I do not regret it - HuffPost fake blogger

2017-05-25 08:50

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Johannesburg – The researcher who faked his way onto The Huffington Post's blog platform, to make a point about the media, said that while he did not regret what he did, he certainly could have proven his point differently.

Speaking at a public seminar on A Focus on the media, and the “Huffington Hoax” in particular, at the ASRI and the Wits School of Journalism on Wednesday, political science graduate Marius Roodt, said it was not his intention to target Huffington Post and its editor, Verashni Pillay, who subsequently resigned after the incident.

"The aim was not to target Verashni or the Huffington Post, as pointed out. It was sent to three other organisations. None of whom picked it up or decided to run with it.

"My issue was there was a lack of editorial discernment in the South African media. There was a lot of fake news that there had been put out there like statistics of ownership of land in South Africa, statistics on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and there are a lot of false news that are spread."

Roodt submitted a piece called "Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?", pretending to be a scholar of feminism named Shelley Garland.

It was published by The Huffington Post on April 13, 2017, under that name and touched a nerve among some readers.
It later became evident that Shelley Garland did not exist.

Pillay initially defended the piece as being in line with feminist thinking, but eventually pulled it on discovering that Garland did not exist.

Roodt was tracked down by the publication, through his email address, to the Centre for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg.

He has since resigned, and said he was sorry, but explained that he was motivated by his belief that there was a lack of fact checking in South African journalism.

On Wednesday night he said: "My piece showed a lack of editorial decisions, possibly not in all the media houses, but certainly at the Huffington Post…"

Surrounding issues

With regards to bias, Roodt said, it was unavoidable.

"In South Africa, we would be better served if media organisations came out clearly with where they stand on who they support politically. For example, media houses in the United Kingdom are very clear about who they support or where they stand on an ideological spectrum."

He said another thing that the Huffington Post incident showed was that they relied heavily on clicks.

"It might also be linked to the generalisation of the newsrooms, sub-editing is poor on mobile websites and there are spelling errors in headlines which I think is a kind of broken window. If sub-editors are not picking up spelling errors, how is that filtering up or down?"

Roodt asked the gathering if Huffington editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee, City Press editor Mondli Makhanya or Times Media editor-at-large Peter Bruce were the editor of Huffington Post would the piece have been published.

"I am not so sure."

He said his piece also brought to the fore the debate on white South Africans in the country.

"I think debates around decolonisation are very necessary and we have to have them. But at the same time, it is not useful to tell people whose families have been here for hundreds of years that they are colonisers, they do not belong here.

"At the same time, as white people, we need to do an introspection about our place in society and where we are going."

He said the incident also showed him that patriarchy was still very much alive.

"Before anyone thought it was me… The amount of vitriol about her appearance and her weight that was on social media was alarming…

"Then it came out that it was me… There was nothing said about me or my weight and I think it does reflect on how men and women are treated differently in society - which is something that I did not think about before this issue came out."

He said the content on the article was not constitutional but he did not think that it was hate speech.

"But I am not a lawyer…"

The Press Ombudsman ruled that the piece constituted hate speech. Executive director of the Press Council and former ombudsman Joe Thloloe, as well as Pillay are appealing the ruling. 

'No desire to be objective'

Analyst Karima Brown, who along with eNCA analyst Angelo Fick were on the panel discussing fake news, said she did not believe that objectivity existed in the media.

"I have no desire to be objective. I wish to be fair, balanced and accurate…I do not hide my politics, in fact my politics informs my journalism."

Brown said for her, journalism was about change.

"Changing society, providing a platform for those who choose not to hear - it is about confronting power, exposing all power, not just political power."

She said she was not in the business of hiding her politics from her journalism.

Brown said she had severely been punished for having a political view.

"I was one of the journalists who during the [former president] Thabo Mbeki era, who was gagged at the SABC because I was too critical of President Mbeki’s policies and positions.

"In following President Jacob Zuma, I was accused of helping bring down President Mbeki, and helped Zuma’s administration come to power because I was one of the few political editors, at the time, who factually reported that he was going to win at a time when the country wrote what they felt rather than what they were seeing."

Now, she said, she was again banned at the SABC because she was critical of President Jacob Zuma.

"I was taken to the Ombudsman by Helen Zille because I wore an ANC hat at a January 8 rally."

Brown said there was nothing wrong with making mistakes.

"I do not think there is a journalist alive who has not made a mistake, we have all made mistakes, it is our response to those mistakes that define us…

"Part of what I found was particularly problematic about The Huffington Post South Africa, was its response when it found out that, it had in fact, dropped all the balls in terms of editorial ethics and checks and balances - its response to having being told by someone else that they had made a fundamental mistake.

"I do not have a problem with journalists making mistakes, I have a problem with hiding the mistake on page 10…"

Brown said the journalism profession was under threat from organised political power, corporates and technology.


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