Lies, damned lies, and journalism

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

As a nation, our ability to make informed decisions is only as good as the information we are given.

For example, if our grandparents knew that long term exposure to asbestos would lead to malignant mesothelioma, we would not have used the stuff in building our houses.

Unsubstantiated information can cause us to make rash emotional decisions, particularly when that information relates to things that are close to our hearts. The British found this out to their chagrin in India in 1857 when they introduced the Enfield 1853 rifle to the native corps known as "sepoys". These rifles used cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.

A rumour was started that cartridges were greased either with tallow derived from beef or lard derived from pork. Never mind that the grease used on cartridges in India was in fact supplied by an Indian firm of Gangadarh Banerji & Co – the sepoys were overwhelmingly either Hindu or Muslim and the possibility that their religion and culture were being besmirched was a lit match to a powder keg, triggering what the British called "The Sepoy Mutiny" but which many historians now refer to as "India's First War of Independence".

I don't know whether there was any truth in the rumour that led to those events, but had I been fighting for India's independence at the time, I would certainly have spread the rumour. Politicians then and now know the power of emotionally-charged information, and will often deliberately toss falsehoods into the mix to further their own ends– hence the longevity of the "Obama is a Muslim" rumour, or "Thabo Mbeki is an Aids denialist", or "Helen Zille is a racist".

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Cue the conflict at Lonmin's Marikana mine last week which has left a body count of 34 people dead thus far. There has been a howl of outrage from my fellow South Africans and rightly so. It's unthinkable that human beings are shot and killed in public confrontation with people who are theoretically their protectors.

Now if you've been following the reporting of this event (and I hope you have been), here's disinformation that you should watch out for.

Firstly, news media have been referring to it as the "Marikana Massacre". A person can kill another person but it’s for a court to decide whether it was murder or not. A massacre is an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of many people and it's for the justice system to say whether the shooting was indiscriminate or whether the police were acting appropriately. It's irresponsible for the media to be judging the police ahead of that process.

Secondly, the media have been comparing the confrontation with Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976 among others. What bollocks! Sharpeville and Soweto were peaceful demonstrations by unarmed civilians. The miners here were armed with clubs and pangas and had already hacked two police officers to death earlier in the week.

But the single part that seriously pisses me off is the rampant stupidity among my media colleagues who tell us that the striking rock drillers earn R4 000 per month and are wanting a 300 percent increase to R12 000 per month. This is all based on a single soundbyte from a single striking worker earlier in the week.

CNN has told the world that "The rock drill operators and assistant rock drill operators, who earn $300 to $500 a month, want their salaries raised up to $1 500 a month".

Another news manager posted on Facebook: "How can Lonmin – d 3rd biggest platinum mining company in the world – pay those grown men, experienced miners, fathers, & family bread winners less than R4 000 ol these years? Yes; their out-of-the-blue demands of R4k to R12k wage hikes r ridiculous but they deserve better than R4k a month in this tough economy where prices of some basic food stuffs hv shot up 50% to 100%!"

Now having sat on both sides of the wage negotiation table in my career, I know when information just sounds wrong. So I picked up the phone to Lonmin and asked their communications division: "How much does a rock drill operator actually earn?"

The answer came forth that evening, (and I quote verbatim):

"Mark Munroe, EVP Mining, states: Lonmin’s Rock Drill Operators earn in the region of R10 000 per month without bonus’s and over R11 000 including bonus’s. These levels are in line with those of our competitors and are before the wage hike of some 9% which will come into effect on 1 October 2012."

I have no defence for said rampant stupidity on the part of my media colleagues. I will however point out crucial information that they have not told us.

Go to Bloomberg.com, search for LON:SJ, and look at those financial statements.

Lonmin is not raking in profits. It recorded a loss of US$24 million for the financial year ended 31 March 2012 on a turnover of $750 million down from $1bn the year before. Now if I am a shareholder and see my profits going south and those expenses rising, I'm going to get out. If 3 000 rock drillers earn R11 000 per month, that's about $49 million dollars in costs right there. If they want more money…

My take is that if the rand appreciates against the dollar and the price of platinum declines further, Marikana will be shut down. Tell me about the "ugly face of capitalism" when those miners no longer have jobs.