Why the Media must keep a watch on Julius Malema, even though he already wears a big Breitlinger Navitimer.


Journalists are accused of many things, from mis-hearing mumbled comments in an interview, to mis-estimating the size of a crowd in a stadium, to accepting bundles of cash and sleeping with politicians for a story.

(The former I can sort-of understand; the latter…are politicians really that desperate?)

But perhaps the most common accusation, or at least the one that confuses us the most, is this: “You’re just trying to sell newspapers.”

We get this whenever we front-page a sensational event, or shine a light on an unsavoury aspect of society, or run a picture of a semi-naked celebrity, or devote acres and acres of column-inches to loud-mouthed politicians with fine taste in wine, wristwatches, and ladies in spangled bikinis.

The truth is, most journalists have only the most basic understanding of the economics of newspaper publishing, and I have yet to hear a journalist return from an assignment and say, “I’m working on such a great story! We’re going to sell lots and lots of newspapers!”

We do appreciate that at some level there is a correlation between what we write and how many copies appear in the “ABCs”, but we don’t think about it too much, firstly because we’re not great at maths, and secondly because it is hard to see the correlation between how many copies are sold and how little we get paid.

We tend to act on more primal instincts. We are guided by our “nose” for news, our “gut-feel” for a story, and the “legwork” it takes to turn that first whiff of something happening into something you might want to read.

But more than the instinct to hunt down the story, we are driven by the gnawing fear that some other journalist will get to it first. This is why it is futile to ask any journalist not to hunt down and report a story that is in the public interest and in the public eye.

There may be rare occasions when we will grit our teeth and abide by such a request, for instance when the police are working on a very sensitive case, and publishing the lurid details may…you know. That, and when someone gives us a big bundle of cash.

But otherwise, asking a journalist not to report a story or an issue, would be like asking a journalist not to think of an elephant. Or in this case, not to think of Julius Malema.

It was the satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys who first made the call, some months back, for the media to actively ignore Malema, to starve him of the oxygen of publicity, to deny him a platform for his grandstanding. This was either a major admission of defeat by Uys, or an act of satire on its own.

But now the call has gone out once again. Let’s ignore Malema. Let’s starve him. Let’s deny him.

Well, I’ve been trying. I’ve been trying hard not to think about Julius Malema.

I’ve been trying not to read about him in the papers, or watch him on TV, or listen to him on the radio, or click on certain links, or scan certain tweets when his name leaps out from the page. But it’s not working, and it’s not going to work.

So let me rather, as a card-carrying member of “the media”, attempt to answer certain questions that are raised whenever people try their best to ignore Julius Malema.

1) Did the media “create” Julius Malema? Of course not. He is a product of politics and circumstance and the dynamics of his own peculiar personality, in a country that has given rise to numerous other colourful and controversial political figures.

2) Has the media furthered his cause and enhanced his credibility, by giving him valuable space and airtime for his views? Hardly. He is probably the most savagely criticised, viciously lampooned, and sternly-editorialised-about political leader in recent South African memory.

3) Do newspapers sell more copies when they put Julius Malema all over the front page? Yes, but only to Julius Malema.

4) Will he quietly fade away if the media as a whole were to ignore him for a day, a week, a year? This is a rhetorical question, but the answer, anyway, is: we would be the ignorant ones.

We may not like what Julius Malema has to say.

We may not like Julius Malema.

But I, for one, like living in a society where I can read all about him and what he thinks and says and does, and then decide myself whether he’s worth ignoring or not.

*Footnote: That’s the pop singer Chomee in the picture above, eyeing Julius Malema’s magnificent Breitling Navitimer wristwatch at a recent glittering social occasion.




14 comments on “Why the Media must keep a watch on Julius Malema, even though he already wears a big Breitlinger Navitimer.

  1. Thank for this Gus. It has been very hard for me not to tweet about Kiddie Amin* lately. As a non-journalist it is still a bitter pill to swallow that Julius’ popularity isn’t (at least) helped by the press he receives.I will defer to the experts though.*Not mine

  2. Obviously I have to kinda sorta disagree with you Gus (given that I blogged about not writing about Julius ever again). I agree that Julius is newsworthy and that what he says and does should be reported on. But there’s a difference between reportage and the hysteria that he is fomenting. He knows that the media are at his beck and call (even if they despise him). And he knows how to turn the fact that most thinking people (ie the desktop activists) deplore him into an advantage. He positions himself as the underdog to his supporters, Zanu-PF and so on. So, yes, continue to keep a watch on Julius. The media can’t possibly ignore him altogether. But they can turn down the volume of the coverage. Change tack. Stop handing him power on a plate, because he’s using it, and that scares me.

  3. The thing is – Malema’s not a story. He’s not even a hot topic. The country made him, but the media is magnifying him. Nothing he says or does is particularly newsworthy, yet he’s all over the newspapers – and that’s probably only because he’s all over the newspapers.It’s a deadly cycle of self-reinforcing myopia. The tabloids pick up his story (because everyone loves reading about racism and power abuse), and in an attempt to keep up, the respected newspapers publish more Malema, and then the tabloids pick up on the fact that the newspapers picked up, and the whole thing just spirals towards overload.I totally respect the dilemma that print publishers are facing – huge overheads, big buildings, lots of jobs on the line, and an encroaching digital age which is quickly usurping media power. But at the same time, is it really OK to sell out the integrity of your news for the sake of breaking a story before everyone else? And are they really stories that you’re breaking, or are you just fanning the flames so you can be part of the fire?I say, censor Malema in the mainstream media. It won’t make him shut up, but it will confine his ramblings to the communities and rallies that favor him so much. And when the rest of the country realizes how few people that actually is, SA will be a happier place for it.~ Wogan

  4. Gus – with all due respect – at the moment Julius’ Malema’s comments are treated by the South African media as carrying more weight than the President of the country. Many journo’s would be hard pressed to choose whether to get a sound bite out of Julius or a serious interview with JZ. Personal opinion is that neither of these guys should open their mouths or speak on behalf of the country but that’s a seperate issue. JZ can ramble on but Julius says downright stupid things. What’s more irritating is that when the President says Julius is talking kak about the mines the journalists go back to Julius for a second opinion and he comes out saying that the president won’t tell him what to do…… On top of that we don’t have an independant public broadcaster so Julius will always have a PR machine – he doesn’t need private sector media fanning it along in the hope that they will get more impressions or sell more newspapers repeating his stupid comments

  5. Personally I don’t like journalists because their ability to string words together is often unaccompanied by an ability to actually think through what those words mean and their consequences to others, not to mention the ability explore political or moral concepts in a critical manner. For this reason the mainstream media has developed into one of the most vacuous, idiotic artifacts of modernity. No wonder it loves Malema.

  6. But a journalists job is not to think or be a thought leader… the job is to report (at least for 90% of the media). You want a scary statistic – a crowd in the US do an annual journalism review – depending on the region 75% – 94% (That was Balitmore) of content that appeared online / in the newspapers were re-hashed press releases.As for the things that appear as news online – the wire services (I-Net, SAPA, Bloomberg) time themselves versus their competition down to the second. It is not a case of assessing the news – its about getting it out as fast as possible. Ergo that’s why Julius’ rantings become front page or section leads (online).

  7. Gus, yes, journalism is driven by freedom of speech. And yes, this has served us South Africans really well in the past and right now. And yes, the bad guys must be exposed and the world must be shown what they are. BUT. The media have given Julius a platform that he would not otherwize have enjoyed. They have rewarded him for saying bizarre and ridiculous things. Which has led to a domino effect of ridiculousness.1. In the interests of the country, especially now, a new kind of press freedom is called for. A thinking press freedom which decides against publication of a damaging and, in the long term, irrelevant story. In short, ignore the idiot.2. There are scores of people with relevant, interesting, valid things to say. Things that would unite rather than divide. Lets hear from them for a change.

  8. I think that the people who are calling for the media to ignore Malema haven’t quite thought through the consequences of what it means. It’s an emotional knee jerk, and not a very intelligent one at that. The thought of ignoring someone who’s apparently deeply involved in corruption and skulduggery while coiffing Chivas Regal is to scary to even begin to contemplate. If anything the lights should burn brighter, every dubious thing about the man should be exposed and laid bare. Including how he got hold of that big Breitlinger Navitimer.

  9. Report, yes – inflate, no. I watch the evening news. In half an hour, they’re able to cover 5, maybe 6 topics. 24 hours in a day, 300 countries, 7 billion people, and only 6 articles a day? Can you see how focus is of critical importance here?<o:p></o:p>Yes, the media is a powerful tool for exposing corruption and other illegal shenanigans (to also respond to Mandy here), but there has to be balance. For every thousand people killed in car accidents in South Africa, there’s 50 million that weren’t. For every corrupt politician, there are a thousand honest civil servants. For every million rand stolen by mismanagement, there’s billions of rands poured into infrastructure. For every farm murder, there are hundreds of new farmers.<o:p></o:p>To paint a skewed picture of the country – to cover only the violence, and the corruption, and the “hot”, “public interest” topics – does the public no good. Coverage and cost are no longer an object – digital allows media to be replicated and distributed instantly, and journalists should take advantage of that to actually bring some balance back into reporting.<o:p></o:p>The people that need to know about corrupt politicians and mismanagement – and the people who are in the position to do something about it – are the people connected to the councils and commissions and reports. Let them do the whistle-blowing to rally up public support – don’t rely on the media to paint a fair picture of the country.<o:p></o:p>If the purpose of the news media is truly to inform, then it’s about time that information became fair, and not driven by how many pages can be squeezed into a print edition.<o:p></o:p>

  10. Thanks, Mandy, for your very perceptive evaluation of our collective intelligence. The idea was not to ignore. Simply to introduce the concept of balance.

  11. He worries me too. He makes me seethe. He frequently scares me. But he’s a political phenomenon, a force that won’t go away if we ignore him.I feel better knowing that the media are keeping tabs on him and exposing his views and behaviour to the world. I feel better, also, knowing that there’s not just one medium or viewpoint covering him, but multitudes of media and viewpoints.Oddly enough, this whole debate over media restraint and responsibility is an echo of a debate that dominated the South African mediascape in the 80s…over whether or not the media should pay any attention to Eugene Terre’blanche and his cronies.That was at a time when the ANC, PAC, Azapo and other organisations were banned, and when a State of Emergency was in effect, severely curtailing the media’s coverage of social and political issues.We don’t want to go back to the atmosphere of those times. Not knowing what people in power and doing and saying is a lot more dangerous than knowing, as much as we may not like what we see and hear.

  12. interesting Gus. i used to work in the finance side of the media industry (for too long, but that too did pass). in those meetings where the circulation manager, editor, FD, head of sales and other newspaper dept heads meet, the content of the newspaper is definitely discussed. more specifically, they discuss obtaining and featuring content that increases circulation and consequently (and hopefully) ad revenue. then the editor goes off and does his job: stick stories that will send the masses running to newspaper stands into the paper. “here, we sell advertising, not newspapers,” an FD of a paper once said to me.it’s not entirely the newspaper industry’s fault. i’m told weekly to stick gore, discomfiture, unobtainable desire, crucibles, sex…and whatnot into the fiction i write for my creative writing class. i’m told that nobody wants to read stories about perfect, well-adjusted people who live normal, happy lives.

  13. My 20c on Julius Malema is that the media should look at “selective focus”. Let’s go after the tenderpreneurship and how the lifestyle came about, and stop hanging on to every word the imbecile utters. I have stopped myself about 6 times from blogging about how this boy is a negative to Brand ANC and how they ignore his effect on the brand to the party’s detriment.They complain about losing the Western Cape and blame it on division in the leadership and Coloured people holding on to the “baas and klaas” mindset while the ANC losing that province is rooted in much deeper issues than Mcebisi Skwatsha and Ebrahim Rasool or Zille’s charisma amon Coloureds. I have a feeling this boy will lose them another province or large group support over the next year or two, and they will yet again blindly point fingers at Michael Jackson or some other entity that cannot defend itself.. when the dumb*ss is right under their noses causing it.

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