Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille has caused quite a kerfuffle after her fight with a journalist on social media. Go, Zille!

Zille’s supporters argue that since journalists dish it out with glee, we have to accept that in a robust democracy the price to be paid by the media is not to whine about getting klapped in return. And a journo, like anyone who thinks they have been defamed, can always seek relief in the courts.

For me, it’s less complicated. I just enjoy Zille joining the long line of politicians around the world who have made idiots of themselves when – often late at night while suffering from alcohol lubricated premature rant – that itchy, twitchy Twitter finger tips them into the ordure. And although that’s not to suggest for a moment that Zille was pissed when on Sunday afternoon she blew her top – one imagines she is a teetotaller – that’s otherwise more or less what’s happened here.

The back-story is that Zille sent a flurry of tweets to her more than 380 000 Twitter followers, lashing out with the accusation that City Press journalist Carien du Plessis is “top of the log … for distorted, inaccurate, biased and unprofessional reporting”. Further, Du Plessis did not support the Democratic Alliance (DA) because, as a white Afrikaner “trying to hid the Missus class from which she comes”, she is “bending over backwards” to curry favour with black people. Finally, the intended coup de grace, that Du Plessis once told Zille that she would vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

While one should worry about the analytical acuity of a political journalist who allegedly not only admires Das Fuhrer Julius Malema but also confides this foible to the leader of another political party, that’s actually not the issue. Nor is it about journalists being able to take it unflinchingly on the chin. Surely at the nub of it is Du Plessis’s right to support whomever the hell she likes, as long as she doesn’t deliberately allow it to slant her writing?

And were it that Du Plessis was consequently as biased in her writing as Zille says, one wonders why the DA has never challenged her impartiality in a more measured fashion. There are a range of options open, from public rebuttals of Du Plessis’s supposed distortions and errors, to complaining to the press ombudsman.

Zille, like virtually every other politician, is painfully thin-skinned when it comes to media criticism, especially when it’s from a journalist of the same race, whom they automatically seem to expect to be on their side. Nevertheless, such an ad hominem attack from a provincial premier and the leader of a liberal political party is extraordinary.

Simply on the basis of self-interest – the most widely used criterion in politics, whether to do or not do something – it can only damage Zille’s personal reputation and that of her party. Were President Jacob Zuma to have acted similarly – attacking a black journalist for sucking up to whitey – imagine how outraged the DA would be.

On the face of it, Du Plessis seems to be a diligent, even-handed, well-connected reporter and one of the reasons why City Press has flourished at a time that many other newspapers are faltering. There’s a good rule of thumb to assess journalistic integrity: the range of a journo’s enemies. By that measure, Du Plessis is doing well.

After all, Zille shares her distaste for Du Plessis with Floyd Shivambu, the former spokesperson for the ANC Youth League, who in 2009 called Du Plessis a “stupid white bitch” because he found her doggedness irritating. Du Plessis took him to the Equality Court and settled for a public apology.

Shivambu, since expelled from the ANC Youth League for unrelated mischief, is now an office bearer in none other than the EFF. And thus the circle is completed.

Which is why the ANC Youth League – remember the First Law of Politics, self interest – has rushed to demand “hands off Carien” and laid into Zille for racism and having the “indecency to vilify and insult” journalists. Then, in one of those fabulous leaps of illogic that the ANC Youth League is infamous for, it also links the entire sorry episode to the DA’s “cosy relationship with the oppressors of Palestine”.

Zille, god knows, has over the years had to endure some stomach-churning racist and sexist abuse. Such ugly vituperativeness says more about her opponents than it does about her. While South African journalism, like our politics, is not for sissies, Zille’s meltdown is distasteful for much the same reasons.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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