Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Don’t feed a gossip fire, try to starve it of oxygen

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20 May 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The furious pushback by the DA does not advance the party’s cause or the interests of its voters who so recently placed 4-million votes behind it, writes Tony Leon

THE Saturday morning after the 2004 election results were posted, I was rather tired and was enjoying an unaccustomed lie-in.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) had — in the teeth of the fiercest opposition infighting, the newly arrived Independent Democrats on its left, the vengeful New National Party on its right, and the huge African National Congress everywhere else — posted a creditable result and increased its support from five years earlier.

Any relief I felt evaporated when I reached the op-ed page of the Weekend Argus. It was dominated by an article under a large headline saying "Tony Leon must go". I seethed with indignation at its unfairness, especially when the article quoted several unnamed "party sources and insiders" who had fed this particular narrative, suggesting the party had reached the end of its road under my leadership. I was tempted to dash off an immediate response.

Before I reacted in fury, I sought the counsel of two people I could rely on for unvarnished advice, chief whip Douglas Gibson and strategist Ryan Coetzee. Both provided a context to the article and stayed my hand. Gibson, not for the first time, counselled: "Don’t feed a fire started by others, it will only spread; better, starve it of oxygen."

Coetzee pointed out that the two journalists, pens dipped in a combination of bile and vitriol, were "deeply embedded in the African National Congress (ANC)". I took their advice and someone lower down the party food chain was deputed to pen a replying, but subdued, letter and set out the objective facts, as we perceived them.

Just how embedded those journalists were would be revealed in the "cash for articles" scandal that engulfed the Independent Newspapers group, and the authors of this hatchet job were revealed to be in the pay of the ANC premier of the Western Cape, Ebrahim Rasool, and were forced to leave their posts before I left mine about three years later.

Last weekend, instead of savouring their sweeping victory at the polls, the ANC’s elections head, Malusi Gigaba, vengefully turned on the media: "You campaigned hard against the ANC and we beat you. We defeated you," he harrumphed. On Saturday, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, veteran journalist Max du Preez pointed out that, during the election, the ANC had the fawning and opposition-censoring South African Broadcasting Corporation in its corner, plus the support of a Gupta-owned newspaper (The New Age) and TV channel (ANN7), and a self-acknowledged ANC supporter in charge of all Independent Newspapers titles. In reality, the ANC had "beaten just three or four newspapers: Business Day, Sunday Times, City Press and the Mail & Guardian". "They totally ignore the Afrikaans press," he added.

These past two Sunday mornings have been excruciating for DA leader Helen Zille. After just 72 hours of positive reporting on her and the party after their impressive election result, parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko dropped a bomb by announcing in the Sunday Times that she was departing from her post and these shores to continue her education. Barely a day later, former DA insider Gareth van Onselen penned an acidic column on the "real reasons" for Mazibuko’s departure and fingered Zille for it.

Just as that report and the furious pushback by the DA against Van Onselen subsided, another even more thermonuclear device was detonated in last Sunday’s newspaper. The Sunday Times led with the headline: "Mazibuko nothing without me — Zille". The report culled various leaks from the small (fewer than 30 members) party federal executive meeting, which suggested that Zille had launched a root-and-branch attack at the meeting on her former protégé, Mazibuko.

Within hours, Zille had published a special edition of her newsletter under the headline, "The abuse of media to drive internal agendas in the DA." She provided a blow-by-blow version of her recollection of the meeting, which she said had been distorted by the Sunday Times to advance "the succession agendas" of certain unnamed party leaders. Let me add that the reporter concerned, Jan-Jan Joubert, does not practise "cash for articles" or any other unethical versions of journalism.

None of this is pretty, and none of it advances the party cause or the interests of its voters who so recently placed 4-million votes behind it. Nor does it do anything to help the cause of the new parliamentary leader, who will take over in what are now the most difficult of circumstances.

I am not sure that seeking meetings with newspaper editors to change the narrative or expose the agendas, or whatever, will really do much to staunch the leaks, an age-old phenomenon which Zille herself, as a political journalist in the 1970s and 1980s, benefited from in her own reportage.

Rather, heed the advice of Tony Blair to his fractious, but electorally successful, Labour Party: "When you look inside you lose, when you look outside you win."

Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

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