Showing us what they want us to see

Saturday, 29 July 1995

Jim Kerr is bringing Simple Minds to town. Madiba has turned 77. Rupert Murdoch is trying to buy off broadcasting rights to major events. Some things don't change...

We were sitting in the Durban winter sunshine after lunch, talking about people that get us pissed off. Like Christians, Hindus, Muslims, the ANC, Inkatha, the Nats, SABC, newspapers. And we got around to Americans. My colleague suggested that Americans were sanctimoniously uninformed and lacked the ability to laugh at themselves. I concurred.

However, I pointed out, Americans aren't really any different from us. They act on information that they receive, and make a moral decision to do something about that which they feel strongly about. For instance, concern for the environment is at an all time high in the USA. Americans translate this concern into the practical task of recycling.

If they don't receive enough information to make a moral decision, are they to be blamed?

On June 11, 1988, close to 80 000 people packed London's Wembley Stadium for the musical event of the year. Across in America, Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television network had snapped up the rights for live broadcasting of a concert which would be watched by well over half a billion people in 63 countries. On Fox stations across the USA, commentators welcomed America to "freedomfest" and a day of great music.

When George Michael, halfway through his performance, stopped to say, "I know that there are restrictions in some parts of the world as to what some people think today is all about," there were probably many Fox viewers who wondered what he was talking about.

The event was the "Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute" concert, organised by Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. The six hour performance featured songs and speeches from some of the world's most popular performers delivering a harsh condemnation of the then South African government and apartheid.

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But America saw something else. Fox Television ran the concert on a time delay broadcast, editing on the fly. The name "freedomfest" was a deception, coined by Fox for the broadcast.

All references to "Nelson Mandela" were stripped out. American audiences were never told that the concert was a protest against the continued incarceration of the man who had become known as "The world's most famous political prisoner". Speeches by Harry Belafonte, Sting, Whoopi Goldberg, Stevie Wonder, and many others expressing their personal outrage at the continued violation of human rights in South Africa, were never shown.

Robert Townsend, on behalf of the Fox Network, told America that the concert was to show support for the "Anti-apartheid movement". Harry Belafonte told the rest of the world that the concert was for Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday. Steven van Zandt told the rest of the world to boycott South Africa and companies doing business in South Africa. Paula Yates, on behalf of the Fox Network, promised America lots of "behind the scenes" action and interviews with the stars.

What is frightening about the transmogrification of "The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute" into "freedomfest" is the sheer magnitude of the manipulation. The Fox network is huge, with exclusive rights for hits like The Simpsons and Married with Children. Their audience -- bigger than the population of many countries -- were deprived of an opportunity to share the passions of their favourite artistes.

From a serious emotional outcry against racism, Fox transformed the trans-Atlantic transmission into an afternoon of soulless entertainment. That so many people were deceived is chilling. That the rest of the American media remained silent is an indictment.

If Americans knew what was going on in South Africa, would they have done something? Probably. The Vietnam War was shut down when the TV pictures were shown. Bill Clinton was forced to act on Haiti after public outrage.

Would white South Africa have continued to sit back comfortably for so many years if they knew what was really going on? I'd like to think not.

So much of our history has been obfuscation, deception, or plain lies. So much of what the world knows about our history has suffered the same fate. People like Jim Kerr have taken our history to the world. People like Rupert Murdoch have kept our history from the world.

Life has come full circle again. While we welcome Jim Kerr and celebrate Nelson Mandela's birthday, Rupert Murdoch is bidding for our history.

We'll probably sell. We need the investment. And we won't need to decide what to call our rugby team.

Murdoch's networks will decide that for us.