What M&G readers need to know

David Benatar says the conduct of our third-rate fourth estate does not augur well for our democracy

In August 2015, I provided explicit evidence of Independent Online’s egregious bias. While this bias was widely known, it was (and remains) important to document clear instances of it. Without this sort of evidence, all one has are unsubstantiated impressions.

I noted in that article that according to a basic principle of justice, “Audi alteram partem”, one should hear from both sides of a dispute, and not from one side only. Without doing so, one cannot reach an informed judgement about which side is correct (or more correct). Although the principle is most commonly used in legal contexts it also relevant to the press. A medium that presents only side of a debate is not to be trusted.  

I now present evidence of bias at the Mail&Guardian Online. This medium has regularly published statements by the University of Cape Town’s Black Academic Caucus (BAC). Although it did not publish the BAC’s statement of 1 October 2017 which was headed “Parading White Privilege” , it did republish a News24 piece with the sensationalist title “UCT test concession for Rocking the Daisies festival is ‘parade of white privilege’”, that not only quoted the BAC statement but also incorporated that statement’s title into the article’s heading.

The concession in question, which was granted by one of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department, led to an uninformed and hysterical moral panic and a flurry of reports and references in various media. This eventually resulted in the University leadership taking the unusual step of effectively directing a course convener to withdraw a concession.

Nearly a fifth of the article republished on the Mail&Guardian website was devoted to conveying the BAC’s view, as expressed in its statement. The report said:

The UCT Black Academic Caucus (BAC) said it was “humiliating and traumatising” that black students were made to be an “unwilling audience to exhibitions of privilege”.

The caucus said in a statement that racialised class disparities were highlighted in the inconsistent approach to handling the different needs of students.

“It’s not enough that black students have to silently carry the burden of disadvantage, or think twice before approaching some of their white lecturers when they are in distress; they now even have to watch as racialised privilege is paraded before them.”

The article also referred to a student who had “said on Facebook that the concession was a ‘joke’, as Muslim students had to write exams during Eid”. This could create the utterly false impression that the same course convener or even department had granted a concession in the case of a music festival but not in the case of a major religious holiday.

Ten days later, on 13 October 2017, the Mail&Guardian Online published another statement by the BAC in which the Rocking the Daisies concession was again mentioned.

Following the widespread and misplaced outrage at the concession that my colleague had granted, the Philosophy Department issued a public statement in response. I forwarded that statement to the editor of the Mail&Guardian Online, with the request that they publish it there. 

I received no reply and the statement never appeared on the Mail&Guardian’s website. (This is in keeping with my earlier personal experience with the Mail&Guardian, which has simply ignored submissions from me, and thus it is unlikely that this was a single email that went astray.) Of course, editors are not duty bound to publish everything that is sent to them.

However, when a newspaper publishes a sloppy one-sided report and gives substantial coverage to one side of a controversy, it does have something of an obligation to let the other side be heard. At the very least it could explain why it did not do so.

The fact that the Mail&Guardian publishes numerous ideologically saturated and factually phony statements from the BAC, but will not publish a single reasoned and substantiated response from the UCT Philosophy Department is another indication of a third-rate fourth estate in South Africa. Such a press does not augur well for the country’s fragile democracy.