When journos don’t comprehend democracy

William Saunderson-Meyer on SANEF's nonsensical response to the ZCC's boycott call against Tiso Blackstar


Suckling as they do from birth on the pabulum of entitlement, it is hardly surprising that so many South Africans assume the world owes them a living. It’s worrying, though, when journalists succumb to the same delusion.

This week the South African Editor’s Forum (Sanef) issued a statement urging the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) to withdraw a call upon its members to stop buying newspaper titles owned by Tiso Blackstar. The media group — whose new name is, no doubt inadvertently but nevertheless wonderfully, redolent of a battle fleet in a Star Wars movie — publishes some of SA’s most influential titles, including the Financial Mail, Business Day, Sowetan and Sunday Times. 

It also publishes Sunday World, more downmarket, which sells itself on its gossip and celebrity coverage. Last week, almost its entire front cover was the headline “ZCC bishop faces arrest”, which turned to an inside story that claimed that the ZCC leader, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, faced arrest in Botswana for contempt of court.

The Sunday World front page sparked a furore in the ZCC, prompting the church to call on its 16 million congregants to institute a boycott. Into this fray rode Sanef on its constitutional charger.

“In SANEF's view, the call for a consumer boycott is tantamount to editorial interference, bullying and censorship in order to stop what is perceived as unflattering coverage of the church's activities,” the statement declares. “A call for a consumer boycott of any media outlet should be discouraged and should not be acceptable in a constitutional democracy where multiple channels for redress are available.”

What a load of bollocks. To boycott is a constitutional right, no matter how apparent in might be to an impartial observer that the decision to do so is muddled and dumb. In a democracy, no entity is morally obliged to spend its money with another entity. 

No one has to, in the cause of media freedom, buy your newspaper. No one has to, just because apartheid was destructive and we think that the world owes us, invest in our country.

In similar vein, this week, social media was abuzz with righteous wrath because an Afrikaner-owned furniture chain in Pretoria withdrew its advertising from Jacaranda FM because it did not like the supposedly racist tone of one of the radio station’s talk hosts. Commentators Eusebius McKaiser and Max du Preez responded with predictable outrage at the dastardly hypersensitivity of whites.

Again, what a load of rubbish. South Africans don’t seem to get how markets and democracies work. It is irrelevant whether it is talk host Tumi Morake who is “racist”, or whether it is Eric Barnard Meubels, the store that withdrew its R100,000 monthly advertising, that is “racist”. 

It is a principle of democracy that you can say what you can like, up to the point that your words become legally actionable. It is also your democratic right to take your business elsewhere, if you don’t like the behaviour of the entity for whose services you are paying. 

Despite the apparent befuddlement of large sections of the commentariat, this is not a startling, new concept. Media houses — because it is in the DNA of journalism to offend — have always had to juggle the exercise of editorial freedom against the reality of withdrawal of support from an angry advertiser or political constituency.

It is one thing, however, to have to endure the ignorance of the self-appointed social media arbiters of what is acceptable behaviour. Quite another to have Sanef, a collective of journalists, wilfully misinterpret the constitutional safeguards that protect it.

One wonders whether Sanef even read the Sunday World story, before they went into Don Quixote mode, tilting at windmills? For it was mischievously sensationalist.

It is only after one wades through some turgid writing that one finds, towards the bottom of the item, the justification for the headline. It transpires that some ZCC members filed an urgent application, to be heard on 21 September, for Lekganyane to be arrested and the ZCC to be sanctioned for allegedly violating an earlier Botswana High Court order relating to the merging of church branches.

So the good bishop isn’t, actually, on the run from the cops. In fact, the civil application hadn’t, at that stage, even been heard. 

It’s one of those dubious might-be, could-be stories, that is more hype than reality. The headline was a tantalising exaggeration designed to draw in gullible readers, most of whom, one can safely wager, did not read all the legal tedium that invalidated it.

It’s a bit like the Sunday Times’ “scoops” about the SA Revenue Service’s “rogue unit” which have now been revealed by KPMG’s mea culpa regarding its creative forensics, to have been pure fiction. Never mind the collateral damage from this disinformation — the ousting of a finance minister and his deputy, and a journalistic facilitation of state capture at the tax office.

Sanef has, as yet, said not a word about this failure on the part of a Tiso Blackstar title. But then again, it, too, has to weigh integrity against commercial reality. One never knows when the Empire’s intergalactic battle fleet might strike back.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye