Dali Mpofu. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Dali Mpofu. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

Dali Mpofu, the frontal lobe of the EFF, had had it with the press. Snatching up his revolutionary phone and firing up revolutionary Twitter, he emptied both revolutionary barrels at the offending writer on Sunday morning.

“Today Peter Bruce writes in a column as FACT that ‘One day the EFF will split into nationalist & Marxist-Leninist factions’. He doesn’t even pretend provide [sic] any basis that those ‘tendencies’ exist in the EFF! Are journalists ALLOWED to express their wishful thinking as FACT??”

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the irony of a politician complaining about someone using emotive language to blur the line between fact and fiction. Let’s also ignore the comedy inherent in somebody denying authoritarian tendencies by writing “ALLOWED” in capital letters, like an official stamp being banged down on an official form in a dingy commissar’s office in a distant corner of a dismal dictatorship.

Let’s ignore them because they distract from one simple fact. Mpofu is entirely correct. Journalists should never be allowed to express their opinions as fact.

Columnists, on the other hand, should be “ALLOWED” to try to hawk our opinions any which way we can, even insisting that they are facts if we’re feeling particularly full of ourselves that day. That’s because columnists are not journalists. Opinion columns are not news reports. Opinions are not facts.

Until recently, I thought that we were all clear about those differences. Because they’re pretty obvious, right? A news report strives to record, as accurately as possible, events as they occurred. A column, on the other hand, offers a subjective interpetration of those events, if it even refers to them at all. A news report claims objectivity. A column makes no such claim.

A few years ago, however, a strange thing started happening to me: people started phoning me with juicy journalistic tips. When I explained to them that I was a columnist, with no journalistic training whatsoever, and suggested that they take their story to an actual journalist, some of them seemed confused.

That confusion is now everywhere. Every week I read angry comments about “the state of journalism” in South Africa. Sometimes that anger is levelled at clear and obvious mistakes that have been made in reporting facts. But mostly what people are complaining about is an opinion piece they’ve disagreed with, or too much opinion and too little reporting.

Fortunately, in the case of Peter Bruce Versus Dali Mpofu’s Version of Reality, there are some fairly simple ways to tell the difference between a column and a news report.

For example, in his tweet, Mpofu referred to it as “a column”. So there’s that.

But there’s another, easier, way to decipher whether Bruce was reporting facts or offering an opinion.

For me, the secret lies in the statement: “One day the EFF will split.”

Now, this is all going to sound quite technical and scientific, but the thing is this: Peter Bruce can’t see into the future. I know his statement makes it sound as if he can, but he can’t. And because he can’t, “One day the EFF will split” is not a statement of fact. Instead, it is what scientists call “a prediction” or “speculation”.

Again, I repeat: Peter Bruce does not have the ability to bend space-time to such a degree that he can actually penetrate the future with his senses. When it seems that he can, perhaps because he has written about some event in the future, like the outcome of the 2019 elections, it is important to stay calm and remind yourself that he is writing an opinion column and not filing a news report from 2020. If you remember this, you will find it much less vexing to read his work in the future. (Note: that last sentence was a subjective prediction, not based on fact. I cannot see into the future either, and I have not been eavesdropping on you while you read a Peter Bruce column next year, I promise.)

I know that disclaimer sounds facetious, but I suspect it’s the next logical step if things keep sliding in this direction.

The advent of fake news has shown up our complacent assumptions about how people consume information, revealing the startling fact that hundreds of millions of humans who can read are, in fact, illiterate. Even painfully amateurish quasi-satire should now come with large warning labels screaming “THIS IS NOT TRUE!” (and even if it did, that guy would still post it to Facebook and defend it as journalism when challenged).

Indeed, if someone with the brain of Advocate Mpofu can mistake obvious opinion for objective fact, then perhaps it’s time to label all opinion pieces with a large heading reading “OPINION AND ANALYSIS” What? That already happens? Well, then perhaps a disclaimer between every paragraph.

To be fair, some media have brought this upon themselves. The balance between hard news and opinion, historically heavily skewed in favour of the former, has swung too far the other way. There is too much analysis of too few facts, and, unless good, clear journalism can be pushed back into the ascendency, the whole thing will degenerate into a dystopian nightmare where we get our news from celebrities and dismiss experts as dull and irrelevant. Oh wait ... oh bugger …

All of which brings me back to Mpofu’s tweet on Sunday, and one last piece of opinionating, if you can stand it.

In my opinion, Mpofu is a politician and on Sunday he was simply doing what politicians do. In my opinion, he was feigning ignorance about the difference between a report and a column, and knows perfectly well that no prediction ever claims to be a fact. In my opinion, this was simply sniping at a media that is becoming increasingly more critical of the EFF.

But the facts of the matter? Get an actual journalist to go ask him.

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