Social Leverage

Social Leverage

Freedom of the Pressure Cooker

Of the two weeks between my columns, I spend roughly 13 days and 22 hours in horrified contemplation of what to actually write about. This mental strain has produced such weighty topics as annoying actors or local driving habits, but that perhaps speaks more to an eclectic collection of personal peeves than any lack of actual thought. I try to pick my column topics with all the care that your favourite Auntie packs into picking out your birthday present. Sure, often the result is an automatic re-gifter pair of purple mittens, but goodness those mittens have been chosen with love.

I suppose public writing has been on my mind rather a lot recently. See, there’s this little matter of the Protection of State Information Bill, which is putting rather a damper on my journalistic spirit. If it gets its way, my metaphorical Auntie’s gifting arsenal is going to be sadly reduced. Want to write about that sneaky little family tender? Fancy a spot of light cabinet lifestyle expose? Government says “No.”

But something unexpected is brewing. Notoriously complacent Capetonians seem to be getting rather involved in public discourse lately and I dare say it has all come as rather a shock to our collective systems. I mean, for a city where “I’ll be there now-now” means “after I’ve checked out this eeepic sunset, bru and maybe had a little chill by the pool,” we’ve been taking an uncharacteristically critical – dare I say active – approach to our right to know.

Speaking of which, the action group Right to Know’s activism campaign has highlighted something fundamentally interesting: when our rights aren’t being threatened, do we choose to know at all? And – on the other side of the editorial board – how do we choose to report what we know? Last year’s incident of The Sunday Times lead (non)story of the ‘Facebook Racist’ is a case in point. Editor Ray Hartley, with all the misplaced glee of a small child pockmarking a wall with his birthday set of finger paints, splashed an ‘exclusive’ report of an online white supremacist group with a deeply disturbing profile photograph on the front page. The newspaper proudly informed its readers they had reported the matter to the Hawks. All very admirable, as Hartley later insisted. Except that he’d released the same story surrounding the photograph when he was editor of the sister publication The Times… back in 2008.

Giving otherwise marginal groups of objectionable people (the one in question was hardly heralding the apocalypse, weighing in at a mere 500 members) the attention they crave and do not deserve is rather like putting a toddler’s tantrum on the shopping centre loud speaker. Where is our sense of ethical public rhetoric? Why should we accept cheap tabloid selling tactics from one of our most respected Sunday papers? Recently, a new issue has raised its hack reporting head in the form of the Kony 2012 phenomenon. For those living under a rock – or just regular mountain-stoned Capetonians not on trend with, like, totally being an activist – it’s a wildly popular internet video created by an American NGO to raise recognition for Ugandan human rights violator Joseph Koni.

Of course, once one scratches the emotively – and expensively – edited celluloid surface, one begins to see that painting everything in black and white has a tendency to leave everyone more than a little red faced. Turns out, the NGO in question have a terrible track record of using their donor’s dollars, 68% of which go straight into their own pockets. Also turns out that bad guy Joe has been around for decades, but committed efforts by various groups have driven him and his rapidly diminishing supporters to the ground…and completely out of Uganda. Not to mention that the Ugandan officials the video touts as the tireless crusaders of children’s rights are themselves often complicit in the problem. In the age of armchair activism, the ethically questionable videographer reigns supreme. In the face of these kinds of public platform abuses, I want to know a few things about how we (re)present our news.

I want to know why the only women on the sports pages of major news titles are in the form of Mavericks earmark adverts. I want to know why, when I mention this, I’m accused in virtually the same breath of being both a “humourless feminist” and deluded that women’s sport is newsworthy.I want to know why my journalism students don’t know how our government works, haven’t heard of ‘corrective’ rape and aren’t interested in writing for anything other than glamour or sports magazines. I want to know why, even when we have freedom of the press, we choose to get our biggest dose of African outrage from an American viral video. Anyone got any answers?

 

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carla@48hours.co.za