Toss out the adjectives. Here's why...

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Columnists like to namedrop. It stems from our own sense of insecurity that our opinions are less valid unless we preface them with persiflage such as “As I remarked to Julius the other evening…” or “as I advised the President as we left Tripoli…” – I think you get the picture.

So, not so long ago, I was having lunch at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia.

Seated at my left were Gwede Mantashe and Tony Yengeni. To my right were some of my esteemed colleagues in the media world, Zukile Majova, Thabo Leshilo. Ferial Haffajee, Ray Hartley, and Nic Dawes. (Zukile is head of news and current affairs at my radio station – if you don’t know the others, Google is your friend.)

Messrs Hartley and Dawes and Madame Haffajee were earnestly engaging Messrs Mantashe and Yengeni on the subject of the government’s proposal for a media tribunal. Needless to say, the latter being in favour of said tribunal, and the former passionately arguing for why it was a bad idea. And in the midst of this brouhaha, Gwede turns to me and remarks, truthfully: “You’re laughing.”

“Yes,” I said. “I don’t believe these guys,” I gestured toward Dawes / Hartley / Haffajee. “It’s your job to try and control the media. It’s our job to ensure that you don’t. It’s not something we negotiate with you. If necessary, we’ll fight you in court, right?”

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Tony smiled. The conversation resumed. It was a good lunch after all.

That aside, Gwede would be surprised to find that I actually am in favour of a media tribunal.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a second that the government should be allowed to have a Bureau for Information that positions policemen next to the printing presses to ensure that nothing subversive gets published – we went through that in the 80s already and we know where that leads.

But I have a particular sense of contempt for most of my colleagues in the media who by their sheer laziness and incompetence continually undermine the integrity of the fourth estate. You see, it’s not dissimilar to my sense of contempt for degenerate Indian South Africans — every group has its degenerates, but I feel personally affronted when they come from my community.

Take this week’s large national Sunday newspaper whose headline proclaims: “Hawks reveal Arms deal bombshell”.

Now I know immediately, by use of the word “bombshell”, that this is a construct of a sub-editor’s desire to turn a squib into a sparkler. So I read on: “The Hawks have taken the first step towards re-opening the multibillion-rand arms deal probe - which could expose those who took bribes to prosecution.”

Re-open? That suggests there was a probe in the first place. I don’t recall that happening. “Those who took bribes”? Who exactly are we talking about? I remember suggestions that someone took bribes, but no one has been named.

“The head of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations, Anwar Dramat, wrote to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) on Wednesday informing it of the Hawks' intention to speak to European investigators to establish whether or not criminal charges should be brought against any South Africans.”

We’re planning to ask European investigators to establish whether or not criminal charges should be brought against any South Africans? That’s the bombshell?

People: here’s a quick guide as to how you can be a one-person media tribunal.

First, journalism is about fact, not speculation. Look for Kipling’s servants: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. If any of those are missing, read no further.

Second: toss out the adjectives. Journalism is about fact, and adjectives are about opinion. So when you see the word “controversial”, read no further. It’s controversial only because the journalist is lazy.

Third, any comment from the political opposition against the ruling party is irrelevant. One expects the DA to make out the ANC to be corrupt. As the old saying goes: if a dog bites a man, that’s not news; if a man bites a dog, that’s news.

Fourth: Any statement that says, “If x happens, then y will happen” automatically implies that “if x does not happen, y will not happen”. “If lightning strikes me as I type this, I will possibly not finish this column” is not news — just wishful thinking by some people.

The Sunday report I refer to says: “If this happens, South Africa could find out how much and whether senior ANC leaders received payments related to the arms deal.” The sentence should read “If this happens, South Africa could find out whether senior ANC leaders received payments related to the arms deal, and if they did, how much.” By saying “how much” first, it implies that there is corruption.

Fifth: beware of experts. They exist only because journalists make them out to be expert. I’m weary of seeing and hearing the phrase “constitutional law expert,Pierre de Vos”. No offence to Professor de Vos, but his opinion is less valuable to me than that of any judge of the Constitutional Court, or any Senior Counsel who wins before that court. (George Bernard Shaw: “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach”.)

So there you have it – a simple five step guide. Next time a newspaper commits any of those five offenses, send off a complaint to the press ombudsman via www.presscouncil.org.za — and while you are there, read all of the findings under “latest news”. Read, and weep.

(By the way, there is only one finding listed against Post – for misspelling a person’s first name “Kayleigh as Kylie” more than a year ago. That’s why I write for this paper, and not the others.)