The Sad End of the Huffington Poe Controversy

Sometimes I hate being vindicated. I didn’t want this to happen, you know, and, as I am, at least in aspiration, a sentinel of expression freer than anyone at the Huffington Post is comfortable with, it’s time for me to make good on a pledge and stand up.

On this blog, from this keyboard, and this writer, earlier this month:

South Africa has hate speech laws, which are quoted in a slightly apologetic fashion in the article, and honestly I reckon they’ve been violated. Denying white men the franchise pretty obviously “refer[s] to people’s status in a prejudicial or pejorative context”, and I’d say it also amounts to “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”. But that’s just me. I don’t want Huffington Post South Africa to go to court for hate speech, I should make clear. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t believe hate speech exists, and I’ll rush to their defence if anything happens.

On 13 April, Huffington Post South Africa published a blog post entitled “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” It was blatantly racist, and very quickly went viral to be reported on by a number of quizzical media outlets as well as brought up by online personalities. I and others, however, questioned the existence of the writer, “Shelley Garland”. There was no evidence on the Internet that she existed, and her profile pic was very suspicious, like it was just one of a male which had been doctored.

I wrote my own blog post where I aired my scepticism. It’s come to be one of the more popular I’ve published, and had good feedback from the great Internet community. Eventually my first suspicions were confirmed, and the original article, along with its follow-up defence written by Chief Editor Verashni Pillay, was re-written so that the old web addresses led to an essentially new page, identical to a third written that day (archive — I don’t trust them). Basically, the site was displaying the same new post three times. I took archives of both on the suspicion this might happen, so you can still read them, fortunately.

I wrote an afterword, and concluded it with some further speculation, quoted above, except this time I really didn’t want it to come true. It has, obviously.

It only took them four days to publish another article on April 19: “Revealed: Here is Shelley Garland… And Why He Did It” (archive). Shelley Garland was identified by email tracing and facial recognition as thirty-seven-year-old English-speaking white man Marius Roodt, who worked at the Centre for Development and Enterprise, a Johannesburg think-tank. They tracked him down and confronted him, and published part of their interview in the article. That afternoon, he resigned (archive).

I can understand wanting to find the identity of the man who trolled Huffington Post, especially since he’d caused them to be put under investigation for hate crimes. But we should take a moment to think of the human cost of what was essentially an enlightening  joke: he’s lost his job. He apologised continuously throughout the interview, and repeated that his intention had been to expose “a lack of fact-checking in South African journalism”, explaining that he had used completely made up statistics. He hadn’t launched an attack deliberately on the Huffington Post; in fact he’d sent it to the Daily Maverick first, but heard nothing back. He reckoned that in hindsight he shouldn’t have done it.

I disagree. In my view any impact on the publication as a result of them clearing his article should not be construed as his fault. They decided it was OK to publish, they put the damn thing up on their site and they went and defended it. Pillay herself says that the analysis was “pretty standard for feminist theory” in her defence post, and that “there was nothing in the article that should have shocked or surprised anybody”. He Poed you into exposing how bad your fact-checking and vetting is, and more importantly some aspects of your beliefs. This is the equivalent of you coming up to me with a recording device and saying, “Man! newborns taste good”, for me to reply, “Yeah! I ate one this morning”, only to guilt you into apologising for getting me arrested when we meet in court. Pillay and her editorial team must take at least partial ownership of and responsibility for what was written, because their actions clearing and defending it absolutely counted as endorsement.

Of course, bearing in mind South Africa’s awful hate speech laws, perhaps there’s an argument to be made he should have weighed the impact of what he was about to start, but this is very different to saying what he did was in principle wrong. Personally, if I’d have known what the likely effect would be I wouldn’t have done. Something that is not morally wrong in principle can be so in practice, because ours is not a perfect world and, whether or not they should, some of the things we say and do have consequences. You don’t have to like it, but it’s delusional not to accept it. In any case, that he lost his job for sneaking a silly blog post past Pillay’s editorial team is monstrous and unnecessary. The statement the Centre for Development and Enterprise made is just silly:

The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has learnt today that one of its research staff wrote the article submitted to Huffington Post South Africa and printed by them under the pseudonym of Shelley Garland, entitled Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise.

The CDE had absolutely no knowledge of this article and had nothing to do with it.

This was done by an individual and not in our name.

This kind of activity contradicts everything we stand for, is completely contrary to CDE’s media policy and our ethos as an organisation.

We have spent the past 22 years committed to promoting facts in public discourse and will not be party to any undermining of the integrity of media institutions.

He has offered his resignation and we have accepted it with immediate effect.

“We have spent the last 22 years committed to promoting facts in public discourse and will not be party to any undermining of the integrity of media institutions”. To start with, idiots, you weren’t party to it, so why you took it upon yourselves to get involved is beyond me. But more interesting is the outright contradiction in the quoted sentence: Roodt literally showed that the media institution in question had no integrity and was not checking the facts it put out into the public discourse, so what exactly is your problem? Finally that you hate the idea of undermining the media just sounds pathetic and sheepish, and the trust you put in it is unbecoming of a respected think-tank.

I think everyone has taken this too seriously. I just thought it was funny, as I wrote in my first post, but apparently not everyone agrees, and they’re ballooning it out so that things are being made to happen that really shouldn’t. No one’s reaction in my view has been more out of proportion or damaging than that of the press ombudsman. Time to switch and defend the publication

On 22 April the ruling on whether Huffington Post had broken the law was released, and it was judged they had. Verashni Pillay resigned as chief editor soon afterwards, so her job has been lost as well. This is shameful; two people have been fired because of a joke blog post. How much harm would have come from doing nothing? None, is the answer.

The ruling itself was absolute dogshit, and easily vindicates my seething hatred of speech laws pretty much wherever they manifest.

He adds that the blog remains on the internet, even though Huffington Post took it down, and therefore it can still be accessed. The fact that electronic publications are in a real sense permanent, “places a very real burden and responsibility on editors, reporters and media houses alike to ensure that their work meets relevant constitutional, ethical and Press Code standards and can withstand objective scrutiny”.

This is part of the complaints made against Huffington Post, and my only response is, “What?” What kind of precedent does that set?

The Bill of Rights, which is quoted in the Preamble to the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct, makes provision for freedom of expression. That is a given.

The same Bill of Rights, though, also outlines borders to this freedom. As always, freedom cannot be unbridled and without limits, and should be exercised responsibly.

Indeed, that is what the Code of Ethics and Conduct is all about – to ensure that the freedom that this country has finally obtained, is protected by not abusing it. Each and every section of the Code has this aim as its main purpose.

What the Hell is an abuse of freedom? Stop weaselling out of admitting your “borders to freedom” are nothing except that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when you free people, they will use that freedom in ways you don’t like; this is a fact of liberty and it’s something in a liberal society you’ll just have to get comfortable with. Why can freedom not be exercised without limits? Do tell.

I don’t really have an issue with the findings of the report, since they line up with my instincts with regards to that mythical “Code”.

Pillay should not have been made to resign; Roodt should not have been made to resign; the Huffington Post should not have been charged with anything; there was no reason to do anything at all. Nobody would have been hurt if Roodt had just given his interview, told them the whole Internet knows how bad their fact-cheking is, Pillay choked down her embarrassment, and we all got on with out lives.

There has been a very sad and unnecessary end to the Huffington Poe controversy.

THE END

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