To debate is more important than to win

30 SEP 2007

Rapule Tabane writes of the diversity among black voices (Mail & Guardian, September 21 2007) but after reading his article I was left with more questions than answers.

Questions such as: What shade of opinion accurately reflects the media? How is it that the “many shades of opinion” and “many unwinnable debates” end up in just one debate between just two kinds of opinion, right (media) and wrong (media critics)?

Tabane employs the term “media ideologue” — applied to those who differ with the media — rather inappropriately. “Media critics” would be more appropriate a term for the antagonists while Tabane, evidently an ardent defender of the media, might well fit the bill of a “media ideologue”.

He dismisses criticism he attributes to the so-called “media ideologues” as “nonsensical”. Yet this dismissal—and labelling others as ideologues closes the possibility for constructive discussion.

There is good reason to concur with what seems to be Tabane’s concern, that an either-or analysis of the media is as simplistic as it is unhelpful. In fact, social phenomena are fluid and multidimensional. And this is borne out in the media itself.

Those who read newspapers will know that the media have not been unanimous on all the issues that have featured in recent debates on the role of the media. No wonder the debates he gets into are unwinnable. The aim should not be to win.

Sandile Memela comes in for a drubbing, allegedly for “guilt tripping” (in particular black) journalists. But, says Tabane: “[Memela’s] is a call to the conscience of journalists to introspect about whether we want to be in the same boat as the DA [heresy this] or part of sunshine journalism.”

What exactly is Memela engaged in: guilt tripping or prodding the consciences of journalists?

But there is something revealing in Tabane’s interpretation of Memela’s words as a challenge to journalists to choose between the DA and sunshine journalism.

What could it mean for journalists to board a party-political boat relative to the profession’s claims of objectivity and impartiality?

Could Tabane be telling us that Memela is fighting a losing battle, trying to take him out of a boat he knows belongs to the DA?

Author Ronald Suresh Roberts’s ideas are “a breath of fresh air”. But Roberts “disappoints” for he is “essentially a one-opinion man, that is [President Thabo] Mbeki is or was right.”

The unspoken premise is that Mbeki cannot be right: demonstrating his correctness is disappointing. In contrast the DA’s boat is the natural habitat of journalists whose questioning elicits Tabane’s tongue-in-cheek snarl: “Heresy this.”

Tabane’s claim that Christine Qunta “tries to pass herself off as an authority on journalism, ethics and concepts such as objectivity and subjectivity” is also questionable. He should not pretend that all is right in the world of the fourth estate.

His own editor, Ferial Haffajee, admitted in March, that she was “flabbergasted at the number of freedom of speech disciples” who urged her to censor certain voices: “Freedom of expression’s fine, they seem to say, as long as we can determine who gets it and who doesn’t.”

So, instead of setting our goals on winning debates at all costs, could we not have an objective reflection of South Africa’s political economy, its history and contestations that attend to it? Thus shall we honestly reflect upon the shades of opinion among media practitioners engaging with shades of opinion among critics.

Mukoni Ratshitanga is President Thabo Mbeki’s spokesperson. He writes here in his personal capacity.

 (This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian edition of September 30, 2007)


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