A slippery slope to fake news

Posted on August 23, 2020


One of the positive signs of political transition in South Africa was the launch of the country’s first national talk radio station — SAfm. It came on air in March, 1995, making clear it was part of the new, more democratic dispensation.

SAfm was said “to cater for South African English speaking listeners of all races in line with the political transformations taking place in the country”. It is a role it continues to play as part of the SABC, despite hiccups along the way.

Such a 25th anniversary is worth celebrating. For SAfm it would have made a perfect launchpad for discussions not only about radio, but television and the role such media and the workers within it can, should, and have played in the lives of South Africans across the 84 years since the SABC was launched.

Instead, we are this month being told — constantly — that SAfm is “celebrating its 84th birthday”; that participatory “talk radio” went on air in August 1936. It is simply untrue.

Yet, stressing the claim that participatory talk radio is 84 years old, listeners are offered cash prizes as the “kings” and “queens” of call-ins. The only question that arises is: does it matter?

I think it does. Because what is happening distorts history by, at best, confusing what happened in the past. And, as I keep repeating, a clear knowledge of the past seems vital, especially for every working class person.

We may all accept that radio is important; public participation equally so. But unless we are acutely aware about how the broadcast media and information was manipulated in the past — and how it still can be — we may not be ready to stop the same thing happening again in future.

At this time of a seeming avalanche of fake news, along with reports in various media skewed for commercial and propaganda purposes, it seems essential that we remain alert. The SABC, of which SAfm is an important part, represents us, the public at large.

It has always claimed to be a public broadcaster yet, for nearly half of its existence it was the effective mouthpiece of that government within a government, the Afrikaner Broederbond. While Piet Meyer was chair of that powerful secret society, he also headed the SABC as director-general.

Meyer was also in charge of the SABC when television was belatedly introduced in 1976. The reasons for this decision — and for the delay in the introduction of TV — should be matters widely discussed.
By celebrating anniversaries of important events without any context or, worse still, distorting the context, is a dangerous practice. It is, unfortunately, a practice in which the media, in general, often colludes.

Take the case, for example, when Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk flew to Oslo in 1993 to receive the joint Nobel Peace Prize award. At the same time, De Klerk and leading members of his cabinet were facing a civil action in the Transkei for the murder of five school students.

I reported on that action, brought by Mthatha’s then major human rights lawyer, Dumisa Ntsebeza. But no mainstream media, here or abroad, would publish the fact.

At a gathering in Cape Town, I complained bitterly to a group of fellow journalists about such censorship. It was Fergal Keane, then the local BBC correspondent, who provided the explanation: “No-one wants to bugger up a fairytale,” he noted.

He was right. But, at the same time, whenever we, whether media workers or not, allow wishful thinking, fairytales or fantasy to take the place of fact, we are on a very slippery slope.

Posted in: Commentary