Welcome to News24 comments: Why the strategy should remain

2015-09-10 18:03

It seems News24 has caved in to an unknown pressure at this stage. The decision to switch off its comments on articles was arbitrary, opaque and without consultation with the very people that have led to News24 being the largest online media platform in the country. I disagree with the decision.

News24 editor-in-chief, Andrew Trench announced that they had extensive internal debates (but without readers) within their newsroom. He said, “The end result of these debates is that we have decided that we wish to be known for the quality of our content rather than for our comments.” I do not see how the two (content and comments) are inseparable. To be sure, some News24 comments are known to be brutal, racist and provocative.

A litany of reasons is advanced as to why people are ‘so brave’ behind their desktops, laptops and mobiles as their fire away vitriol and scathing attacks on others. Many people site the presence of anonymity, the distance between the commentator and the person or subject they attack, the security of ‘speaking out’ without immediate and present reaction, the ability to dismiss reactions and walk away from them.

Lacking in this is an appreciation of the other side. Some people speak out in this way because we lack public spaces of frank and brutal dialogue. Dialogue, especially in a country like South Africa, should by necessity offend, provoke, challenge, discomfort others and many more other things, for as long as it is filled with reasoning. We remain a society in transition, with some opposed to the current order – a constitutional democracy led by a majority black government.

Yet, very few people – of all races – are brave enough to air their views publicly with as much honesty as possible. Our public spaces, especially those of seminars, lectures, dialogues, media talk shows, etc. have become spaces of political correctness. Little remains of spaces where as citizens we do not gag each other. There are even fewer spaces where the current government does not police those who are critical of it; to a point of intercepting people’s calls, emails and many more sinister actions.

Where shall people go to talk and debate robustly in community forum like spaces? Twitter, Facebook and similar platforms are not quite spaces for such, as accounts are individually owned – not necessarily intended for open and easy access to everybody. As a contributor on News24 Voices, I have read comments that have gotten me enraged. There are a few reasons for my anger.

Firstly, there are idiotic commentators – those who comment based on the title without reading the article. Secondly, there are prejudicial commentators, who will even nitpick on very marginal grammatical errors. Thirdly, there are stupid commentators – those who read the article but never debate its merits and choose to read the writer’s profile and attack their person. Fourthly, there are spoilers – those who just want to stir the pot at all costs even if their sober mind advises otherwise. These are the problematic commentators.

However, there are good commentators. Those who seek a genuine discussion, some who move from a point of unknowing but seek to be engaged. Others really have deeply held beliefs, which may be unpalatable to some but the constitution under section 15(1) states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.” Of course there are mediating parameters to our rights. These limitations are found wanting at times given that religious organisations enjoy such latitude to define and uphold their independent doctrines even if they discriminate against some people. A story for another day.

We need to move from a position of honesty. South Africa is an abnormal society, which has not reached the nation we seek to build. Building that nation requires time, effort and commitment. People are filled with anger, despondency, resistance, activism, passivism, hatred and many other feelings that are evoked by (under)developments in our country. Should these feelings be unheard? Should they be policed? When do limitations cripple us as a society?

I have come to view News24 as an outlet valve of some of these feelings that are in most cases genuine, evoked by whatever beliefs people hold and/or occurrences in our nation. When a network of pipes builds pressure, needing release, an outlet valve must be opened. Once it is shut, a burst is imminent. South Africa is at a time whereby we need more uncut outlet valves so that we know exactly what people think, why (and why not) they think in such fashion.

The amplified current by black people to ‘shut the white racists’ loses the plot. Let the racists come out and be known. If a racist ought to be pursued, News24 would cooperate with investigating authorities for such a person to be traced. Black people also have a choice to opt out from engaging the stupid prejudicial idiotic spoilers of News24. The amplified current by white people to ‘shut the radical barbaric blacks’ is indicative of the inherent stupidity in the very statement that still upholds a superiority complex that is nonexistent. In equal measure white people are not compelled to soil on views of black people either, they can just self-restrain.

One thing for sure is that News24 is gravitating us towards the corporatisation of public voices wherein the corporate owning a public platform (in terms of use and its business dependence) determines who shall be listened to. Some commentators do not have the appetite to write at length, some lack the ability to. Yet, they want to be heard. It seems now citizens will only be good enough to air views if they can argument at a particular level. This I disagree with.

There is no life without trolls. The dangerous trolls are those that direct their venom to individuals. The trolls that exist to express myopic views are harmless. When people are engaging they ignore them. News24 had become a fairly democratic space, with sanctioned contributors who cannot escape scrutiny from their readers. This is now being put to death.

The sufferer in the long run will be open and frank dialogue. There is no other online platform that can offer South Africa what News24 had become – a place of confrontation – just what South Africa needs to emerge out of the abyss it keeps sinking down to. We must confront our demons and we are part of those demons.

At the end, are trolls (a minority of readers, if this is true) so bad in the midst of goodness? Are we seeking perfection at all costs? If indeed News24 was joining “international news leaders”, they would have at least done another internationally acceptable thing – consulting the readers.

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