How not to have fingers pointed back at you

We've all made mistakes. The key is to be able to identify when you’ve made a mistake, take ownership of it and correct it, writes Ryland Fisher.

In the era of social media and instant gratification, it is sometimes difficult to discern between the personal and the public. I found myself thinking about this because of two issues or incidents: the one was the live broadcast of the parliamentary ad hoc committee into the fitness of the SABC board, the other was Nomboniso Gasa’s “open letter” to political analyst Karima Brown.

The issues are related in some way, and not because Brown worked at the SABC for many years. It is linked because it brings into perspective things said in public versus things said in private. It also looks at how people can change in who they support and why.

“I am not responsible for this mess. I inherited it”

In the case of the SABC, with proper and dedicated work behind the scenes, much of the mess at the public broadcaster could have been avoided. It is only now, years after many observers first warned of what is a major crisis, that things have come to a head and will hopefully be sorted out soon.

But, watching part of the inquiry live on television this week, it’s clear they were only scratching the surface. The rot seems to be much deeper and needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. The SABC is supposed to be a national asset and can’t be allowed to be as dysfunctional as it has become.

It would have been great if the minister of communication, as the shareholder’s representative, had taken more responsibility instead of trying to blame everyone else for the problems which she and others, including Parliament, should have expected a long time ago.

She tried to do a Bart Simpson during her presentation to the committee, basically saying “I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it” or “I am not responsible for this mess. I inherited it.”

There were many things raised at the hearing which would probably have remained private if there was no crisis at the SABC, which shows the need to be careful how you conduct yourself, in public as well as in private. When you are involved in public institutions, you may lose the right to privacy in many ways.

There are things which should never really become public

Then there are things which, in the case of private citizens, should never really become public. Things that could have been sorted out by talking about it and resolving it in that manner.

This is clearly what happened in the case of Gasa and Brown, both of whom I respect professionally. They were friends who helped each other along the way. In fact, it appears from Gasa’s “letter” that Brown helped her more. Why she felt the need to write an “open letter” to someone who used to be her friend is beyond me. Surely they could have talked about this before allowing it to degenerate into the public arena?

I hold no brief for Brown, even though I have known her for more than 30 years, but I feel that Gasa’s “letter” was completely out of place and unnecessary. I wonder if she thought beforehand of the possible impact it would have and the kind of response it would evoke. Or maybe she didn’t care.

And what happened to the “right of reply” principle? Or is it okay to publish and then give a right of reply later? This is not the way I was taught when I started in journalism.

In brief, Gasa takes issue with Brown’s support and opposition to President Jacob Zuma at various points of her career. She also raises some personal issues which, in my humble opinion, have nothing to do with the broader political decisions Brown has taken.

The problem with taking principled positions in public is that you need to be sure that fingers can’t be pointed back at you. Most of us don’t have this luxury because we are flawed individuals.

Journalists do back politicians from time to time. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be normal. I don’t have problems with people changing their minds about who they support politically, because that is part of democracy.

But the thing about journalism is that you need to be able to justify, through your writing, your political decisions. And sometimes these political decisions change.

When Zuma took office, there were many in the journalistic fraternity who were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, in the hope that he would prove critics wrong. Even Zapiro temporarily removed the shower head from his cartoons about Zuma.

Many people have since changed their opinion of him, while there are a group who remain loyal, which is their right. Some of them will probably jump ship when his administration ends and will consider who to safely back next.

We need to be brave enough to deal with our failings

We’ve all made mistakes along the way, whether these are related to our careers or who we have backed politically. Many of us have made mistakes in our personal lives. The key is to be able to identify when you’ve made a mistake, take ownership of it and correct it.

If there is any lesson to be learnt out of the two incidents I’ve mentioned, it’s that we need to be brave enough to deal with our personal and public failings.

It’s not enough to say sorry afterwards. It’s about sorting out the issues before it reaches the point where it becomes necessary to apologise. In both cases, it’s probably too late, but we can learn from this.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 17 December 2016)