Managing bad news differently

Nick Mangwana View From the Diaspora
Recently there was a decision by the Censorship Board of Zimbabwe to ban a highly contrived and manipulated film on Zimbabwe’s constitution-making process. The film pandered to overused and tired stereotypes about the ruling party and its leadership as well as caricaturing Zanu-PF and its representatives as barbaric and anti-democracy. Over 400 hours of recording was strategically edited and filtered into a 90-minute distorted narrative that played to the sensibilities of the targeted Western audience so as to win awards and bring financial returns for its makers. Despite what the film represented, this columnist contends that the action of the Censorship Board was not only unnecessarily heavy handed but lacked media savviness which should not happen in these days of fast moving information sharing technology.

Banning it only gave more publicity mileage and marketing by turning the film’s notoriety into victimhood. This is something a lot of people had already watched. People in the Diaspora or elsewhere have recorded copies of it on their computers, phones, hard drives, digital boxes and all kinds of data-storing devices. Free circulation had already taken place via WhatsApp and YouTube. Some had already uploaded on their Facebook and Twitter accounts and more copies were already circulating with further editing.

The banning of the film created curiosity and those who had initially ignored it started looking for snippets of the film in a bid to try to understand why it had been banned. And these snippets were only a text message away. Strangely this film had already been screened in Zimbabwe and the audience and the response from the audience was low key. It was not being shown in mainstream theatres because it was not attracting premier audiences.

Even in Europe it is a film only shown at universities and alternative arts places. But if it were to be shown in Zimbabwe now, it will be a box office hit. Why? Because part of the establishment remained mired in the old ways of doing things and lacked contextual discernment.

Zanu-PF has been in power in Zimbabwe since the advent of Independence. So associating it with everything ill that has befallen the country is perfectly understandable, incorrect as it might be. It is normal political pastime to give credit to someone else and all the blame to a party that has been in power for a long time. It is standard human psyche. The establishment cannot embark on an attempted cognitive restructuring by banning stereotypes.

There was no need for fuelling public hostility over something that panders to already tired stereotypes about either Zanu-PF and or the Government of Zimbabwe. Such actions only serve to elevate low-key negative propaganda to higher levels of political priority.

That film could have easily been treated as most of the self-serving autobiographies that have been published in Zimbabwe over the last few years. Nobody banned them but because of that many people did not bother to read them. A senior opposition leader penned his. Many people cannot even remember its title. Why? Because the State pretty much ignored it, so did the people. The same happened to many others including those that were serialised by the tabloids.

There is another controversial one that was recently released. This one has gained a bit more traction because some of those who were portrayed negatively in it decided to take its author and contents head on. In the world of marketing somebody said that the only bad publicity to anyone is their obituary.

News out there is that this book is now selling very well because of this counterintuitive response. Writing as someone who has read that whole book, there is nothing in there which is not already in the public domain, whether as a fact, an accurate or distorted account or as an over-circulated lie now taken as the truth.

Whatever the case maybe, in the last three months of this year, two autobiographies covering the said controversial period of our history have already been published. But make no mistake many more will be written coming from different angles. Whether to confront this subject head on and put in the public domain everything that is known or classified will always be a subject to debate but maybe that conversation should be had in an honest and open manner now.

This will stop those who want to cash in on the misery of others from making money from tragedy. If only moneys from sales of these books were being donated to those that suffered the tragic events, then one would consider the writers less self-serving. The establishment should embrace a different approach to managing bad news. What worked in the past does not necessarily work in a high-tech globalised world now.

In this new age people are filming themselves in their most intimate moments and sharing it or leaking it to social media. These obscene films are in a majority of smartphones in Zimbabwe in spite of its stringent censorship laws which have now been rendered useless. Trying to police these surely is an exercise in futility which will only turn people more negative. In any case they have no capacity to police this.

Fighting negative news with negative actions has generated the current catastrophisation of everything that Zanu-PF touches. Catastrosphisation is defined as the irrational thinking or taking something and making oneself believe that it is worse than it actually is. It is the giving of a negative spin to a current situation. It can also be about looking at the future using negative lenses. This has been happening a lot in Zimbabwe.

Mediating the information age these days is different from many years ago. We are living in the tabloid and blog era where anyone can break news. Tablotisation of the political climate means there is always going to be negative news and it helps to be ahead of it by self-disclosure. More transparency such as The Herald’s corruption disclosures is the way to go. Public confidence is not eroded by these disclosures as long as they are not motivated by Machiavellian skulduggery.

Public confidence is certainly enhanced by corresponding arrests and indictment rates. At the moment the gap between the two is what is breeding cynicism for there are hardly any arrests and those arrested somehow hardly ever serve prison terms. Societal malfeasance should be disclosed. That gives the establishment an opportunity to set the narrative.

The direction of the news is determined by he who sets the initial pitch. The sooner recognition of this is taken the better. Those exposed should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This is not happening and therefore causing a lot of public disillusionment with the Government and its many endeavours. These things are not endearing to the public

The context around us is changing very fast because of changes in technology. The Government has to be applauded for refusing the very ridiculous request from mobile phone companies to ban WhatsApp. What an outrageously archaic way of thinking from those captains of industry who are supposed to be leading us into a cutting edge technology era. They should be devising their own Application Software (Apps) to compete and not advocating the banning of others.

This piece is calling for the State not to wrap itself in self-indulgent delusion that all is well when in fact all is not well. Denial is a disease itself. What is needed is to let the nation have access to information by the establishment breaking the bad news itself but after that let institutions do their job.

Granted that the media is highly politicised and there will always be sensationalisations, exaggerations and unfair use of rhetorical devices but one has to learn to live with the reality that it is not possible to depoliticise the media so there is no need to engage in atrocious self-torment. Instead run ahead of the story by setting the narrative as the establishment would have it. Distortions can be assaulted using logical evidence and the perpetuation of the negative narrative is curtailed.

The public may not trust what the government tells them. That is natural because anti-establishment is a natural disposition of a lot. To improve on these trust issues the State should not be too sensitive to negative information. In fact, AIPPA would have been aptly named if it was providing the public with access to information. Moral boundaries for society normally sets themselves.

All transparency is positive. It is politically driven transparency which is destructive and undermining of public confidence. Sometimes we have to learn that bad news is temporary. It is soon overtaken by more bad or good news.

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  • Kwangwari Gwayendepi

    Well said Mangwana. I’m one of those people who only watched the film because, i was so curious to find out what was in that film,that caused it to be banned. It’s a shame this regime has become so paranoid. They don’t believe ordinary people can tell the difference between fabrication and reality.

  • Rawboy

    Any bit of info/video footage that government as paranoid as ours bans ,immediately rises to the top of the must -find -out -all-about-it list!