HuffPost hoax: A reply to Marius Roodt

Thomas Johnson says the author is not a victim but a player in this sorry story

Marius Roodt’s, aka Shelley Garland’s, trolling of Huffington Post (now HuffPost) is infamous. The fallout was it created a huge controversy, he resigned from his job at think-tank CDE and HuffPost’s then editor Verashni Pillay resigned after the Press Ombudsman ruled the article incited hate speech.

Roodt was silent until he published an article in Politicsweb on Wednesday explaining why he did what he did.

Now, from the start I thought that as satire per se, which he claimed aimed to “show flaws in the media’s biases”, it was permitted as free speech. But I was uncomfortable with his methods – they were dishonest: unknown to HuffPost, he created a persona with “her” own biography and posted a picture of himself in drag representing Garland.

After all hell broke loose and the article went viral, which included Pillay defending it and it being mentioned on foreign media outlets, Roodt, still in character, continued the deception by contacting The Renegade Report’s Jonathan Witt and Roman Cabanac. They wrote:

On Saturday evening, there was a dramatic u-turn when the blog was suddenly taken down and replaced by a shallow apology. Ms Pillay offered a half-hearted mea culpa with a promise to bolster future blog contributions. She further announced that the matter will be relayed to the Press Ombudsman for review. The reason given for taking the blog down was that Huffington Post could not verify the identity of ‘Shelley Garland’, and not because of its reprehensible content.

“It appears Shelley Garland does not exist. A Facebook search reveals very little. One would assume a MA student in philosophy would have some of her work in the public domain. A reverse image search of her picture only finds hits on topics related to her blog. She is an apparition. However, ‘Shelley Garland’ reached out to us, and sent us her original email to Huffington Post as well as their response.”

This was the time for Roodt to pull the plug on the hoax and reveal himself because his objectives had been met. But he didn’t. He doesn’t say why not but his intentions, which are clear from the extract referring to the information Roodt/Garland sent Witt and Cabanac, were intrinsically dishonest and/or done to stoke controversy.

“Garland” had a constitutional right to “her” opinion that white men should be disenfranchised. And Roodt had a right or duty, as he believes, to make it as satirical comment. That Pillay sought to defend disenfranchisement of anyone speaks of her and HuffPost’s questionable ideology and motives. But that too was their right.

HuffPost behaved poorly. Once they tracked Roodt down, a posse including editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee confronted – an ambush, really – him at work and subjected him to an excruciating videoed interrogation during which she called him a “doos”. Individually and for Media24 this did them no credit and compounded HuffPost’s mistakes.

But questions remain and Roodt’s article does not shed light on them. Why did his employer, CDE’s Ann Bernstein, permit the interrogation on her premises? Did Roodt not ask? Despite the circumstances, her duty was to shield an employee against what, until that point, were allegations supported by digital spying.

As a clever guy who presumably knows his rights, why did Roodt agree to the interview, and recorded too, rather than telling them to get lost, or agree to it only with a lawyer present? Why did he grovel before Haffajee et al seeking absolution if, as he now says, his intent and methods were justified? Why did he immediately resign?

I agree with what he says about the media and the stated objectives of Garland’s “satire” in his Politicsweb article. I too have been critical. But he’s being too easy on himself. It’s one thing to use a pseudonym, a literary tradition. But he created a false history – a deception – and once the shit hit the fan didn’t reveal himself with the explanation he now offers. He perpetrated this hoax, an ongoing deception, until HuffPost exposed him at work, food sticking in mouth. Any righteous purpose he might originally have intended and credibility he had was damaged. How ignominious and humiliating for everyone.

While anyone can be a victim of a con, Pillay’s defence of the article, and given her history at M&G, showed a pattern of professional neglect and poor judgement. She did the honourable thing resigning. Ferial Haffajee and Media24’s editorial board ought to do some introspection too.

Roodt is not a victim but a player in this sorry story. In his article he used “regret” a few times: “regret some [only some] of the consequences”; “things in this saga I regret”; “I sincerely regret Verashni Pillay resigned, and regret this incident may [not “did”] have reflected negatively on my former employer”.

His belated explanation is self-serving, though, as he attempts to shift some of the blame for things he and he alone set in play. He entrapped HuffPost and is no less culpable even if in their eager incompetence they fell for it. In the final two paragraphs he says he doesn’t “regret showing up the repetitive echo chambers”, and doesn’t regret his actions if “we can have a productive discussion” about it.

Regret is not an apology, even less so when it’s conditional, qualified and partially retracted. Ultimately, Roodt is unrepentant of the immense trouble his actions and article caused, including the damage to his and others’ reputations and careers, although, in his naïveté, that was not his intention. But rather than give us a frank account, including about the rather extreme measures he took to get the piece published and why he didn’t put a stop to it when it got out of hand, he compounds it with unapologetic evasion and massaging and a soapbox speech, which after his stunt, he lacks the credibility to utter.

I’m concerned many people are disingenuously willing to overlook his part and unquestioningly appoint him hero merely because he proved their point about the media: the self-righteous hypocrisy, the self-appointed moral guardianship and sorry state of the industry. People on social media forums, who in other circumstances are highly critical of what Roodt called “flaws in the media’s [and wider political economy] operations, processes and biases”, have praised him.

A milder version of the excessive kudos heaped on him is from this person who signed in as “Helen Zille” (presumably Western Cape’s premier) to the article’s comments section: “This is a very important analysis, and demonstrates a pervasive problem in much of the media. It would be useful to analyse several more examples, which I am currently doing. Thank you.”

I’m not concerned that he felt it necessary to write the hoax article, but the devious manner in which he carried it out from beginning to end. There were better ways, e.g., just speaking the truth rather than the deliberate, premeditated baiting and con. Under the circumstances, that he exposed HuffPost’s incompetence is not a mitigating factor. The means do not justify the ends. And definitely not in a nation where veracity, honour and morality at the highest levels, sometimes in the media itself, are in short supply.

There’s a wide line between satire and deceit and Roodt crossed it. In this highly stressed, politically charged environment even factual comment can be misconstrued and twisted – we’ve seen disturbing examples of it over the past couple of years. And under this onslaught the tendency to self-censor is ever present. The media deserves all the criticism it gets for their part for facilitating this oppressive situation with their frequent sententious, hypocritical and biased reportage. We need honest and incisive analysis, comment and opinion, and not the fawning, speculative examples we see so often that passes for authority and reason.

What Roodt did, as it played out, was not trivial. Those who care about freedom of expression in the media, academia and society at large can do so without using the nefarious methods of those who wish to undermine it.

Expanded from comments originally made to Roodt’s article “HuffPost hoax: Why I did it” (10 May 2017).