Daryl Ilbury

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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