Newcastle: The Payne of bad journalism

In “Shutdown in Chinese Newcastle” (October 7), Teigue Payne has demonstrated again his spectacularly poor grasp of journalistic objectivity and his penchant for biased storytelling. This is the second time Payne has butchered the integrity of the Mail & Guardian and that of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu) with shoddy journalism.

In his most recent article Payne went to great lengths to sketch the views of Chinese employers embarking on their factory shutdown in Newcastle. The mad-dog spokesperson for those factories, Ahmed Paruk — who publicly and unashamedly lied on national radio last week, claiming that Newcastle companies do not in fact expect their workers to use fabric off-cuts for toilet paper — was also given room to air his views. Indeed, the untrustworthy Paruk’s comments and views dominated the article.

The union, however, was given one paragraph to present its opinion. Prior to this particular article, Sactwu received just one question from Payne: “As I am sure you know, approximately 30 [factories in Newcastle] have decided to close permanently — Do you have any comments on this decision of the approximately 30 to close?”

The union’s answer is presented in the article as it was given. But Payne’s eventual article actually raised many other matters on which we were not afforded an opportunity to comment. Thus Payne has facilitated the entry of uncontested lies, innuendos and half-truths into the public realm. How is this responsible, quality, objective journalism?

In an email to us Payne revealed his bias: “Generally, we have not heard from Cosatu any cogent plan for creating quality jobs in large numbers — without way-out restructuring of the SA economy — and in the absence of that, I think that Mr Liu and his colleagues have a lot to teach the unions, and not the other way around. But that is just my opinion.”

Payne has never asked us about the industrial-policy strategy we are defending. Neither has he ever engaged us meaningfully about our efforts to create jobs, save jobs, or improve the lives of clothing and textile workers in South Africa. Additionally, he has no idea of the totality of our position on Newcastle. On the matter of the union and its doings and intentions, Payne’s opinion has been sucked from the thumbs of other thumb-suckers. Surely, as a reporter, as someone of influence, Payne should adhere to a much more rigorous standard of research?

Payne may say his comments about union-driven economic plans are “just my opinion”, but his opinion is deeply misinformed and seriously biased. This would not matter much if he was not a journalist, but he is and his biases saturate the method, style and content of his journalism.

Even in areas where he tries to make a show of objectivity, the biases of Payne reign. Take for example his listing of the offences found by the department of labour, Sactwu and others to have been committed by Newcastle employers. We sent Payne our press release listing many of the offences and even offered to provide evidence. But he has polished the turd and hidden the ugly truth of worker abuse behind sanitised phrases and selective examples. And he has shown his support for the Newcastle companies by apparently explaining away the violations on the basis that those manufacturers are facing “extreme cost pressures”, to use Paruk’s words.

But cost pressures can never explain why a company steals from workers by deducting UIF monies it has no intention of paying over. Nevertheless, Payne uncritically allows Paruk’s excuse to justify the whole gamut of vulgar abuses faced by Newcastle workers.

Payne’s form of journalism is dangerous for many reasons, the least of which is that it degrades the level of public debate. Payne’s propaganda will be parroted by those who believe that if it was in the M&G it must be true. That is the power the media holds and Payne is the quintessential example of how it is abused.

Simon Eppel is a researcher at the South African Labour Research Institute, the research arm of Sactwu

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