of champagne”.
That is complete twaddle as Harber would have known if he had bothered to allow facts to trump prejudice. In the early days there was indeed a mugshot and it was only a couple of years later, when the column had gained plenty of traction, that the new photo appeared next to the byline.
I was asked by the editor to put on a smart shirt and tie, buy a cigar and meet the ST photographer Raymond Preston on the 2nd floor for a new mugshot. The glass of champagne Harber speaks of was in fact a glass of red wine and we used cold coffee to simulate the red wine in a glass borrowed from the boardroom. I assume Harber knows enough about newspapers to realize that when the editor asks you to pose for a new mugshot you don’t tell him to piss off.
The wine photo was replaced at some point by a cartoon by Dov Fedler (a very good one) but readers complained that it didn’t portray the essence of the column which was, quite simply, ‘if you don’t like what I’m saying then bad luck. Go off and write your own bloody column’. A new photo was commissioned which featured me looking straight at the camera with the now ubiquitous cigar and a glass of whisky which was really cold tea.
Harber goes on to write:
“Bullard’s wit catered for an element of white South Africans that would see itself as liberal and open minded, but was deeply cynical of majority rule and the democratic transition, which might have characterized the Sunday Times readership of old, but not the new”.
Quite how Harber can confidently make that judgment about a paper with sales of over half a million every week is puzzling. As I said in the main article, the Sunday Times claimed a readership of 1.7 million for my column (particularly when they were talking to potential advertisers). That’s an awful lot of cynical white South Africans. Is it not possible that a handful of black South Africans also read and enjoyed the column?
On 2 March 1997 my column titled ‘Hold on to your homburgs-Bullard is voting for the ANC’ appeared. It contained the words “The refreshing thing about the ANC is that, at the moment, it is unencumbered by pomposity and egotism. President Nelson Mandela doesn’t need a Ruritanian guard of toy soldiers in plumed helmets and white gloves to announce his presence”.
OK…I was as wrong about that as those liberal minded whites Harber mentioned were spot on about ANC rule.
On 16 November 1997 the column was titled ‘Hypocrisy and greed lurk behind labels of “empowerment” and “affirmative action”.'
As Mr Makhanya was to remark eight years later the column was “an equal opportunity dispenser of lethal barbs”.
My brief was very simple. It was to draw readers through to the third section of the Business Times which very few readers had ever bothered with previously. It not only did that but it also got people talking as the letters pages showed every Sunday. The column also attracted new advertising and, since I assumed that the Sunday Times was being run as a business back then, I thought that was good news.
At one point I was asked to reduce my word count because a leading firm of accountants wanted to advertise just below the column every week.
The real problem according to Harber is that I was ever employed at all. I doubt whether the people running the Sunday Times in the mid 90’s and early 20’s would agree. Interestingly, I was reliably informed that subscriptions to the Sunday Times fell dramatically in April 2008 just after my ‘sacking’.
The ‘Out to Lunch’ column undoubtedly made both friends and enemies over the years. If it hadn’t it would have been a very dull column. Some weeks were better than others but column writing, unlike real journalism, is a bit of a hit and miss affair. That is the nature of the beast. My guess is that I had a lot more hits than misses.
Finally, if a paper is grappling with its identity and seeking to appeal to a new demographic how smart is it to deliberately go all out to alienate its current readership, particularly if they are in the all important LSM10 category? Might that not impact on adspend? Well, they did and it did.