Robert Brand
Robert Brand

The devil made Tim do it

Rapport editor Tim du Plessis has given us a new version of Voltaire’s famous defence of free speech: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it, unless it harms my employer’s commercial interests, in which case I’ll shut you up quicker than you can say ‘editorial independence’.”

Du Plessis this week fired his columnist Deon Maas, two weeks after he wrote a column on satanism that offended many readers. The column, in which Maas described satanism as just another religion that is protected by the freedom of religion clause in the Constitution, also provoked an email and SMS campaign calling for a boycott of Rapport.

It is clear that Du Plessis expected trouble right from the start. On the same day Maas’s satanism column appeared, he mounted a pre-emptory defensive strike. “Deon,” he wrote his own column, “had made some challenging statements about satanism. If you read carefully, you’ll see that he is calling for an open debate, open minds and open hearts … A mass-circulation newspaper that only publishes soothing matter is not worthy of being called a newspaper.” He concluded with an endorsement of Maas, calling him a “symbol of sorely needed democratic diversity”.

Ten days later, Du Plessis’s support for Maas had cooled. In a statement on the newspaper’s website, he said that Rapport did not support Maas’s views on satanism or any other subject, and that he was “merely a paid columnist giving his own opinions”. Fair enough. But Du Plessis went further, saying that the issue was being investigated and that a statement would be made the following Sunday in Rapport.

Then on Thursday — not even two weeks after Maas’s first column appeared in the newspaper – the following statement by Du Plessis appeared on Rapport‘s website (the translation is mine):

Rapport has terminated Deon Maas’s column. Rapport and Maas have been targeted by a viral campaign waged via email and SMS over Maas’s first column on Sunday before last. The column was about satanism.

The campaign started eight days after the column appeared. The messages asked buyers to boycott Rapport on Sunday 18 November. Later, the campaign also targeted Rapport’s distributors and agents. It affected Rapport‘s commercial interests.

Large numbers of Rapport‘s loyal readers also reacted in good faith. We have taken note of their concerns.

Rapport is committed to media freedom, free expression of ideas and robust debate. The orchestrated boycott campaign, however, altered the nature of the issue from one of freedom of opinion to one of commercial interests.”

Now, I am not naive about the newspaper business. Newspapers have to make money to survive, and editors have the right to appoint and fire columnists as they think fit. It is part — an important part — of an editor’s job to protect and grow the circulation of his newspaper, and sometimes that means having to get rid of writers who alienate readers.

But you don’t appoint Deon Maas to be the gardening columnist. You appoint him to be provocative and controversial, and he was doing exactly what his editor expected of him. This is what Du Plessis said of Maas on November 3: “He is the sort of columnist who seldom leaves you uninterested [the Afrikaans expression is “wat jou selde koud laat”] — and that is precisely what he is supposed to do.” He lasted 12 days.

Du Plessis knew that the satanism column would be provocative and offensive to many readers. If he thought it would be bad for his newspaper, he could have simply pulled it. But he ran it, and defended it as a worthy addition to Rapport even though he expected many readers to complain.

Why did he change his mind? Why did something that was a “symbol of democratic diversity” on November 3 suddenly become a liability 12 days later? From his statement on Thursday, it is clear that what moved him to fire Maas was not that his readers’ disapproval — that is something he surely expected — but the boycott campaign, which threatened to hurt the newspaper’s commercial underbelly.

Did the heavies at Media24 lean on Du Plessis? Is it a sign, like the circulation scandal at Media24’s magazine division, of pressure from management to produce profits? If so, it would be inappropriate interference by management in the editorial domain. Other Media24 editors can’t be sleeping too soundly.