Clutching At Straws

walking the road least travelled

You don’t dive into the ocean if you cannot swim; trust me I know this for a fact. And unless you are on a death wish, you don’t dive into sharks-infested waters .

In Brief

  • “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.” Anne Lamott

“I made him swear he’d always tell me nothing but the truth. I promised him I never would resent it. No matter how unbearable, how harsh, how cruel. How come he thought I meant it?” Why would I start this review by quoting a poem from Judity Viorst’s play, Love and Shrimp? because our actions have consequences.

As long as I remain the editor of uSpiked, I shall try my utmost to ensure that issues are covered equitably without fear. It is true, actions have consequences and this applies to uSpiked and its entire small team. We don’t go out looking for issues that would offend other members of society. We journalists, are first and foremost members of the same society whose voices we try to amplify. We deserve to be protected. But we should not be protected from our own failures or shortcomings.

When an editorial decision was made to push forward the publication of the first instalment of a piece questioning the possible underlying motivation of Bill Gates and his philanthropic arm, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust, I must state that it wasn’t a simple call to make. Part of me wished I wasn’t charged with making the final decision.

Was the decision premature? Maybe. But it is one that I would make again without hesitation. I believed, and my team agreed, that it was in the greater public’s interest. In our line of work, when an issue seems too coincidental, we must try to prove that it is indeed just so - coincidental. We don’t always succeed in doing so, but it certainly does not mean that we should drop the matter. The Africa Check piece that became the motivation for the forward push, was one such too coincidental issue. I shall explain why.

In September 2016, the President of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) wrote an official petition to the South African Human Rights Commission to investigate and report on the “observance of human rights in terms of genetically modified food ingestion and the associated environmental and human health risks involved in the production thereof.” In the same month, the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) similarly appealed to the SAHRC and added their endorsement and support to the initiative. These joint submissions were made public by the IFP on November 17, 2016.

What wasn’t made public was the fact that in December 2015, the Office of the Public Protector had received a similar petition, which was evaluated and for unknown reasons, the then Public Protector opted against launching an investigation.

We may never know when exactly Africa Check decided to check the validity of the claims contained in the IFP’s initiative. What we do know is that the information had been in the public domain since mid-November 2016. Investigations take time and money, which is an indisputable fact. On February 27, 2016, Africa Check published their report stating that the IFP’s claim was ‘unproven’ that read short of declaring IFP’s September claim as unfounded.

The report zeroed-in on two contradicting conclusions, the first being a 2015 declaration by the WHO’s International Agency for Cancer Research and the 2016 report by Food and Agriculture Organisation. The IFP’s petition had multiple references that Africa Check decided not to dwell on. Without faulting the researcher whose name was appended on the report, was it a mere coincidence that the report was being published just days before the South African Human Rights Commission-requested consultative meeting with the IFP to discuss the petition? It could have been... But!

There is a much bigger BUT to this probable coincidence. To help us understand this, let’s have a look at records which have since been unsealed by an American court that is currently hearing matters pertaining to Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate). One damning matter is a system that has been perfected over the years by big corporations. Drafting their own internal reports then shopping around for ‘experts’ ready to sign their names to them at a fee. It’s called ghostwriting for a substantial fee. We had touched on this in our review of the film, Big Boys Gone Bananas where Dole Foods Inc. had used similar tactics.

Ghost Experts on auction. Going, going GONE!

In an email dated February 19, 2015, a Monsanto senior executive, William ‘Bill’ F Heydens, wrote to Dr. Donna R Farmer: “… If we went full-bore, involving experts from all the major areas (Epi, Tox, Genetox, MOA, Exposure – not sure who we’d get), we could be pushing $250K or maybe even more. A less expensive and possible MOA (depending on what comes out of the IARC meeting), and we ghost-write the Exposure Tox & Genetox sections. And option would be to add Greim [Prof Helmut Greim], and Kier or Kirkland to have their names on the publication, but we would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak. Recall that is how we handled Williams Kroes & Munro, 2000.”

There are two issues that are of some interest here. First being the date of Heydens’ email – February 19, 2015. This was nearly a month to the day before IARC’s classification of glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A). On this, I would ask; ‘did Monsanto have insider information on what the IARC’s decision was going to be for them to line-up these ‘experts for hire’? Secondly, the last sentence of that paragraph reveals that Monsanto had used similar tactics in the past – how we handled William Kroes & Munro, 2000.’

The coincidental date of Africa Check’s report is disturbing and should have been equally disturbing to anybody who read the piece had it included full upfront disclosures. The scheduling of the consultative meeting between SAHRC and the IFP was only communicated to the IFP’s leadership, but a few days before the meeting, the team at uSpiked learnt of how some parliamentarians from various political parties were not just aware of the coming meeting, but were discussing it in the corridors. Hence the wonder, how many other ‘special interest groups’ (lobbyists) were equally aware of the meeting and could have pushed for a production of a narrative that would slow or disrupt the SAHRC’s investigations?

Africa Check has unmatchable credentials and is, I must admit, a necessity in the present environment of misinformation and propaganda, where it has become so easy to publish whatever narratives we choose. What I don’t agree with is the surge to outsource a key journalistic duty and responsibility.

Journalists are meant to check and counter-check whatever information they come across for factualness and accuracy before disseminations. Let members of the public who find reports to be too gross to be believable, seek confirmation from fact-checking organisations to assess and evaluate our reports. And no journalist should be afraid to have his or her work subjected to such an audit. If we, as journalists, readily surrender our core responsibility of verifying information to external entities, then we could as well be approaching the South African Police Service to investigate and write our crime stories, or better still having the politicians write our political stories. If we cannot do the heavy lifting by ourselves, then we should not claim to be scribes.

After we published our piece that queried the Africa Check’s finding, multiple things happened. First was an email we received from Africa Check’s editor, Anim van Wyk. The email we received was actually a forwarded one she had sent to our internal ombudsman. The email read simply as: “Hi, I would like to write a (brief) response to your article. Will it be possible to publish it below, please? Thanks.”

Right to reply requested and conditionally accepted.

This request was misdirected. As a journalist, Van Wyk should have known that you only approach an Ombudsman with a complaint/dispute pertaining to aspects of a report. No Ombudsman (public editor) would logically have any response to this single line email. She must have realized that hence her decision to forward the same email to our general line. But Van Wyk did not stop there. She went on twitter and announced: “@uSpiked we at @AfricaCheck would like to exercise right of reply. please answer email sent to info & ombudsman.”

To twitter users, it would have been assumed (wrongly) that Africa Check editor had multiple issues with our report. In order to clarify the possible misperception, I made a decision to make the screenshot of her email available to the same twitter users.

We also undertook to publish her responses, as long as they would have been based on facts.

Within reasonable time, one of our interns replied to her email request: “Dear Ms. Van Wyk, Thanks for your forwarded email. Please kindly note that uSpiked’s Ombudsman only handles specific complaints and does not make editorial decisions. Your email to our Ombudsman, which you have forwarded to us does not constitute a complaint and I therefore fail to understand what you would expect from the office.

“Be as it may, decision on what to publish, whereat and when is made by the Editor (cc here). Please kindly contact him directly at edi***”

That response didn’t come, instead Van Wyk had some fresh issues to complain of. Six hours after receiving the email from our intern, she sent an email, again to our Ombudsman (copied to our content editor) asking that her cellphone number be removed from the screenshot published on my own twitter account.

The desperation to find fault with uSpiked and my team was evident. As much as uSpiked’s Ombudsman may have a say with regard to the professional conduct of uSpiked’s staff, that office has no say in what is published elsewhere, other than within our website. Besides, there was nothing unprofessional in publishing the email including the signature as provided by the writer of the said email.

Withdrawal to fight another day.

In justification for this decision, the said email bore no disclaimer nor request that parts of information contained therein to be kept away from the public. Van Wyk further knew that she was communicating with a media entity and should have been explicit in her request for keeping the communication or part thereof confidential.

What response should I have given to this demand? None. It happens so often when one lacks means to sustain an argument, like a drowning person, who clutches onto anything and everything that floats. Africa Check and its editorial team should have taken all the sideshows off the table and reassessed their own report that we had queried. And as long as the erroneous ‘UNPROVEN’ seal remains attached to that report, we shall continue to advocate for some sanity and clear mindset to prevail. I am not perfect and I do make mistakes. The so-called broadcasting of a cellphone number should not have been the preoccupying issue.

Sensing that there were no pokable holes in our published report, Van Wyk or someone within Africa Check, decided to clutch onto a piece of flotsam and opened a case with Twitter Inc. claiming abuse. This lead to the suspension of my Twitter Account ‘for violation of its terms…” After consulting with our legal team, we had the option to contest the restriction/suspension or simply unplug the ‘offending screenshot’.

It was somewhat an uneasy decision for me to make, but to avoid the distraction that the screenshot was causing to the core issues that we had raised, a decision was made to remove the Tweet and instead replace it with one that bore no cellphone number.

Among the concerns that we had raised included the failure by Africa Check to provide its audience with an upfront disclosure of any conflicting interests that there could have been. In this case, the most fundamental one is the clear conflict of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust’s on matters to do with Genetically Modified Foods and related products (Monsanto’s Glyphosate containing Roundup), while seemingly campaigning for ‘food security’, which according to various public speeches by Mr. Gates & Co, can only be achieved if the world embraces GMO.

After our piece was published, Africa Check added a disclosure at the bottom of the page. “This piece was produced under a grant for global health and development fact-checks from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Donors have no influence on the conclusions we reach.” That, in my personal and professional opinion, is not enough. The disclosure should have gone further to state the relation between the Foundation Trust and Monsanto, the gene-splicing manufacturer of the product under review.

The incomplete disclosure that never was.

Further, it’s placement at the bottom of the report entirely denies the audience (readers) an upfront knowledge which would assist in deciding on the credibility of the report. It is an editor’s prerogative as to what to publish and whereat on the page to place it, and I would not be one to dictate to Africa Check where to place what. But in our line of work, perception matters a great deal.

As I have stated before, no being can claim to be super perfect, we all make mistakes and the biggest of us would readily admit to personal mistakes as that makes us stronger and  more credible. As bytes of evidence critical to glyphosate and related products are offloaded at such an increasing pace, I wonder how much more of those records/studies and legal documents it would take for Africa Check to own up to having made a mistake with this one. After all, the organisation appears to have been ‘spot-on’ in the past.

I personally feel that my team at uSpiked, despite not being super-perfect, did the best they could under the circumstances. And I shall continue to stand by our reported findings until we are evidentiary proven wrong.