Former Mail & Guardian, now former Huffington Post editor Verashni Pillay has emerged from the wilderness to pen a piece (see here) attacking the SA Institute of Race Relations for, well, truth be told, it is difficult to say exactly. Her thoughts read like they just fell out of a tumble-dryer. But she is not happy. One can discern that much at least.
One of things she seems unhappy about is that the IRR has been going around “predicting” things, via its polling. She writes, in a moment of clarity, “The IRR’s convenient opinion-finding in support of its own stance should put us on alert when it comes to the IRR making predictions of an ANC win – a win that would be very antithetical to their stated interests.”
I like the phrase “very antithetical”. It’s similar to the phrase, “very unique”. Not really the sort of language you would expect from a former editor but then her time at the Huffington Post suggests editing was not her strong point.
Here is another phrase she might be interested in, if she bothered to read the IRR’s actual poll. It is the first one under the section titled “Interpretation”. It reads: “This poll is not a prediction.” Again, one would expect reading to be part and parcel of a former editor’s journalistic make-up, but then she is a former editor for a reason, and that reason had a lot to do with not reading in the first place.
There is a whole lot of moaning and groaning about the IRR’s ideological character - “The IRR hews much closer to the DA in terms of policy” and “as we consume these statistics and numbers, we must remember the ideological bent of the organisations behind them” - but no actual interrogation of the poll methodology itself.
It’s just embarrassing nonsense anyone with an inkling about how polling works will read and laugh at. So embarrassing, in fact, that there is little point spelling out just how embarrassing, because presumably the point of that would be to convince Pillay otherwise. And there is no chance of that.
It suffices to say that Pillay is welcome to raise objections with the actual methodology (problem: she would need to read it first) and the way it was conducted (problem: she would need to understand it) but, outside of that, the IRR’s ideological worldview has sweet nothing to do with how a poll is conducted. In fact, the poll wasn’t even conducted by the IRR. It’s just not the way it works.
Also, Pillay does realise that the ultimate incentive here is to be accurate, right? It’s the IRR’s reputation on the line. Then again, in Pillay-land, being accurate has not always been a motivating force. She once oversaw a false story claiming that FW de Klerk was mentoring Mmusi Maimane, which did much damage to the M&G’s reputation - and that was before the Huffington Post mess. So maybe she just assumes any organisation by nature seeks to undermine its own credibility.
In the real world, that would be what Pillay calls, “very antithetical”.
Interestingly, that de Klerk story was penned by a former DA-staffer. So, in an deliciously ironic twist, this great contemporary moral authority on protecting the public from hidden political agendas (“[The IRR] employs former DA staffer Gareth van Onselen to be its public face on current affairs”) seems to be rather compromised on the subject. Hardly a surprise.
It is hard to say for sure what Pillay’s final conclusion is. Something like: the IRR wants to pretend the ANC is recovering support as a part of a clever bit of reverse-psychology, to actually make ANC voters complacent? (“the idea that the ANC have it ‘in the bag’ so widely disseminated, it may convince already apathetic ANC supporters to stay at home come voting day”). Who suspected the IRR was so powerful? Every cloud has a silver lining.
It’s the kind of conspiratorial thinking ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte seems to indulge. She also warned the public against the IRR’s poll. It was, she said, the work of “the enemy”. So, good to see Pillay and Duarte of one mind on that subject. Or, that they have at least one mind between them. Whichever.
Hard to explain the IRR’s first poll, however, if that is your view. In September we had the ANC on 52%. In December we had the party on 56%. But no mention of that first poll, presumably because it doesn’t fit with the conspiracy. Or she didn’t read it. Or both. I am going with both.
Anyhow, look, it you want to learn how to un-think, I thoroughly recommend giving Verashni Pillay a follow. By the time you are done reading her, you will feel far less burdened by the weight of such things as evidence and reason. And ignorance, they say, is bliss.
Gareth van Onselen is the head of politics and governance at the SAIRR