Daryl Ilbury

Archive for August, 2015|Monthly archive page

TRUE freedom of expression – not a reality on SA radio

In Eish!, Free-thinking on August 26, 2015 at 9:06 am
daryl studio 2

Thinking carefully before opening mouth

The question I am most often asked is, “Why did you leave?” It seems it’s still something of a mystery why I just ‘walked away’ from a highly successful career in breakfast radio. The ‘successful’ part is true – by the time I left East Coast Radio at the end of August 2009, my show delivered the bulk of the station’s 2 million listeners (the highest ever), helping make it the biggest English-medium independent radio station in Southern Africa.

It’s the ‘career’ bit that was a little wonky. The reality is I didn’t see a future in an industry threatened by the suppression of the freedom of expression.

Now that may surprise those who believe South Africa’s constitution champions the freedom of expression. It does, it’s just its citizens that don’t; they believe rather in what Mick Hume, in his brilliant book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech, calls “freedom of expression, but…”. In short: a freedom of expression, but with restrictions. So, in effect, not free.

Case in point: Last month the Acting SRC President (of the Vacation Committee) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) made some disparaging remarks about gays on her Facebook page. In reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriages be legalised, Ms Zizipho Pae posted the following: “We are institutionalising and normalising sin! Sin. May God have mercy on us.” I found her comments puerile, her sentiments towards gays archaic, and her invoking of a deity pathetic, but I respected her right to say what she felt. I also knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Sure enough, a Twitter-storm erupted, which was good; again – freedom of expression. Ms Pae was pilloried for being homophobic (arguably true), out of touch with the university’s policies around discrimination (debatable – she wasn’t discriminating against anyone), or engaging in hate speech (inciting violence? I don’t think so). Ms Pae would’ve received a brutal reality check; and things should have stopped there. But she was then kicked out of the SRC. Why? Because they found her comments offensive?

Tough! Because that’s her right, just as it was the right of others to challenge her.

That’s what most people seem to forget about the freedom of expression. Because opinions are diverse, expressing them invariably means crossing paths with people who think differently, even running the risk of offending them. So saying something that others may find offensive is interwoven with the freedom to express oneself. This is democracy in action.

Ms Pae’s case reminded me of my own brush with public rancour in February 2003. Sri Lanka had just knocked South Africa out of the Cricket World Cup in a controversial, rain-shortened match in my home town of Durban. In a misplaced act of national pride I went on-air the next day and made disparaging remarks about the Sri Lankan teams’ names and the size of the manhoods. In retrospect it was infantile and not my style of broadcasting at all. One of the listeners who phoned in hit the nail on the head; he said I had ‘crossed the line’. Worryingly, I was widely misquoted by people who never even heard the broadcast; and that did a lot of damage.

The fallout did me the world of good though: it pegged me down a notch or two, and I was genuinely distressed that I had clearly upset a lot of people. In the station’s defence they took me off-air until things died down, then put me back again, acknowledging, as the BCCSA later found, that I was simply exercising my freedom of expression. I saw out the end of my contract, went on a sabbatical, started focusing on my writing, and spent a couple of years in talk radio.

I returned to East Coast Radio in 2006, leaner, meaner and a lot more mature; but by the latter part of 2009 I was acutely aware that the radio industry was about to undergo fundamental change, forced by the growing empowerment of the media consumer through social media. I knew that if it were to survive, radio would have to engage directly with its listener; meaning more talk.

I was prepared for that, in fact I was looking forward to it, but I knew that in an immature democracy where everyone seems to lay claim to the status of ‘victim’ based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or whatever, South African listeners were not prepared to embrace true freedom of expression.

And I didn’t want to be part of that.

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The irresponsibility of media framing around race

In Eish!, Scoundrels on August 12, 2015 at 11:29 am

Militarised policeIs highlighting race in the recent emotionally charged, media-covered riots and arrests in the U.S. newsworthy? The media would have you think so…and that’s highly irresponsible.

I have been following, with more than a little disquiet, how the media, especially in the U.S. frame recent events where police officers have been involved in what developed into high-profile engagements. Examples are the shooting of 18 year-old Tyrone Harris following protests commemorating the death of Michael Brown; the arrest of Sandra Bland, who was later found hanged in her cell; and the shooting of Walter Scott.

In each case, attention is drawn to the race of either the officer, the victim, or both; which is necessary, right? The answer is no, because it’s not necessary for reporting purposes. However, it is necessary if you want to frame the story for maximum impact.

I have been framing media content across different media platforms for over almost 30 years. There’s a secret to doing so successfully, and it’s the key message whenever I train media professionals: get a reaction. That’s because when your audience react they engage, and when they engage, you have a window of opportunity to develop a relationship with them; i.e. encourage their involvement, connect with advertisers, etc. If the audience is not reacting, the content is passing them by. And that’s not good, especially – and this is important – in an era where mainstream media is under pressure from social media.

Getting a reaction is easy – swear on air, show a naked picture on the front cover, and you’ll get a reaction – but there’s a more challenging caveat in mainstream media: you have to do so responsibly, intelligently and, if you’re very good, subtly.

And there’s that word: subtly. In the coverage of the stories listed above, the subtle subtext is the following: this is all about race, people.

Except it’s not. Police officers arrest people (if they started arresting animals, that would be newsworthy). White police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white (and hispanic, Indian, Asian, etc.) Black police officers arrest people who happen to be black. They also arrest people who happen to be white.

Importantly, in the U.S. police mainly arrest white people. According to the FBI, in 2012, 69.3 percent of all individuals arrested were white, 28.1 percent were black, and 2.6 percent were of other races; white individuals were also arrested more often for violent crimes than individuals of any other race.

However, the media would have you believe otherwise – that white police officers target black people for arrest, often forcibly, and that this is part of a larger issue – hence the subtle – but purposeful – framing by referring to race whenever a suitable occasion presents itself. This, the media knows, will get a reaction; and in an era of active social media that can quickly whip up often violent sentiment, that is irresponsible.

Where Women’s Day fails

In Eish!, Free-thinking, Politics on August 8, 2015 at 9:53 am

National_Women's_DayThis is, and is not, one of my favourite times of the year. Every year in South Africa 9th August is National Women’s Day, and it’s a public holiday. It commemorates an important day in the country’s history when approximately 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the country’s pass laws that required South Africans defined as “black” under The Population Registration Act to carry an internal passport – known as a ‘dompass’.

The event is considered so important that the entire month in which the date falls is declared National Women’s Month. To be fair, the Government should be commended for trying to lead the country towards normalcy. There is a balanced representation of women in the cabinet, arguably far more so than in most other countries. Moreover women command key positions such as Minister of Science and Technology (Naledi Pandor), Energy (Tina Joemat-Pettersson), Environmental Affairs, (Edna Molewa) and State Security (Ellen Molekane). The media may claim their performances are patchy – as the Mail and Guardian’s infamous annual report card attests – but this is purely representative of the ANC’s rather dodgy selection of leaders in general rather than an indication of the performances of women versus men.

However, by recognising women as natural leaders the Government is addressing a critical failure in traditional African culture – a still fiercely patriarchal mindset that regards women as second class citizens best left behind at home to bear children and cook food. (A litmus test for this is the number of women allowed to drive minibus taxis – in all my years driving I’ve seen one). This is compounded by a strong religious undercurrent that draws on the many biblical references that portray women in this way (not to forget original sin, which, according to Ecclesiasticus 25:24 was all Eve’s fault!) I have written about this before, and, as you can expect, it found me no friends amongst my fellow men.

However, where I get frustrated is how the media and commercial sectors portray Women’s Day. It seems to be all about the femininity of women (search ‘Women’s Day’ in Google Image and see what I mean). An example is the South African iStore that sent out its ‘Celebrate Women’s Day’ mailer that included links to apps it felt were suitable. These were limited to apps for changing hair colour, shopping, and monitoring the menstrual cycle (called, I kid you not, Period Tracker). Such things, in my opinion, risk entrenching the stereotyping of women – in accordance with cultural and religious mindsets – as shallow and weak.

Women’s Day and Women’s Month, should not be about celebrating femininity – it should be about correcting historical and current imbalances in the mindset of men. The South African government should be lauded for trying, we now need the country’s men to step up to the plate.

Atheists really are nice people

In Free-thinking, Politics on August 5, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Atheists-Have-Nothing-to-Die-ForWith the inevitable pace of interest in the US Presidential elections picking up pace as more and more politicians throw their hats into the ring, and anticipation grows of when Donald Trump will implode, discussion around dining room tables will invariably turn towards the qualifications of each candidate. A key component of qualification will be their religious affiliation, for no other reason than it seems to be necessary for a candidate to be religious.

Comedian and TV host Bill Maher recently tapped into this rather strange phenomenon. He went on to say, “Poll after poll shows Americans would elect almost anyone before they elect an atheist”. He then added rather contentiously, “They would probably elect a pedophile before an atheist.”

How correct is he? A recent Gallup Poll suggests that maybe, just maybe, Americans are beginning to step out of the Middle Ages and join the rest of the civilised world in realising that atheists aren’t evil. According to the poll, although an atheist as a presidential candidate would enjoy broad acceptance from those who don’t identify with any religion (understandable), 91% of whom say they would support an atheist for president, this drops to 47% among Protestants, and is not much higher among Catholics (58%). As a result, the overall percentage who would vote for an atheist stands at 58%.

That’s not very high, but it’s a lot higher than it was back in the late 1950s when a similar poll said only 18% of Americans would vote an atheist in as President.

What does stand out in the poll though is that although people of various religions have varying levels of rejection of candidates who are gay or lesbian, evangelical Christian, Muslim, atheist or socialist, atheists themselves are a lot more accepting of any candidate, irrespective of their upbringing (with an understandable disinclination towards evangelical Christians – there are enough of those anchored in the wings in the Tea Party dragging the country backwards).

The clear message here is that atheists really are nice people…ideal candidates for providing moral leadership to a country needing it.

Anti-vaxxers make science journalists rabid

In Eish!, Fools, Free-thinking, Science on August 4, 2015 at 8:47 am

Handicapped with polioThe science journalists I know are not prone to violence, but I wouldn’t trust many of them around an anti-vaxxer, especially when there’s a blunt instrument nearby.

Science journalists like myself  hope that when presented with sufficient evidence humans will tap into that sliver of common sense they should have running through them and develop a better understanding of the world around them. I know it’s a little naive, but it’s what keeps us digging into science and presenting it for human consumption.

However, what anti-vaxxers (people who oppose vaccination) teach us is that often otherwise intelligent people will reject clear, scientific evidence to embrace absolute nonsense. In retrospect the proof of such ridiculous behaviour is continually punching us in the face: the propensity for humans to desperately hang on to a religious belief despite the fact that such a belief competes with thousands of other religious beliefs for any claim to legitimacy; oh yes and that fact it is based on zero evidence.

So what makes anti-vaxxers the focus of so much journalistic ire? After all, are they not entitled to their beliefs, no matter how bizarre they may be? The answer is cradled – increasingly sickly – in their arms: their children. Immunisation is designed to give children the immune tools to fight off up to 14 diseases that would otherwise cripple or kill them; and a parent depriving them of that right is tantamount to child abuse.

According to NPR thanks to a reduction in parental willingness to immunise children, vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise. Last year, for example, the U.S. witnessed three times as many measles cases as the previous year. It’s becoming increasingly clear that people propelling this resurgence in child-maiming diseases are not responding to common sense.

Research seems to support this. According to IFLScience, providing information that attempts to undermine misbeliefs about the supposed dangers of vaccination can actually backfire and strengthen negative attitudes. The solution it seems is to use more emotive cues including images of infants with the infections; hence the image above of a beautiful child handicapped by polio.

I live in a country with a shockingly low level of understanding of science, and so ignorance of science can – to a certain degree – be forgiven. However, if you live in the U.S. or U.K., where you should have a better understanding of science, not immunising your children is not unforgivable, it’s criminal.

My responsibility as a journalist is such that I am expected to present something of a balance. So here it is: http://howdovaccinescauseautism.com

Cecil the Lion in Apocalypse Now

In Eish!, Fools on August 1, 2015 at 4:01 pm

apocalypse_now_by_darkman20-d33safoWhen I first saw the Twitter hashtag #CecilTheLion and followed the link to see a global news story taking shape around an animal, I was taken back over 35 years to a moment watching Francis Ford Coppola’s brutal epic Apocalypse Now.

There was a scene (here, at 1 hr 55 mins) where marines approach a boat carrying a Vietnamese family. The marines, on edge, aim their rifles and machine gun on the boat. The family, understandably, is terrified. When a woman in the boat runs towards something, the marines panic, open fire and massacre the entire family. One of the marines then leans towards where the woman had been running and finds a puppy. Another marine grabs the puppy up by the scruff of its neck. The puppy yelps. I remember the scene so well because the entire audience in the cinema erupted with a sympathetic ‘aaah’. They had just watched women and children being massacred and didn’t make a sound, but cried when a puppy yelped.

If there’s something I’ve learned about media consumer behaviour it’s this: people have a soft spot for animals, but only certain animals. Top of the pile are puppies and kittens, working down through older dogs and cats and other domesticated furry beings – not goldfish, they’re flushable. There’s a special place though for animals featured in animated films, largely because such films portray these animals as cute; especially so when the highly profitable merchandise machine rolls out stuffed toy characters.

And I would hazard a guess that for most people who reacted so strongly to the killing of Cecil the Lion their exposure to lions is limited to The Lion King and the odd TV documentary. They haven’t seen – as I have – a lion rip open the stomach of a screaming baby impala.

Let’s be honest. People reacted strongly not because someone had killed a lion, but because someone had killed a lion that had – arbitrarily – been given a human name. Cecil was Simba from The Lion King; and that’s ridiculous.

I do not condone hunting, although I understand that professional hunting can serve a role in animal conservation. But it’s not a sport unless the playing field is level, that means the hunter must also be the hunted. If you want to hunt a lion, strap an animal carcass to your back and walk around the lion’s territory.

But human sympathy for animals is highly selective – people will proudly drop a coin into a collection box to save the rhino while munching on a McDonald’s Happy Meal that required someone further back in the food chain fire a bolt gun into the brain of a cow. They will justify this by telling themselves that some animals are bred to be consumed while others are allowed to roam freely – as if it’s the reality of some sanctioned genetic lottery; and that’s fine.

And it is, as long as you don’t profess a moral standpoint on it, because then you risk coming across as a hypocrite.