Journalism 101: 1st Check facts; 2nd Write opinion

by The Editor

FEATURE: Chris Gibbons has written for the Daily Maverick an article which revolves around a central premise that is completely wrong. Thus, the whole article is wrong; likewise, all the conclusions he draws from it are wrongheaded. It’s a good example of poor journalism, not merely because the facts are all over the place, but because it relies so heavily on clichéd ideas that, given a moments consideration, are revealed to be flawed. Here is my response.

Journalism 101: 1st Check facts; 2nd Write opinion

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 August 2012

Chris Gibbons has written for the Daily Maverick an article titled: ‘Dear DA: Opposition is easy; governing is hard’.

Before responding to the ‘facts’, let’s try an experiment. For the sake of argument, let’s assume from first principles and without having read it, his article a load of garbage; let’s imagine, after analyzing it, it is revealed to be no more coherent than a toddler trying to explain post modernism; that it’s rubbish. Were this the case, would that allow me to draw from that fact a series of sweeping generalisations about Gibbons? That he is a fool, for example? Or that he – indeed all Daily Maverick commentators – should not be taken seriously, ever, based on the fact that this particular article was incoherent, irresponsible waffle? Would that be fair?

Hmmmm. I wonder?

No, it wouldn’t be fair. One would have to take a more considered view, by looking at his analysis over time (perhaps this was just mistake) and his general aptitude for analysis and insight. If his other contributions were revealed to be of an equally poor standard one might have a case. But it would be unfair to tarnish everything he has said or might say as nonsense with this single same brush. Certainly it would be unfair to extend those assumptions to other Daily Maverick commentators. At least, that seems like a reasonable approach to me.

On actually reading the article, then, it strikes me as somewhat odd that Gibbons doesn’t abide by the same principle. He seems like reasonable guy. On the basis of the Cape Town Stadium “shenanigans” and a series of unresolved pot-hole issues in his (DA-run) municipality, Gibbons concludes, with much indignation, “when it comes to being in power and actually fixing big problems like the financing of a mega structure or even just small problems like potholes in the road, the DA governs much like the ANC”.

The whole article is infused with indignation but, as it so happens, that particular statement is so ironic, so imbued with irony, as to register, I think, as one of my all-time favourite gaffs. Top ten stuff. I shall have enormous fun revealing its full nature soon enough but, having whet your appetite, a few other points.

First, cliches are, unfortunately, the staple diet of far too many South African political commentators. You can always tell something about the gravitas of an argument when its central tenet is a platitude. Such things are handy tools for moralisers, their hazy meaning offers safe refuge away from proper interrogation, and they have the added benefit of being politically correct. So you can sit above it all and pontificate with much ostensible wisdom and your words are often met with much nodding of heads (if commentators rely too heavily on cliches, it’s because the public does not pay them proper attention).

Gibbons’ gem – ‘Opposition is easy, governing is hard’ – is a case in point. I wonder what Morgan Tsvangirai makes of that particular insight? And if it is so easy, why is it exactly that, post colonialism, you will struggle to find a single democratic opposition party in Africa that has established itself, grown and in free and fair elections won out over a liberation movement? I mean, if it’s so ‘easy’? (Perhaps, Chris, you should take some time out from being a radio presenter and give us all some guidance. You could start with Swaziland. They haven’t quite got round to the idea of opposition yet. Or a constitution for that matter.)

I don’t remember the DA ever having said governing was easy. Perhaps Gibbons has a quote on hand I missed. I look forward to reading it. I do remember it saying governing was “complex”, and “difficult”. I have lots of quotes like that. I’ll tell you what, let’s swap: Gibbons can send me the quote by which he arrived at his conclusion and I’ll send him mine, all hundred or so. I also remember, on so many occasions, the DA saying opposition was hard. In fact, as I recall the DA’s history, it has contributed significantly to establishing and legitimizing the very idea of a loyal opposition in the South African public mind. Indeed, it still has some way to go. I remember well how difficult that was. How difficult it is. How it was derided. How the media and civil society fawned over the ANC’s early majority and Mbeki the philosopher king in the early 2000s. I don’t, however,  remember Gibbons.

Opposition’s not easy. Here is what is easy: saying it is.

Now, let’s deal with some facts. In building up to his morally outraged crescendo and by way of ‘evidence’, Gibbons says the following about the Cape Town Stadium:

“The DA was in power when the decision to build the stadium was taken…”

That, of course, is his linchpin statement. If it were wrong, well, all his other moral outrage would be rendered somewhat misplaced, to put it nicely.

Guess what, it’s wrong. The ANC was in power, not the DA. Woopsie.

Of course, one would think, were you planning to write an article condemning the DA for building the Cape Town Stadium, the first thing you would do is check they commissioned it.

I wonder, how would that thought process have unfolded?

Well, a good place to start would have been to look at the decision to host a World Cup in the first place. The winning bid was announced on 15 May 2004 – a bid made by the national, ANC-run government, on the basis that the cities proposed would build the required stadia, so presumably some culpability there. Then, you would look for the announcement of new Cape Town Stadium. A quick Google search reveals this press release from the City of Town in February 2006, which states: “Premier Ebrahim Rasool and Cape Town’s Executive Mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo are to announce development plans for the Green Point Common and the 2010 soccer stadium at a media conference,” before noting, “all three spheres of government will be represented with Minister Essop Pahad from the President’s Office also attending”. Here is a detailed story on that particular announcement, setting it all out. Between those two simple checks, you would have all the facts. And from there you could proceed to make your case.

However, it seems to have been a thought process Gibbons decided to pass on. Better things to do no doubt. Nevertheless, an important one, wouldn’t you say?

As a result, well, all his vitriol – “the same DA that is forever gaaning aan about the ANC’s profligacy, about the ANC’s inability to balance the books, about the ANC’s fingers in the till, about the ANC’s general ineptitude and incompetence…” – seems a little silly now, doesn’t it?

When the DA came into power in Cape Town (on 15 March 2006, again, Chris, Google very handy with these sorts of basic facts) the DA inherited host city status and the decision to build a new stadium. Now, as it so happens, the DA proceeded to support that call, with a wide range of very public reservations about cost and location, not to mention many reservations expressed to FIFA and the national government about the stadium’s viability post World Cup. Nevertheless, they insisted. It was, how do you say, ‘hard’. (By the way, Chris, we missed your submission at the time. If you could just send that through with the quote I referred to above.) In fact, we missed any planning proposals from the media at large. Aren’t they also ‘gaaning aan’ about the ANC’s incompetence all the time? I mean surely Gibbons wasn’t just criticising for the sake of criticising, was he? (Or, as you say in your article, Chris, “…shout[ing] from the sidelines, where comments are cheap, the ref is always blind and where everyone knows the coach made the wrong choice – and which choice he or she should have made”.) No doubt he made a proposal at the time, didn’t he? A positive, proactive contribution? A viable alternative? After all, it’s ‘easy’.

Oh, never mind. Of course he didn’t. He’s just doing the very thing he is so incensed about.

On the potholes. I am sure Gibbons has a problem. A legitimate one. I am sure too, in many other places where the DA governs, there are problems. The DA is not perfect. It makes mistakes. It suffers the same problems (a lack of money and capacity) that ANC governments suffer and, like the ANC, it faces a series of challenges that are substantial. It would be helpful if Gibbons identified the municipality in which he lives, in order that the problem might be directly addressed (and, if there is an explanation, that it might be sought out – different spheres of government are responsible for different roads and it is difficult to say in abstract who, exactly, is responsible for the abstract roads to which he refers). However, I will say this, it’s just not fair, on the basis of that fact, to say the DA is the same as the ANC. Rationality, reasonableness and, well, the evidence says otherwise.

There is a reason why the ANC has stopped producing the UHABS reports – on water and sanitation delivery – it’s because DA-run municipalities consistently come out on top. There is a reason why the Western Cape Office of the Premier scores top in reports by the Public Service Commission, why the top six councils in the Municipal Productivity Index are all DA-run and why the Auditor-General consistently finds Cape Town to be the best financially managed metro in the country – because the DA is not the ANC.

As I said at the outset, and without dismissing the potholes, it is just wrongheaded to extrapolate from that some general sweeping statement about the DA. It’s not credible. It’s also devious. If one could make that case, using a wide range of information, there would be more weight to it, but the evidence says the contrary and its just plain bad journalism to pretend otherwise. It can be onerous to produce a regular column, but if you have nothing to say, making stuff up isn’t a viable solution.

Finally, it all makes for good reading I am sure, to rain down with furious anger (apologies to Tarantino) on the DA for a series of ostensible blunders. But, if you are going to do that, you have to get your facts right, in the first instance, and not over extend yourself, in the second. If you don’t, all you will achieve is more damage to your own reputation than to the reputation of your target.

Chris Gibbons says a lot of sensible things, this wasn’t one of them.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.