In the middle of Cape Town’s Waterfront there stands a large yellow frame. Viewed from directly in front, it encapsulates a famous scene: the city, loomed over by a perfectly flat Table Mountain.
To be photographed inside the frame is to capture the quintessential Cape Town image. There’s even a white X painted on the ground nearby to show photographers where to stand. Because of course you have to line it up perfectly: to shift the view by a few degrees – to put the frame around not-quite-Table-Mountain – would somehow feel like a less true image of the Cape Town experience.
It seems like a gimmick but its popularity with visitors is proof of the power we give to frames. When something – an image, an idea, a news report – is inside an official-feeling framework, it feels more authoritative than something outside the frame.
It’s a deep-rooted prejudice that despots have exploited, airbrushing rivals out of photographs to obliterate them from history, so it’s no wonder that we’re so concerned with making the frame bigger. We realise that too many people and histories have been excluded from too many frames, and it feels progressive to give them their own. But perhaps caution is advised; because just as we have a tendency to disregard anything outside the frame, we might also have a tendency to believe anything inside it.
When I was editing the satire website Hayibo.com, I learned that one particular frame, the news story, wields astonishing power: present us with a headline, some apparently factual statements and a quote, and we seem unable to resist. Hayibo’s stories were never intended to trick people. They were often ludicrous, laced with silly names and outlandish scenarios, and yet far too many people who should have known better took our stories as gospel.
For example, our “report” during the London riots that the African Union would be sending troops and food packages to Britain popped up on UK financial blogs, with a few commodities traders wondering whether a sudden glut of African crops would affect UK indexes.
Worse, when we “revealed” in 2010 that the controversial painting ‘The Spear’ had been bought by German art collector Gunther Knutsach (because, in his own words, “I just like big black penises”), a local journalist – someone trained to tell fact from falsehood – e-mailed me asking for Mr Knutsach’s details. Nut-sack? Geddit? No?
We are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame
Most worrying of all, though, was what happened after we wrote a story about Somali pirates. The piece was pure silliness, explaining how most Somali pirates started their careers by downloading music illegally to make mix-tapes for their girlfriends. If that wasn’t obvious enough, we quoted a buccaneer called Pugwash. But some time later The Times revealed that the story had been cited as fact in an official report by an attorney who specialised in intellectual property and anti-counterfeiting.
If highly trained lawyers don’t hear alarm bells when reading quotes about mix-tapes by a Somali pirate called Pugwash, then we are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and I suspect that our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame.
I’ve heard a few media gurus claim that more access to more media content has resulted in a general rise in media literacy and critical thinking. I’m not convinced: I suspect that there’s just more content for people to digest uncritically. I think we’re still as vulnerable to the quasi-authority of the Frame as we ever were. Which is odd, because even when it is being positioned in front of reality by responsible editors, it still shows us a bizarrely warped image.
I suspect that if you read every respected South African news source for a month, a picture would emerge of a country populated entirely by politicians, sports stars, Eskom spokespeople, victims of crime, protesters, about 20 people of dubious creative ability whom the media doggedly insists are celebrities, and two economists.
You would discover a country whose citizens are more agitated by the English Premier League than by the rape pandemic, and where load-shedding causes more outrage than 40 murders a day. In this South Africa, corruption happens in government about once a week and in the corporate world about twice a year. Poverty is getting worse, except when it’s getting better and staying the same. And climate change doesn’t exist at all, unless your favourite weekly has a syndication deal with The Guardian, in which case it does exist and we’re all going to drown, especially Jeremy Clarkson.
The media are essential. It was journalists who told us about Nkandla and who demanded that parliament turn off the signal jammer. Countries where the media are heavily restricted are invariably among the most corrupt. But responsible journalism also needs responsible readers, who are conscious that everything is a picture inside a frame, and who will ask, now and then, to be shown what lies just beyond the edges of the picture.
First published in The Times and TimesLive