Following David Bullard's smackdown of self-proclaimed intellectual Xolela Mangcu in The New Media "Racists" a view I shared by the way, another intellectual (in particular matters of law) Prof Pierre de Vos stepped into the fray with a retort named David Bullard’s weird view of press freedom - only to be followed by yet another deft riposte from David Bullard (follows below the first post). Popcorn and beer time folks. Enjoy. For the record, my money's on David Bullard winning this round.
David Bullard’s weird view of press freedom by Pierre de Vos (of Constitutionally Speaking)
David Bullard, that pretentious (and previously witty) old colonialist who used to be a columnist for the Sunday Times before he was sacked for writing a deeply insulting and racist column, has launched a scathing attack on fellow columnist and self-proclaimed public intellectual Xolela Mangcu.
Bullard, who is now a staunch defender of President Jacob Zuma, does not appear to see the irony in him calling Mangcu “immodest” while displaying the kind of immodesty that would make a self-obsessed Hollywood starlet blush. He also seems blissfully unaware of how obnoxious (and potentially racist) he is being by complaining about an “uppity” black man.
In any case, I was struck by the following paragraph in which Bullard displays an embarrasing ignorance of press freedom.
When I was sacked from the Sunday Times last year (a CV entry I am particularly proud of incidentally) both Zapiro and Max du Preez weighed in with the view that it was a good thing. Since they are both supposed to be staunch supporters of press freedom this rather surprised me until someone much wiser than I pointed out that people like them only support press freedom if it is exercised by those of whom they approve.
Bullard seems to believe that he was censored by the Sunday Times when he was fired and that this constituted an infringement of press freedom. He is not the first person - and will surely not be the last - to make the argument that where a private institution declines to provide a platform for an individual to express his or her views, it is infringing on that person’s freedom of expression.
I think this is wrong.
No one has prohibited Bullard from expressing his opinions. During the apartheid years those who expressed politically “undesirable” views were “banned”, newspapers prohibited from quoting certain individuals and other newspapers harassed or even closed. This has not happened in his case. He is free to say what he thinks and to try and convince any newspaper editor to publish his little missives, or to publish them himself on the Internet.
Press freedom does not mean that an editor can be forced to publish the views the newspaper does not like, find boring, offensive or stupid. If that were to be the case, government departments would be able to force newspapers to publish the often deathly boring press releases about this or that Deputy Minister visiting a toilet seat factory in Koekenaap or delivering a speech on the importance of goat farming in the Klein Karoo.
No one has a right to have a column in a newspaper - not even someone with the high selfesteem of Mr Bullard.
There will be those who disagree with the decision of the editor of the Sunday Times to fire Bullard, but they cannot claim that his right to press freedom has been infringed.
Similarly, if I organise a seminar and I decide not to invite Thabo Mbeki, John Hlophe, or dan Roodt, I have every right to do so. I do not have the right to stop these gentlemen from speaking at the Orania Koeksistervereniging or the Native Club, of course, but by denying them a platform I am merely expressing my own views about them and their views.
Newspaper editors make decisions every day about what to publish and what not. Some of these choices might be unwise and shortsighted, but forcing them to publish certain views would be in contravention of their press freedom.
One could have a profitable discussion about who is allowed to speak in our society and who not. Newspaper editors don’t always serve the interest of democracy and often publish columnists and news that serve their own interests or the interests of their capitalist bosses who pay their salaries. Why, for example, don’t most of us know the names of the leadership of the Landless People’s Movement or many of the other social movements that challenge the capitalist consesus in our society?
In a free society the way to deal with this is to try and find other ways for the dissemination of information and ideas that we might think important. Freedom can be a bugger and those with power will often deploy it to stay in charge, but with some hard work and ingenuity one can begin to break the hegemonic hold some think they have on the flow of information. One might not get paid as handsomely as Mr Bullard claimed to have been paid, but that is surely a small price to pay for standing up for your principles.
The more voices the better - but they really do not all have to be in the same publication.
Prof de Vos's Weird View of the Law by David Bullard
My maiden column for the Richmark Sentinel did precisely what a good column should do; it stirred up debate and raised the temperatures of the readers. Thanks heavens because I have stiff acts to compete with on this site. It was even “adopted” by the “Constitutionally Speaking” website after the subject matter was raked over by Prof Pierre de Vos in a column entitled “David Bullard’s weird view of press freeom”. This week I propose to respond to some of his comments because it doesn’t seem as though either a sense of humour or an understanding of the workings of a large newspaper group are much in evidence within the law faculty at the University of the Western Cape. This I find surprising considering that Prof de Vos’s CV runs to several pages if you Google it. But a cursory glance at the title of some of the papers he has written might be a clue as to the humour deficiency.
May it please the court. My learned friend Pierre de Vos accused me in his article of writing a
“deeply insulting and racist column”.
On what evidence pray? Surely not the word of the Sunday Times which is known to be a paper that fabricates sensational stories in an attempt to boost their flagging sales. The Human Rights Commission dropped the case after the first set of complainants withdrew their comments following an apology. A second set of three complainants lodged complaints and written response was given to the HRC 11 months ago. Nothing has been heard since. Clearly the HRC don’t share the complainant’s view that my freedom would endanger the stability of the country. Or maybe they have more important things to think about. The readers comments in the Sunday Times edition following the article were equally divided as to their opinion on whether the article was “racist” and the fact that the “Out to Lunch” column thrives on Moneyweb every week would suggest that the sacking had nothing to do with writing a racist article and more to do with exposing the managerial weaknesses of The Sunday Times. The offending article was a fantasy piece anyway and was no more or less offensive than anything that had been published in the previous 14 years.
He goes on
“Bullard, who is now a staunch defender of President Jacob Zuma, does not appear to see the irony in him calling Mangcu “immodest” while displaying the kind of immodesty that would make a self-obsessed Hollywood starlet blush. He also seems blissfully unaware of how obnoxious (and potentially racist) he is being by complaining about an “uppity” black man”.
Firstly, my defence of President Zuma is surely not on trial here. Prof de Vos’s views on politicians are well known and this is not the place to air them. Of course I see the irony in calling Mangcu “immodest”. I deal in irony 24/7 since this is part of the writer’s stock in trade. You certainly don’t need to teach an Englishman about irony. The word “uppity” is yours my learned friend. It never appeared in the original article so maybe it is you who are suffering from subliminal racism. Claudia Braude should be able to help.
After some waffle about press freedom my learned friend continues:
“Press freedom does not mean that an editor can be forced to publish the views the newspaper does not like, find boring, offensive or stupid. No one has a right to have a column in a newspaper - not even someone with the high selfesteem of Mr Bullard”.
This is where the confusion arises. The editor was not “forced” to publish the article. It was delivered five days before publication and there was plenty of opportunity to refuse to publish it. While nobody has a right to have a column in a newspaper it remains a fact that the Out to Lunch column had been running for 14 years and was one of the best read columns in South Africa. It wasn’t a right…it was a job. I was employed to write a weekly column and that is what I did. The Sunday Times were quite happy to bathe in my reflected glory (Ref: Editor’s foreword to Out to Lunch Again..Published by Jonathan Ball). All they had to do if they didn’t want the column was to give me 30 days written notice. Simple as that.
Freedom of speech, as Salman Rushdie once observed, includes the freedom to offend. The comic character Borat is hugely offensive and that is why he is funny. His alter ego, Ali G, is just as offensive and arguably racist because here is a Jew pretending to be a black man. The poems of Hilaire Belloc are racially offensive and yet they appear in our libraries and in branches of Exclusive Books which is owned by the same public company that thought me too offensive to publish (but only after they had done so). Chapter 5 of Ian Fleming’s “Live and Let Die” is titled “Nigger Heaven” and Shakespeare has plays that contain some of the most obnoxious anti-semitism and racialism possible. He also says..(or one of his characters does but that’s probably just to disguise his own prejudices) “let’s kill all the lawyers”. Is that hate speech within the meaning of the act or just sound advice? Would my learned friend propose burning down the libraries to eradicate such stuff? Or does he favour a more enlightened attitude towards those of us who choose to liven public debate with our shimmering prose?
Learned judge Albie Sachs said in Laugh it Off Promotions CC v SAB International (Finance) BV 2006 that “A society that takes itself too seriously risks bottling up its tensions and treating every example of irreverence as a threat to its existence. Humour is one of the great solvents of democracy………It promotes diversity……It is an elixir of constitutional health”. [my emphasis - Ed.] Whether you have personal issues about the author or simply don’t have much of a sense of humour you cannot deny that “Out to Lunch” was that elixir for fourteen years. It’s banning sends a clear message to the people of this country that the Sunday Times regards its readers as too stupid to be allowed to read such stuff and make up their own minds.
Fortunately, the Richmark Sentinel has a more enlightened view.