In defence of David Bullard …

Monday, 14 April 2008

(I must be out of my flippin’ tree! … Writing this particular blog, I mean. Might just as well swim out past the shark nets after acupuncture. Oh well, bring ‘em on …)

Let’s be perfectly clear on one thing. I do not particularly like David Bullard.1 I would not invite the man to dinner, nor would I buy him a drink. I did, however, shake his hand when I bumped into him at a bookstore, saying: “I’m glad you lived to tell the tale.” (This after he survived an attack by armed intruders.)

I don’t particularly like him because he has never written anything that made me think: “Wow, I wish I had thought of that!” Au contraire, his views about the world in general and South Africa in particular tend to be niggardly persnickety hair-splitting diatribes.

But, they are bloody well-written niggardly persnickety hair-splitting diatribes.

I confess! I turn first to Bullard’s column when I open the Sunday Times on Monday morning. (If you must know, I then open the magazine and read the comics, starting with Prince Valiant. I then hop across to the leader page to check out the Mampara of the Week. I then flip through the paper to count the ever-increasing number of pro-Zuma stories, et cetera, et cetera. But I digress.)

David Bullard knows how to string a sentence together, and does it well. He knows how to rub people the wrong way, and does it well. That’s his job.

Note, for example, this commentary on the Sexual Offences Act making kissing illegal for under-16s:

“In fact, I have it on good authority that the ANC is to disband the Scorpions and form a new, elite squad of police officers trained to recognise smudged lipstick on a 15-year-old boy’s mouth at 100 metres.

“The SnogSquad, as they are to be known, will also be trained to analyse the type of kiss. Without even having to interrogate the shamed offenders, they will be able to tell whether it was a friendly peck on the cheek, a gentle kiss on the lips or a full tongue sucking with some butt squeezing thrown in for good measure. That’s obviously going to be essential evidence when it comes to deciding the length of the jail term.

“Rather like the traffic cops hanging out on suburban backstreets nabbing soft targets such as speeding moms, expect the SnogSquad to go for soft targets. The international arrivals lounge at OR Tambo is an obvious place. Picture the scene: Tracy, aged 15, fresh from the KLM flight clears customs and makes it to the arrivals hall to be greeted by Clint, her childhood sweetheart, who plants a kiss on her cheek and whispers something really criminal such as “missed you, welcome home”. Within seconds the SnogSquad have them in handcuffs and they’re on their way to a crowded police cell to await trial with the usual sprinkling of rapists and murderers. Another hectic day in the life of a crime-fighting cop.”

Or this, with regard to the now infamous FBJ meeting:

“Try as I may (and believe me I really have tried), I simply haven’t managed to summon any splenetic indignation at not being allowed to attend the Forum of Black Journalists’ cosy little chat with Jacob Zuma on the basis of my skin colour.

“To be absolutely honest, I had a far better offer on that particular Friday and I doubt if I would have easily given up lunch with a gorgeous brunette and a nicely chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in exchange for a room full of sweaty hacks and a few words of wisdom from the accused.”

It reminds me of that saying: “It takes a big man to cry. It takes a bigger man to laugh at that man.” As I said: bloody well-written niggardly persnickety hair-splitting diatribes.

So, let’s take a look at the column that ostensibly got him fired, specifically this comment:

“Every so often a child goes missing from the village, eaten either by a hungry lion or a crocodile. The family mourn for a week or so and then have another child.”

Yes, it’s in appallingly bad taste, but he’s describing a fictional situation! It’s satire! That’s his job!

And here is my take on what’s wrong with this picture. In all my years in journalism (first byline in 1980), every newspaper I have worked for has had a range of checks and balances in place before a column sees print.

Surely, if a writer is a satirical columnist who offends people on a regular basis, there is even stronger reason why vetting of the column should take place before it hits print? In this case, there should have been the copy taster, the chief sub-editor, the page-layout sub, the copy sub, the revise sub, the editor of Business Times and, finally, the editor. Surely someone in that chain of command (a) read the column; and (b) was concerned enough about tastelessness, to (c) bring it to the attention of the writer and ask him to change it, failing which, (d) ask the editor to intervene?

It is my conjecture that none of those worthies went through that process with Bullard’s column. Result: like many potentially offensive or sometimes libellous pieces in so many publications, it went through un-subbed. A hue and cry ensued. The vicious dogs bayed for blood. They got it.

Editor Mondli Makhanya is quoted in Business Day as saying the newspaper’s “systems failed” and by News24 as saying that the Sunday Times had “messed up” by allowing the column to be published in the first place. “At some point the system should have picked it up and it shouldn’t have gone into the paper,” he said. “I take the blame for that.”

I take my hat off to Mondli for that. It’s unheard of for an editor to accept culpability these days. He can impress me even further if he gives Bullard a solid snotklap and then puts him back to writing, while firing those worthies in “the system” who messed up (oh, and if he gives Jon Qwelane space next to Bullard).

(NB: To Xolela Mangcu, who was “delighted” about Bullard’s firing, saying “Imagine a German columnist making remarks about the Holocaust” — any comparison of anything with the Holocaust is sloppy analysis. Do an internet search for “Holocaust trivialisation” if you want to learn why this is so.)

  • 1. I subsequently met David Bullard and we have been good friends ever since. I'm happy to have been proved wrong.