Nathaniel Manheru THE OTHER SIDE
Last week gave us a hilarious story of Honourable Chinotimba seeking some kind of restitution for his “long lost” cellphone. Many will remember that the missing cellphone was blamed on the late Mahlangu who had to go through a trial before he was eventually cleared.
Now, Honourable Chinotimba wants relatives of the late Mahlangu to pay for the deceased, never mind that he had been cleared by the courts in his lifetime. I am sure the legislator fell back on the traditional sense of African Justice.
My mind raced back to an interview Chinotimba had with Violet Gonda, then working for SW Africa, a pirate radio station beaming to Zimbabwe. The issue under examination was the missing cellphone, and of course the fact that the late Mahlangu had been cleared by the courts. Gonda wanted to know whether Hon Chinotimba agreed with the judge that Mahlangu had not abstracted his phone. “No”, replied an emphatic Chinotimba. “So are you saying the judge is wrong?” asked Gonda. “No”, again responded the legislator. “So what did the judge say”, pressed on Gonga. “That I should look after my serophone in the presence of Hon Mahlangu”!
Fleeing with a corpse
The late legislator never quite tested peace in his life, did he? The story of warring groups running away with his coffin made quite a depressing, bizarre read. Surely there are better ways of showing affection, better ways of using death in politics? Today the MDC-T he served in life suffers greater divisions in his death.
More accurately, by his death. Much worse, Morgan Tsvangirai whom he served so loyally, stands challenged over his death. Gutu, Tsvangirai’s spokesperson, says the MDC-T leader could not have attended either of the split wakes without getting embroiled. That would have been un-African, and the MDC-T is a party of “family values”, said the spokesperson, apparently without being alive to the devastating retort which such a wild claim provokes.
A good spokesperson never makes claims that leave his principal as a principle butt. Lovemore Moyo, former speaker on MDC-T ticket, hit back: true, the wakes were two, but the grave was one? So why didn’t the leader attend the burial? To this day no answer has come from the inventive Gutu. Instead we hear of an inquiry, and threats of witch-hunts. Inevitably. Lovemore Moyo’s angry response went beyond Mahlangu and the unattended burial ceremony. It wondered about the leadership, about the values, indeed about the direction of the party. It was deep, very existential. More might come.
Umberto Eco thinks nothing is more difficult to dispose of than an irrelevant but true story. And he is writing about the media in modern democracies. How they clutter the world with irrelevancies that are so true, so unimportant. Ever graphic, Eco gave the example of Berlusconi and his press. An Italian magistrate had criticised the then Prime Minister, who didn’t like it. Berlusconi sought to even it out.
He set his press after the poor magistrate, set a dutifully feral press on the poor man. The press followed the magistrate for days, all the time reporting on his activities. Or lack of them. How he walked to the park. How he say on a bench, smoking. How he got up, went to the barber, and wore turquoise socks.
The little man’s uneventful life became a cynosure, daily, grabbing headlines. Concludes Umberto: “To make noise, you don’t have to invent stories. All you have to do is report a story that is real but irrelevant, yet creates a hint of suspicion by the simple fact that it has been reported. It is true and irrelevant that the magistrate wears turquoise socks, but the fact it has been reported creates a suggestion of something not quite confessed, leaving a mark, an impression.” He stresses that modern propaganda works through truthful irrelevancies: “In short, a fact that is too relevant can be challenged, whereas an accusation that is not an accusation cannot be challenged.” And he demonstrated that rule in operation in real politics of Italy: “The error made by La Repubblica in its campaign against Berlusconi was to give too much coverage to a relevant story (the party at Noemi’s house). If, instead, it had reported something like this – “Berlusconi went into Piazza Navona yesterday morning, met his cousin, and they had a beer together . . . how curious” — it would have triggered such a series of insinuations, suspicions, and embarrassments that the premier would have resigned long ago”.
Morality of noise
Eco is talking about sonorous, superfluous excesses which bombard us daily, and which displace real matter, great noise which yields no information, in fact which displaces information, while arousing incriminating suspicions. He is talking about our addiction to such orchestrated noise to the point of being incapable of doing without the excesses.
And he says these habitual excesses we are fed on daily have created “a psychology and morality of noise”, itself the modern form of censorship. I remember another scholar who wrote a small book called “Amusing ourselves to death”. He must be a Something Postman, Neil Postman I think, and his subject matter was how news has been reduced to an addictive game show for the entertaining drugged audiences who can’t be bothered about heavy and relevant things of real life.
Friday to Friday
We are in the middle of a big debate on the conduct of some media houses: the private press. Or what the ruling ZANU-PF calls the opposition press, often with a great deal of justification. And here is what triggers the debate. Friday, October 9: “I’m ZANU PF referee — Queen Grace” ( Newsday); “Grace Displays Political Power” (Daily News). Saturday, 10 October: “Grace gets ‘endorsement’ for Presidency” (News Day); “Grace savages VP supporters” (Daily News). Sunday, October 11: “Mnangagwa’s allies fight back” (Daily News on Sunday). Monday, October 12: “Mujuru warns army generals” (Daily News); “Back off: Mujuru tells army” (Newsday). Tuesday, October 13: “Grace donations looted” (Newsday); “Grace pins Mnangagwa” (Daily News). Wednesday, October 14: “ZANU-PF chairmen resign en masse (Newsday); “Grace confirms Presidential bid” (Daily News). Thursday, October 15: “Grace warns war vets” (Newsday); “Grace parades her power again” (Daily News). Friday, October 16: “Grace threatens Mnangagwa allies”; “Grace, Mnangagwa ‘unelectable’ (Daily News); “ZANU-PF to splash $3m on conference” (Newsday); “Grace abuses $98m facility” (Zimbabwe Independent). This sample content takes us from one Friday to the next one. Wonderful noises, excessive irrelevancies, Umberto would say!
Power semantics at play
Let’s draw some readings, simply from the headlines. All told, if one where to go by the private press, one would be forgiven for thinking that their universe is inhabited by three actors only: Mujuru, Grace and Mnangagwa. They equal news and their alleged acts invariably pass for news. What is more, they are the only reality, the only occurrence worth reporting on. Everything else is not newsworthy, does not happen. By way of honour, Mai Mugabe is simply “Grace” or “President Robert Mugabe’s wife”. If she has to be something else, she becomes “the controversial First Lady” or “Queen Grace”. By contrast, Joice Mujuru is “Former Vice President Joice Mujuru”. Or she is “Dr Mujuru”. Clearly the tag of “Former Vice President” is obligatory. Emmerson Mnangagwa is “Vice President Mnangagwa” or simply “Mnangagwa”. Most of the time he is “the embattled Vice President”. I am taking it, gentle reader, that you follow the rules of power semantics, that is, that the way people are addressed attributes or denies them honour and regard. That through power semantics played out through honorific titles, the media distinguishes exemplary players from mere rogues. That through such semantics, the media seeks to influence public projection and perception of public actors, indeed that mediased attitudes are sold and conveyed to readers.
Restoring lost glory, repudiating incumbency
Interestingly, both ladies acquired doctorates the same year, from the same university, albeit from different departments. Both were capped by the same chancellor, President Mugabe.
But in the private press, one keeps her academic title, the other loses it in preference to some derogatory, feudal title of “Queen”. Why? And this in hard news, not soft, feature reports. One is a sitting First Lady and a sitting Chair of the ZANU-PF Women’s League; the other is a former Vice President of both the country and ZANU-PF. Why is it so difficult for the private press to acknowledge current titles, whilst it is so easy for them to jump time and history all to resurrect old titles no longer applicable because of changed fortunes, so easy to name a dismissed character by what she once was, not what she is now? Has she not become anything else ever since? Or to call her “the leader of the People First”, an organisation still to be launched, and a leadership still to be named and confirmed, still to be conferred upon her through appropriate political processes? You repudiate incumbency of one; you restore lost incumbency in the other? Joice Mujuru was dismissed. Or if you want, was successfully embattled. Emmerson Mnangagwa was appointed in place of Mujuru; he is in post but is perceived by this press as embattled. So, why is it proper to prefix Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Vice Presidency as “embattled”, all to suggest fragility, while remaining silent about Mujuru’s Vice Presidency already long lost? Surely she can’t be “former” forever? We speak of “proppress”, propaganda press. Come see one here!
What about tomorrow’s headline?
By way of substance, the First Lady has repudiated factions, with the 50-plus years old wife of the President going as far as wondering what it is that is called “G-40”. Yet from the point of view of the private press, such an emphatic denial paradoxically commissions and endorses her as a factional leader, makes her the de facto presidential candidate.
The private press insists she is a factional leader and a presidential aspirant who is fighting a sitting Vice President. It has to be so, lest tomorrow’s headline suffers, killing news! Even the fact of similar denials by all those named as belonging to the so-called G-40 will not convince the private press.
Meanwhile, the story of Mujuru allegedly warning “army generals” is attributed NOT to Mujuru, but to one Rugare Gumbo. Gumbo is the one who speaks. We don’t know Gumbo’s organisation; we don’t know his current capacity. We surmise his relationship with Mujuru. All we know is he was kicked out of ZANU-PF last year.
The First Lady who speaks directly to the press cannot give a message to be believed by the private press. She can’t be trusted to say, to communicate her true thoughts. She is being misrepresented by herself! Meanwhile Mujuru who does not speak to the press, but is allegedly spoken for by one Rugare Gumbo, should be believed, should have words from Gumbo as her own! In other words you are safer speaking by proxy? If you speak for yourself, you should be protected from misrepresentation by yourself! So Mujuru comes through as a very powerful politician who calls generals to order by not saying anything herself. Grace Mugabe comes through as a human being who cannot speak for herself, but will have to be read and interpreted by the media against her own spoken word.
To have words put into her mouth, not by her spokesperson, but by the private press. The private media have become her spokes-institutions! The one (Mujuru) has words spoken for her and is trusted; the other has words spoken by her (Mai Mugabe) and she is mistrusted! What do the rules of journalism say about sources and source distance for purposes of source ranking?
Meanwhile we continue to have editorials in defence of such journalistic malpractices. Daily News calls it blaming or persecuting the “messenger”. It asserts the private press is being persecuted for telling “it like it is, without fear or favour”. Is there a case for a messenger, a case for a message? Well, messengers faithfully carry messages given them, don’t they? What message has been send by Mai Mugabe? Why is the messenger disregarding it, substituting it?
Even insisting on another message which she should accept and should never repudiate? What is “telling it like it is” in circumstances in which a media organisation insists on its own message, insists on its own view about a public actor however many times she denies? What is “telling it like it is” when there is nothing directly from a source yet the paper insists there is? What “is” gets rejected, what “isn’t” or what is alleged is asserted? And actors are either hailed or hated off-hand, praised or pilloried in opening sentences, before facts have been laid before the reader?
What justifies a messenger who condemns the sender, blocks the message? What justifies a messenger who condones an alleged sender, amplifies a message founded on faith? Or a paper which Cyclopes-like, sees the world with this one big eye, frames reality in this one way? We are in the surreal world of Umberto Eco where public figures are stalked by headlines that don’t require them to have done anything. Or that reject or substitutes what they have said.
The basic trouble is that we have a broke media looking elsewhere for repair and succour. Broke commercially, which is why there is this intemperance. From founding, the private media in this country has never performed on the market, have never derived a wherewithal from the rules of supply and demand.
They have survived on sponsored-and-political attitudes. They are a hard sell on the market, much against their own claims. They will declare they are highly profitable, declare they command massive sales and readership. Until you ask their owners to pay taxes for the numbers they claim, for the profit they assert. Only then does the truth come out, a sorry truth of a press rejected by the market for its unprofessional, partisan, crusading role. For lying brazenly. For being hateful. For illicit sponsorship, below-the-counter news values. For taking brides, for blackmailing. And because sales are not forthcoming, and because closure stares in the face, there is a drift towards confrontational reporting, skewed, politically partisan reportage.
The idea is to invite robust reaction from ZANU-PF and its government, all to win the paying tag of a “persecuted” media. It is about meriting outside support, about meriting political funds, donor funds, to avert closure. Check how much their reporters are taking home. Check what the reporters got by way of bonuses, will get by way of bonuses. Check who has medical cover, who doesn’t. Yes, check who is on pension, who isn’t. Then, only then, will you grasp the source of hate spurts that have now come to define a new kind of hopeless journalism. The butts are here: readers who are short-changed; the audience or readers are out there: approving donors who want to feel avenged against ZANU-PF for her policies. But things are not adding up, preferred politics in deep throes. Hence the frustration coming through as hate, as pillory. There is a cure, one that shall come soon. Sooner. Watch the market.