Give Barry Bateman a break

Jeremy Gordin questions why EWN "apologised unreservedly" for its reporter's private expostulation

Having neither the cojones nor the wit of my learned colleague and friend David Bullard and being moreover a Luddite when it comes to modern communications technology, I do not go anywhere near Twitter.

But, as journalists used to say in the good ol’ days, I am “reliably informed” that there is a hullabaloo among the twitterati and on other forms of so-called social media about Eyewitness News (EWN) senior reporter Barry Bateman having called Julius Malema a “poes” on TV.

Of course I didn’t even know what the word meant until I looked it up on the internet’s Urban Dictionary and learnt it means “cxxt or pussy [and] is typically considered a foul word as it is often used to refer to or describe something with great disgust”.

Now, being a feminist and Woke – a Diddums, as Bullard might say – I, like Eusebius McKaiser and others, feel distressed by such misogynistic language. However, I have all my life struggled unsuccessfully to stop remembering a poem titled “The Ernest Liberal’s Lament” written by Ernest Hemingway:

I know monks masturbate at night
That pet cats screw
That some girls bite
And yet
What can I do
To set things right?

Anyway, if I hadn’t, an hour or two ago, seen Prof. Anton Harber being interviewed on the eNCA channel about the issue, I might have carried on with life, thinking the matter does not really qualify as a national catastrophe.

I still don’t think the Bateman/Malema fandango is as serious as Stellenbosch University’s Bureau for Economic Research’s business confidence index (BCI) dropping to 21 index points in the third quarter from 28 in the previous quarter.

But, besides Bateman’s utterance being much more fun than reading about the BCI, some of the things Harber said got me thinking.

Now, I’m not taking issue here with what Harber said. He’s also a (former) learned colleague and sometimes we’re friends; more to the point is that if you’re a professor of journalism, responsible, as it were, for the production of our future journalists, what else are you going to say other than “Bateman’s words were inappropriate and unprofessional and he had to account for them” in terms of some sort of disciplinary action.

We can’t have a whole generation of BJs (baby journalists) running around calling people poes-es on TV, can we? But, having got that out of the way, let me get onto a few other things and maybe add some, er, perspective to Harber’s views.

First, I personally felt enormously liberated by, almost triumphant about, Bateman’s reaction to Malema. This is because I, and I believe there might be a few others who feel the same way, agree wholeheartedly with Bateman’s sentiments.

Second, Bateman is fully entitled to say whatever he wants to say about Malema in private; he just shouldn’t say it on TV or radio while being a journalist. Okay. So, remember this: Bateman did not intend to say what he said in public. He said it immediately afterwards, apparently to some colleagues.

Trouble is that the sound and camera were still running – and Bateman’s “private” remark was run by channel Newzroom Afrika, which was also filming the press conference. Was this intentional? I don’t know. But it was nasty – and (as Harber did note) was an invasion of Bateman’s privacy.

Third, did Bateman actually call Malema a poes? Yes and no. What he did was (and watch the clip again if you want) was expostulate in deep frustration at what Malema had just done to him.

What had Malema done? In response to Bateman’s question about the National Prosecuting Authority’s plans to prosecute Malema and party spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi for allegedly assaulting a police officer, Malema launched into a full-throated racial tirade about how he would not be pushed around by any white or “pink” man. It was aggressive, it was pointedly in Bateman’s face, it was racialist.

Now I don’t know how genuine Malema’s tirades are – you know, the stony-faced, raised voice, and thousand-yard-stare shtick. I suspect the tirades are merely a rhetorical shimmy that he learned some years ago were quite effective. My dad used to do it too – I also do sometimes – so for me, such shticks are, in the immortal words of Judge Roelof Erasmus, like a duck’s water off my back.

Still, it can’t be much fun to have the benefit of Malema’s halitosis while he is so patently provoking you – you specifically, a white person.

Fourth: talking of which: i.e., Malema’s provocations. Malema says whatever he wants – and no one in a position to do anything about it really seems to care. On 28 May, for example, Malema tweeted: “We are still cruising nicely, bana ba baloi [meaning children of witches] are not happy. Go for kill fighters, hit hard...”

The “cruising nicely” was an allusion to a story by journalist Pauli van Wyk on corruption involving the EFF. The tweet stayed online for hours and was “liked” many thousands of times. It could be read as a casual invitation to some deranged EFF supporter to take out Van Wyk, should the opportunity ever present itself. It was also clearly intended to be massively intimidating.

Why am I telling you something that you probably know? Because at the time Politicsweb approached Twitter to ask whether the company was aware of and approved of this Tweet – and was told, politely of course, to get lost. It remains up to this day. 

In short, Twitter has decided Malema can tweet what he likes, regardless of the possible consequences.

Point is that Malema gets carte blanche on twitter – and elsewhere – to utter the most insulting and inflammatory rubbish. Bateman’s reaction was completely human and understandable – and he never meant for it to be public anyway.

So why, I was wondering, has EWN apologised “unreservedly” to Malema? Shame on them.