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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Gareth van Onselen.]

On September 2 SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng gave an interview to Insig, hosted by Waldimar Pelser. It made headlines because of this sentiment, expressed by Motsoeneng late into the exchange: “Maybe we need to understand the role of media. The role of media is to influence the mind-set of people, young and old. Let’s take example [sic] — the young ones. If you always put crime on media, you report about crime … actually what you are doing you are encouraging young people to commit crime.”

Rightly, a fair bit of criticism has been written about that particular position. However, it was largely at the expense of everything else Motsoeneng had to say that night. When viewed in its entirety, the 11-minute interview constitutes a staggering display of ineptitude. It is worth going through the rest of it in some detail, to better appreciate the depth and breadth of Motsoeneng’s superficiality.

Before looking at some of his other responses, there are a few general observations to make.

The first of these is the number of times Motsoeneng failed to understand a basic question. There would be a silence, then, on at least three occasions, he repeated the linchpin word at the heart of the question, as though it was a piece of jargon from an advanced nuclear physics handbook he was encountering for the first time. This would lead to the question having to be repeated and, of course, less time for any coherent explanation from Motsoeneng; which suited him no end, mainly because coherence is not part of his repertoire.

The second is the quality of the replies. Sometimes Motsoeneng would not answer the question at all, blathering on as he wandered down a tangential path. Other times he would misunderstand the question. On those occasions when he both understood the question and actually attempted to answer it, the response was so vague and generalised (which seems to be one of gripes with the quality of journalists in the first place), it left you wondering whether he could cite a single piece of specific evidence for anything he believed or whether he operated entirely in a universe of blind faith, in which he got most of his views off the back of cereal boxes.

Pelser kicked off with a question about Motsoeneng’s repeated calls for more regulation of the press. The chief operating officer responded with a wide range of generalised slurs. He said, among other things, “I have been observing journalists today don’t do what they are supposed to do”; “when they report they are not factual”; “they always take sources that are not even credible”; “they don’t do their own research”; “they don’t investigate stories, I think they are just excited to go on [sic] internet”.

Having uniformly tarnished every single South African journalist with the same brush, he concluded, “it is very important we regulate journalists”.

How big is the problem, asked Pelser. “Very big,” said Motsoeneng, before offering up this bit of profundity: “If you check the factual of the facts [sic], really they [journalists] are always misleading.”

Basically, in Motsoeneng’s universe, journalists are about as morally corrupt as one gets. His language is fundamental and absolutist and the problem, he suggests, is acute. He makes no exceptions and, when he isn’t mauling the English language, he believes it all boils down to an inability to get “the facts” right.

Unfortunately, he has no facts of his own. So far, every one of his statements, on the actual evidence, would be proven wrong, simply because he generalises so much. So right off the bat he becomes an advert for the very problem he seems to be rallying against.

But hang on, isn’t Motsoeneng in charge of hundreds of journalists? Is this view not an indictment of his management? Pelser asked him what he was doing at the SABC to rectify the problem.

Big moment this. Motsoeneng has sat on his throne of indignation and passed judgment on all and sundry from his place in the clouds, surely he has a solution to it all: a set of policies and practices to rectify the problem, a style of leadership that shows us all the path, a series of insights that reveal the way? Behold — the extent of his great wisdom:

“What I have been doing within the organisation, including the team that I work with, I always encourage them, for journalists, to go to the street, and go and get those stories themselves.”

Is that it?

Is this the head of a multimillion-rand media organisation or a self-help guru from That 70s Show? What kind of response is that to a problem he himself has described as nothing less than a national crisis?

Go to the street? Okay then. Thanks, Buddha.

Pelser was then at pains to set out existing regulation and the new system of “independent co-regulation”, which had a Press Council at its heart, was announced by Chief Justice Pius Langa and endorsed by African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

Motsoeneng says, “I can’t respond on other people’s views,” but reassures Pelser that he is lobbying “BIG TIME” (he takes some relish from just how much he is lobbying), for more regulation.

You can’t respond to other people’s views? Hmmmmmm, interesting attitude. Professor emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton University, Harry G Frankfurt, has a word for that: bullshit. In fact, he wrote a whole book about it. Someone should send Motsoeneng a copy.

For the record, being able to take a view on someone else’s position is pretty much quintessential to journalism in all its forms. It’s called critical engagement. Unless, of course, as part of his “go to the streets” theory of journalistic excellence, he is likewise encouraging a “take no view” mentality — just report whatever anyone says. Validating what someone says would require fact checking. But journalists don’t do that, he says. Which makes sense if, like him, they can’t take a view.

The extent and rate at which Motsoeneng’s own logic self-implodes really is something to behold.

Should government be allowed to regulate journalism, Pelser asked.

“In my view government always allow [sic] journalists.”

Pelser, somewhat confused by the response, repeated the question.

Motsoeneng, after bumbling through a series of butchered phrases, arrived at this: “I don’t see anything wrong from government, if people are not following whatever that they need to follow, if government gets involves [sic] and puts their facts on the table.”

(In order to illustrate his point, Motsoeneng cited the Law Society as an example of effective regulation. On its website, the South African Law Society gives the following as one of its aims and objectives: “Safeguard and maintain the independence, objectivity and integrity of the profession.”)

This remark is perhaps the most revealing. In his worldview, Motsoeneng seems to believe government is a neutral, objective arbiter of truth. If journalism fails, it should step in, with “their facts”. Once again, his own logic turns in on itself. The use of the word “their” gives the game away. Governments the world over have vested interests and, often, the truth is not one of them; “their facts” are not “the facts”.

Pelser bravely marched on, ever-deeper into this world of confusion.

Motsoeneng said he was not saying journalists should not be critical, before repeating his all-encompassing suggestion that journalists never have facts. “Can you give an example of this,” asked Pelser.

Two or three seconds of dumbfounded silence followed.

“What do you mean by an example?” Motsoeneng eventually asked.

Yeah, tough question that. As one can only explain what they mean by an example by repeating the question, because you either understand the idea of an example or not, that’s what Pelser did. But to no avail. Motsoeneng clumsily regurgitated his position about “facts” like someone who has had an excessive amount anaesthetic injected into their tongue.

He then offered up his defining pearl of wisdom, about reporting crime and encouraging people to commit it. Enough has been said about this, except to say it is akin to suggesting commenting about bad journalism on national television (without facts or evidence) is essentially to encourage journalists to be bad, which, once again, renders Motsoeneng’s own logic somewhat self-destructive.

Motsoeneng, whose internal mental clock seems to be ticking over several minutes behind the pace set by the interview, did eventually come up with “an example”. Inevitably it was Nkandla, and he tried painfully to suggest the media has misrepresented the whole affair.

“You have 10 houses, someone come [sic] and build five houses, it’s 15 houses, but you combined those houses together, you are misleading people.”

I love the phrase, “someone come and build five houses”. Who? Santa Claus?

Pelser asked, “Do you think this government … sometimes lies?”

“Government LIE?” Motsoeneng asked in a flabbergasted tone that suggested Pelser had just asked him whether it might be a good idea for McDonalds to open an outlet in Syria.

You could almost see Motsoeneng’s internal mental clock ticking over. “I have never hear [sic] anything about government lying.”

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Good potential SABC logo that.

And that is just about that. There is only one thing anyone with even the vaguest sense of what competence looks like would get from that interview: it wasn’t on display.

But in concluding it is worth returning to Motsoeneng’s crime sentiment. Let’s assume, for the sake of hilarity, it is true. I wonder, what would any aspiring, talented young journalist get from that interview? Sweet nothing.

On the other hand, what would an executive-minded, incoherent, confused and generally ill-considered journalist get from that interview? Quite simple — the SABC is the place for me.

And that is the ironic truth at the heart of Motsoeneng’s interview. It displayed not what is wrong with journalism but what is wrong with the SABC. And, in the ongoing manner in which Motsoeneng defies the many and varied ethical and legal concerns over his continued management of the organisation, behaving in a similar manner or being beholden to the government of the day, well, it has its perks.

It is a strange place, the mind of Hlaudi Motsoeneng. He doesn’t give in-depth interviews that often and so it is difficult to get an extensive view inside it. When you do, the hurricane of chaos that seems to blow around inside appears as destructive as it does random. Don’t bother trying to suggest some kind of logical structure to it, it will rip it up and spit it out like hurricanes do.


South Africa at a Glance
58 780 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in June 2019 (CPI) & +5.8 y/y in June 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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