The little flurry of invective and comments around David Bullard’s entry into/onto the internets is going to be nothing compared to what Patricia de Lille has provoked regarding the alleged slander of Simon Grindrod, member of Helen Zille’s Cape Town City Council. De Lille has issued a call for electronic media like Mxit and blogs to be regulated. Her reasons, as quoted by IOL, include the fact that blogging is open to “abuse”. It “allows anonymous individuals to post defamatory comments about anyone they choose, without the legal consequences they would face in other more reputable print and electronic media.” (IOL, 21 May 2007)
While De Lille has been over-eager in her approach to this ‘problem’, she may have a point. Blogging does allow an almost total freedom in expression, and many bloggers may not have sufficient judgement in what or how they disclose information. A blogger might feel that a blog provides enough anonymity by which to divulge information about anybody, without thinking about the consequences of divulging false information. In this way, false and slanderous information may come under public scrutiny and could lead – especially in politics – to public images being damaged. The best politicians can then hope for is that the consequent crisis management saves some of their public image. But so often, political careers are sunk because of public scandal.
Because of her shaky knowledge of blogging, De Lille has in fact brought more publicity to what sounds now like a potential scandal. The tone of her initial call for regulation – which SA bloggers have already dismissed as a call for censorship, but which she has now half-retracted – borders on the hysterical and does provide an index of the sensitive nature of information regarding Councillor Grindrod. Given this tone, her call for regulation – because the putative anonymity of bloggers apparently protect them from “legal consequences they would face in other more reputable print and electronic media” – provides an ironic counterpoint to De Lille herself divulging the names of three HIV+ persons in her biography, Patricia de Lille. Despite it being a book – with the kinds of checks and balances that book-publishing provides: the scrutiny by several people over a long period of time – De Lille is alleged to have disregarded the three persons’ right to privacy (Aids Law Project SA). While she may not falsely have slandered the three people, she, her biographer and her publisher showed little regard for the privacy of the named persons, given the way in which information about HIV status is treated in public.
One can reconstruct the sequence of events imaginatively: Grindrod or an assistant, perhaps in the normal process of checking up on his public image, googles his name and comes across a blog entry that contains, falsely or not, rather sensitive and possibly damaging information. Given the damage it might cause to the Independent Democrats, Grindrod reports it to the party leader. She, De Lille, then acts injudiciously. Instead of following a straightforward procedure only – Grindrod reporting a case of crimen injuria to the police, which he has done – De Lille comes out in public against blogging, perhaps thinking that a pre-emptive strike would be better PR: frame blogging as an essentially anarchic activity in need of regulation, and throw Mxit into the mix so as to take the focus away from the blog allegedly slandering Grindrod.
And this is where the novices fall short. The blogging fraternity is notorious for, among many others things, over-sensitivity and publicizing an event blitsvinnig. Add to this the linkbaiting that De Lille has provided by attacking blogging in general, and word will spread faster than you can say ‘Amatomu’.
The alleged slanderous information has already been linked, and it is out there. Googlers and geeks have happened onto it and are publishing and commenting on it. Given South Africans’ deeply conservative mores, this is potentially damaging to Grindrod and the ID, and is going to be bigger than Bullardgate. Instead of letting the law run its admittedly slow and ponderous, but hopefully quiet, course (assuming the information is false), De Lille has instead galvanized bloggers into finding the information and potentially (if the information is true) causing South Africa’s first web-enhanced political scandal. This then certainly will raise the profile of the lonely blogger.
MXit responds, courtesy of thenewmedia.com