Reg Rumney
Reg Rumney

Some sympathy for the editor, please

I too dislike the painting. It offends me for reasons I can’t quite fathom. I do know as satire it resembles the blow of a club more than the rapier thrust. Yet I am appalled by the Taliban-like reaction to it. Brett Murray must have an inkling of how Salman Rushdie felt.

The spotlight, however, has shifted from Murray’s now defaced painting of South Africa’s president in revolutionary pose with his genitals hanging out of his trousers to the continued independence of the press.

The news and social media continue to be dominated by the story of the reaction – some heartfelt, some manipulative – to the painting by the ruling party, by the president’s family, by columnists, and by ordinary South Africans.

It’s useful to retrace our steps, however tiresome the process. The saga started when artist Brett Murray exhibited the painting at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, as part of an exhibition decrying the corruption of the ANC’s ideals.

The Sunday newspapers, in reporting the adverse reaction to the picture, quite sensibly showed pictures the painting – with the offensive part of the picture artfully covered.

The story proved to “have legs” in press jargon, because of its subsequent defacement by in a multiracial art attack by two objectors – one white man wielding red paint, and one black man smearing black paint – and an attempt by the ANC to get a court to order the painting taken down.

But the City Press website continued to show an image of the original artwork.

The ANC, and particularly those associated with the Zuma faction, then directed public rage at the insulting picture to make political capital from the emotions whipped up. The presence of the picture on the City Press website allowed the ANC to focus that rage on the paper, to the extent of calling for a boycott, and then a public apology, as well as pursuing the matter in the courts.

City Press editor Ferial Haffajee not only defended the artist’s right to exhibit the picture, but refused to take it off the City Press website. Various readers, including former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and I (I never thought I’d ever write “Julius Malema and I”), rallied to the newspaper’s cause of defending press freedom, and vowed instead to buy two newspapers to break the boycott.

The boycott didn’t work, but Business Day editor Peter Bruce surmised that the newspaper proprietors kept the print run low, presumably so as not risk embarrassingly high piles of City Press papers in the shops.

On the Monday after the boycott call, the editor climbed down, to the deep disappointment of some who saw the issue as the defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. One young economist even tweeted that it was fine to take a moral stance as long as it did not have a commercial cost.

There will be a suspicion that the reason for the retreat was that the editor guessed that the proprietors did not have the stomach for a protracted boycott campaign, whatever their short-term assurances of support. Media24 is part of Naspers, a money-making machine based on TV, and government animosity is the last thing it needs.

It makes no difference that the picture now has a life of its own in cyberspace and is probably uncensorable without censoring the internet itself. I might add that there is much more insulting stuff out there, including a video showing a painter called Pricasso who paints with his penis, painting a portrait of President Zuma.

In sorting out the rights and wrongs, we have to separate freedom of expression from freedom of the press, or mass media.

The artist had and has every right to paint what he wants, within the boundaries of the rights conferred by the Constitution. He may well have crossed some line on freedom of speech versus the right to dignity, and the law is not as clear cut as we might think according to one lawyer.

Whatever Brett Murray’s rights, the freedom of the press is more constrained. Newspapers such as the Sunday Times, the City Press‘s chief rival, were right not to broadcast the uncensored painting to their many readers. The newspaper editor has to be strategic and weigh up the reaction of the mass of readers against the value of defending what has been published or what may be published.

The press gains its power from its principles, but its sustainability from its commercial nature. The donor-funded newspapers of the alternative press in the 1980s are no more, and community news media, valuable as it is, does not have the wherewithal to carry out long and expensive investigations.

So is it worth putting the paper at risk for an image on the internet, especially as that image is being used to deflect attention from the taint of corruption and manipulation of organs of state that has been inserted into our politics?

I would say no. Ferial’s decision to take down the image of the painting is understandable. It is not the same as shying away from what is controversial, or withdrawing an article that exposes corruption, or even censoring your newspaper’s cartoonist. The real test will be when those who have succeeded in putting pressure on her this time try to do so when they dislike something the paper publishes in the future – such as a cartoon or a story embarrassing the wrong ANC faction.

A newspaper’s currency is its credibility, and that credibility is eroded by capitulation to power. In an age when the internet increasingly offers alternative channels of news this is something no newspaper can afford. The real tests still lie ahead.

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