/ 7 June 2012

News anchors: When words that slip out are a slip up

The issue was a complex matter that brought many aspects of the South African psyche to the fore.
The issue was a complex matter that brought many aspects of the South African psyche to the fore.

In the fortnight of “The Spear” madness we have just emerged from, did anyone spare (or spear) a thought for the long-suffering news anchors who had the prickly task of telling and reading the story every evening, over and over again? Huh?
Well, allow us to indulge in this brief tirade of self-pity. The two weeks under the spell of “The Spear” have been bewildering.

The issue was a complex matter that brought many aspects of the South African psyche to the fore. It ventilated issues to do with race, identity, sex, culture, art and artistic expression, competing rights and our Constitution. It was a melting pot of South Africanness, with all the angst and drama that entails, given our repressive past.

Whereas we news people appreciated the importance of the story, being at the core of national dialogue, what it did mean in the end was that we were reading about a penis and genitals in every single news bulletin for two weeks, nonstop. Shucks!
Let me put that in context. Between 6pm and 9pm, we read seven bulletins, and between those we also recap the headlines of the top stories every 15 minutes.

“The Spear” saga was the lead story every day for the past two weeks, which meant that, between Jeremy Maggs and me, we had to utter the words … oh, say … argh, I don’t know but I’ll leave some maths boffin to figure out the exact numbers, but it was a lot.

All we know is that, by the time it was over, not only had we reached Spear fatigue in terms of thinking about and discussing it, we also could not get our tongues around the words any more.

Puns of a phallic nature
Worse still was trying to avoid all puns of a phallic nature in the story. That was hard.

Suddenly innocuous words such as “big”, “small” and “head” in any of the scripts relating to “The Spear” became pun landmines lurking beneath the surface of neatly crafted news copy, waiting to explode and trip us up.

Every word we uttered took on a suggestive tone. We tried conscientiously to avoid any innuendo, given the sensitivity of the story.

By week two, however, as the story tapered to its end, it was clear that fatigue was setting in, and with it came a momentary lapse in linguistic prudence. Both Maggs and I were caught blundering through some choice and, I assure you, unintended, penis puns.

Both faux pas came on the same day. While conducting an interview with the ANC’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, Maggs questioned him about the wisdom of galvanising masses of supporters for “one member”.

It was too late. The words had slipped out before the agreed-upon pun detector could catch them. Luckily, both men, it seemed, managed to remain composed.

Shore up support for Zuma
A few minutes later, it was my turn to blush. Business Day editor Peter Bruce had argued in two editorials that City Press was right to take down “The Spear” from its website. His argument was that the folly in allowing this pitched battle to continue would be to shore up support for Zuma leading up to the elective conference in Mangaung. This, Bruce said, was detrimental to the national interest, because another term with Zuma as president would be a disaster for the country.

I asked Bruce whether he thought Zuma would realistically be able to “ride this sentiment” until Mangaung. I realised the gaffe as soon as the words had escaped. Bruce, the stern-looking, seasoned newsman, cast his eyes down, in what I suspect must have been an attempt to avoid guffawing.

As soon as I had said it, some bright sparks were already posting comments on Facebook and Twitter. For the first time in what was a very difficult, tense and enormously contested space in the national dialogue, we were able to laugh out loud at ourselves and the nation.

Daily, we report graphic stories of blood, gore and mayhem. We hardly get squeamish because we accept that as an occupational hazard – we have grown accustomed to them. Funny then how the one story that made us squeamish involved an organ of state.