The U.S. Department of State building is seen in Washington, DC, United States on December 18, 2019. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Drunk on Power: The Neo-Liberal Capture of the South African Mediascape by the US State Department

The South African mediascape has been captured by a coalition of right-wing and neo-liberal forces, with key online publications like News24, amaBhungane and Daily Maverick all firmly under neo-liberal control.

An old fish swims by a young fish, and in passing, comments, "Good morning youngster. How's the water today?"

"Water?" replies the young fish. "What's that?"

And so it is with the creeping neo-liberal hegemony that is the water in which the South African media swims. It demands that we take for granted the pro-Western neo-liberal worldview that is planted in established and trusted media sources. It makes it seem inherently unassailable and self-evidently virtuous. It eliminates the subtlety and nuance of debate, and clothes the bad guys in black hats, while the good guys wear pin-striped star-spangled track pants. And it swiftly smears and maligns those who dissent from this imposed and manufactured orthodoxy.

These editors and publications who hide their funding, hide their operations, and hide their agenda must come clean.

The South African mediascape has been captured by a coalition of right-wing and neo-liberal forces, with key online publications like News24, amaBhungane and Daily Maverick all firmly under neo-liberal control. A number of publications have a stream of cash from a web of funds that are so wedded, directly or indirectly, to the US intelligence network that they have become an extension of the CIA. There are also all forms of influence such as off-the-record briefings and collaborations with USAID or National Endowment for Democracy funded projects that do not take the form of direct cash transfers. There are also the constant engagements with a network of US-funded NGOs and research centers.

This info-complex has been so legitimized by its minions to the extent that any attempt to bell the cat of foreign interference is instinctively dismissed as a conspiracy theory, disinformation by rogue state actors, and even as "talking points" from dictatorships in far-flung countries.

That's why it's hard to imagine that a large section of the South African media that have over the years accrued such institutional authority, is being led by the nose by the US state department.

At first blush, such an assertion sounds far-fetched. After all, it's only been the 'criminals, fraudsters, and bullshit artists' who seek refuge in saying that the game is rigged, the referee is biased, and the news is fake. But one only has to look at the published work of these titles to see their very clear biases.

On the rocks, off the record

One of the most startling bombshells to emerge from the recent closure of New Frame is the revelation by its editor, Richard Pithouse, that he was ambushed by former US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks, as well as three Consuls-General. If it was only he who was approached, we might regard this as innocent. But it is well known that the entire approach of the US diplomatic machinery based in South Africa is to recruit the media establishments into being stenographers of the US propaganda machine.

According to Pithouse:

"In almost four years of operation, one state and one state only sought to connect with New Frame. A few months after we launched, Donald Trump's ambassador (Lana Marks) arrived at our offices in a surprise unscheduled visit, accompanied by her three consul generals. I did not invite them in. But while standing at the entrance, she asked about the nature of our interest in international affairs and invited me to a monthly meeting for editors in Cape Town called 'On the rocks and off the record'. She stressed the first class transport and accommodation as well as the excellent food and alcohol, and told me that 'all the editors come' and how good it would be for my career. I declined the offer."

Now, this occurrence begs many questions:

  • Which current editors of publications have in the past or currently attend or deployed emissaries to be flown first class to Cape Town, perhaps to a luxurious five star hotel in somewhere like Bantry Bay?
  • What did former Ambassador Lana Marks mean by "all the editors come" and "it will be good for your career"? Is this a promise of position, privileged information from the State Department, access to funding, or any other opportunities?
  • Will Branko Brkic, the editor of Daily Maverick, Sam Sole of amaBhungane, Adriaan Basson of News24, and editors of other major South African publications and media confirm or deny to their boards, shareholders, and, most importantly, the public, and their readers, to being party to a covert project to influence the national narrative? It is now imperative that every editor make a clear public statement in this regard.
  • What is the position or policy of the South African National Editor's Forum (SANEF) on this kind of attempted interference by US intelligence and State Department officials? A clear statement is also required from the SANEF ethics committee.
  • Do these editors collectively avail themselves to the off-the-record soirees of any other nation state? The public deserves to know.

We also deserve to know who funds the Daily Maverick. It cannot be acceptable that such an influential publication refuses to disclose its funding.

The result

The desired end product of such undue influence is the publication of pre-packaged parcels of lies and disinformation in the Daily Maverick, amaBhungane, and other media. Opinion-making has been outsourced and exclusively licensed to a set of self-appointed opinion-makers who pre-chew the analysis for the chattering class. Daily Maverick's Opinionista section, in particular those who are "allowed" to write on foreign affairs, is limited to a few hawks, like Peter Fabricius, a veteran of 30 plus years of being ensconced in the machinery of the US State Department, and Greg Mills, who advises the most capricious of hawks in the military industrial complex. The publication's own content shows it to be an in-house project of the US state. One only has to contrast the number of articles that are written by journalists embedded in the US information complex and those that, say, are written in support of the struggle of the Palestinian people.

This gatekeeping manufactures a false neo-liberal consensus within the culture of these publications. Journalists in these publications and even potential contributors to these publications begin to see the path of least resistance to getting their work published, and this diminishes the voices of any dissenting views within these liberal newsrooms. Material that serves the pro-US propaganda line that is peddled in these "On the Rocks and Off the Record" is elevated. Material that does not is, in a very crude attempt at delegitimation, dismissed as "Putin talking points" or "rogue state propaganda", or even, farcically, a Chinese conspiracy manufactured by Indians and trade unionists.

This is a sinister scenario from a cohort of journalism that gets off on sorting fact from fiction by awarding factoids a rating on their own terms, a practice that is selectively applied when it comes to curating particular narratives. The journalistic outfits that are so embedded in the worldview of the US, either by some warped sense of mission, or ideology, or to access resources, or just a simple lack of courage to stand up to the Imperial Policeman.

Why would such an agenda exist?

Why does imperialism do this? Imperialism does not need a rhyme or a reason, it simply has interests. It exists as a system that constantly seeks to conquer new frontiers and consolidate its hold over others. For the US, this has been the primal urge since the forging of Manifest Destiny on the back of its racist imperial conquest of the first nations of the Americas. It has trod the path of conquest, interference, and co-option on its journey from being a miniscule hemispheric player in the 19th Century, to its current state of being a schizophrenic, hypocritical and unsteady manifestation of its two visages - the ineffectual neo-liberal and the conservative right wing MAGA clown. Manufacturing a 'reality' through controlling the narrative in the media is an essential weapon of imperialism.

For South Africa, the programme is simple. The manufacturing of this neo-liberal consensus is meant to pave the path for the electoral dismantling of the ANC-led alliance government. The myriad failures of the tri-partite alliance has not made things easier on itself. The multiple crises of energy generation, high unemployment, poverty, and structural inequality, and a worsening economy has seen dissatisfaction rise among all South Africans.

This has lubricated the long-held programme by Western powers to undermine the legitimacy of the ANC, as this would present an opportunity for regime change to a government or an alliance that would be partisan to Western interests, re-orienting the outlook of South Africa away from the common mutual interests of the Global South, and the pursuit of the National Democratic Revolution. On issues that the South African government has NOT been pro-West, pro-USA, and pro-NATO, there has been a programme to paint neutral institutions and outlooks as being anti-West, anti-USA, anti-NATO, and pro-China, pro-Russia etc. Principled non-alignment is cynically misrepresented as being pro-China and pro-Russia. This is the logic of George W. Bush: "You are either with us or against us".

The end result of this programme will be a body politic that will resemble and amplify all the weaknesses of unstable coalition governments at municipal level. Only this time, the stage for this instability will be national, regional, and continental. These neo-liberals who are in thrall of the US machinery are not evil people, but they do suffer from magical thinking. While they believe that they are continuing to strengthen democracy, they are in fact helping to usher in an accelerated period of the Balkanization of the Republic of South Africa. They want to replace the ANC, but, as is the habit of US-backed regime change operations, have spared no thought for the long-term consequences of such a coup.

These editors and publications who hide their funding, hide their operations, and hide their agenda must come clean. What happens at Ellerman House and other venues where they get drunk on the whiskey of their Imperial masters? What do they talk about? What is the programme, and why do they not disclose this to the public and their shareholders?

The reason for this is simple, and can be distilled down what the late great George Carlin said:

"It's a big club, and you ain't in it!"

Update: In response to this article, journalist Micah Reddy with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, mentioned above, took issue with a number of claims and suggestions made by the authors including the insinuation that amaBhungane receives support from USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy--"a demonstrable lie." Reddy also argued that his publication "stands by a policy of radical transparency--we must practice what we preach--and our website lists our funders and the amounts they provide. To maintain our editorial independence and ensure we are not overly dependent on any funder, we do not accept more than 20% of our income from any single funder." He further challenged anyone to "demonstrate any political bias or 'pro-West, pro-USA, pro-NATO' narrative in our coverage" and fiercely refuted the charge on the record, as the above article requested named outlets to do, that its coverage is shaped by foreign influence or as party to any covert effort. "Over more than a decade in existence, amaBhungane has written some of the most important exposes of corporate corruption in South Africa and provided critical investigative coverage of every major party across the political spectrum," Reddy stated. "We are fiercely non-partisan, and our work speaks for itself."

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