If you want to get people thinking and debating, you have to surprise and discomfit them, you have to prod and provoke, writes Anton Harber
VUYO Mbuli’s untimely death and the outpouring of appreciation for his brand of TV presentation got me thinking about different approaches to journalism.
Mbuli was cited this week for his professionalism and his tact and skill in making everyone feel at ease on TV while he questioned them. His private life might have been torrid, but he was a steady and charming presence in millions of homes every morning for a dozen years. He was praised as a patriot and nation builder.
His programme, Morning Live, was the outlet for anything SABC news didn’t know what to do with, couldn’t fit into a regular news slot or sell to a sponsor — from obligatory coverage of ministerial conferences to eccentric cultural events and product promotion, a real morning hotchpotch. And he dealt with it all with a cool consistency.
He was the gentleman questioner, the presenter who never offended anybody. This enabled him to survive many different regimes at the volatile SABC and to be a rare beacon of consistency.
Just a few months ago, the SABC gave fulsome public tribute to another such stalwart, who was retiring after 47 years, Riaan Cruywagen. This ability to be so widely liked, to make yourself a part of everyday South African life, is no small achievement, particularly in a vuvuzela country such as ours.
Mbuli’s role was to draw his interviewees out to say what they needed to say. It was their agenda and personality that came to the fore, not his. It stands in stark contrast to those interviewers who dominate the platform with hard, probing questioning, such as on BBC’s Hard Talk, or Debora Patta’s Third Degree. Theirs is the kind of journalism where you have to be prepared to be disliked. You have to know that politicians may pay their respects when you retire or die, but they will probably be pleased to see you go. You have to have a thick skin. This is accountability journalism, intended to make officials explain themselves in public. It can be intrusive and irritating and is likely to offend someone. If you take it too far, you start to be hectoring.
I recall one editor who I always thought was too nice to be an editor, too keen to be liked by those in power. Editing, I have said before, is about a careful and strategic choice of enemies. Who are we going to praise and who are we going to gun for this week? Steady, even-handed journalism (of the New York Times style) is weighty but sometimes dull, especially compared with a more argumentative and opinionated approach (like The Economist). The latter approach can be more thought-provoking, and also more honest, as you know where they stand and what they believe.
If you are dealing with HIV/AIDS denialists, or child abuse, or poverty, or other tough and emotive issues, then the “on the one hand and on the other hand” approach may feel feckless.
If you want to get people thinking and debating, you have to surprise and discomfit them, you have to prod and provoke.
You can still be fair and open-minded about counter-arguments. But the worst sin of all in journalism — particularly in an era when there is so much competition for our time and attention — is to be grey and boring.
Perhaps, you could argue, Mbuli’s languid style was right for morning TV, with its soft edges; tougher, lean-forward questioning is for prime-time current affairs. Perhaps he was a presenter rather than a journalist, though the distinction is disappearing. The best interviewers, though, are those who can use both modes: they can be laid-back at times, but get sharper when someone is being dodgy with them and needs to be pinned to the wall. Again, it is about a careful choice of appropriate target — and the style and tone that goes with that. Radio interviewer John Perlman comes to mind.
But the crucial point is that there comes a time when an interviewer has to take off the gloves, to pester and provoke the politician. That’s how one gets the nation thinking and talking.
*This column first appeared in Business Day, 30 May 2013