Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Are Peta Thornycroft’s Zimbabwe articles for the UK Daily Telegraph news or opinion?

Posted by CM on March 24, 2008

Peta Thornycroft, a political editorialist who somehow gets away with being considered a reporter, has written an article headlined, “Robert Mugabe turns the screw on Zimbabwe’s dwindling white farmers” for the UK Daily Telegraph.

Mr. Mugabe is a cold-hearted, violent despot who has shamefully brought Zimbabwe to ruin under the guise of a black empowerment that has gone horribly wrong. He is brilliant at turning people off and revels in his notoriety in the Western world. He is now stuck in the rut of justifying trying to stay on in power long after his usefulness expired by invoking racial bitterness at what he considers his spurning by a Britain whose approval he once so slavishly sought.

Mugabe’s Western notoriety is fed by the shrill racial emotionalism of people like Ms. Thornycroft and publications like the Daily Telegraph. The opposing shrillness of Mugabe and his supporters on one side and Thornycroft and papers such as The Telegraph on the other encapsulates the racial, political and historical bitterness of what Zimbabwe symbolically represents.

In her latest article, Thornycroft relates the experiences of white farmers battling government efforts to evict them from their farms. What struck me about the article is her almost palpable bitterness and outrage at what the subjects of her article are undergoing. And indeed, countless numbers of Zimbabweans have suffered all manner of hardships and indignities in the county’s extremely violent history, of which the last few years at the hands of its latest government is just the most recent episode.

Thornycroft’s writing is heart-felt and gripping to read, but it is not reporting. It belongs in the editorial/opinion section of The Telegraph, not its news pages. The outraged emotionalism of her main theme, the treatment of white farmers at the hands of Mugabe, has become as raw and knee-jerk as Mugabe’s uncontrolled, apoplectic rage at the mere mention of the word “Britain.”

Writing about a white farmer on trial for resisting eviction from his dairy farm outside Harare, she mentions that “the property has been targeted by Elias Musakwe, an executive of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.” She then goes on to mix giving us information and opinion with sentences like, “He has planted maize, which will never germinate (my italics), on the cattle pasture, and is intimidating the family by parking a tractor against the Therons’ daughter’s bedroom window.”

While Thornycroft does not help her non-agricultural readers by explaining why the maize “will never germinate,” there are indeed several reasons why this could be the case. But without stating what they are in this particular situation, the insertion of that phrase here not only is her opinion in what is ostensibly a news story, my suspicious mind detects a sneer behind it.

How is that important? As a way of bolstering my refrain about the subjectivity and emotionalism of a large section of the British media in writing about Zimbabwe.

Ms. Thornycroft, who has publicly talked about how she gave up her British citizenship in order to be able to retain her Zimbabwean one, is not only getting more emotional in her reporting, she is also getting sloppy. The man whose name she gives as “Musakwe” is not only an RBZ executive, he is also a public figure, well known as a music producer in Zimbabwe. Ms. Thornycroft has lived in Zimbabwe for many years and it is presumably the expectation of The Telegraph that she corresponds for about Zimbabwe that she will be knowledgeable, thorough and authoritative on her subject. Given all this, to me it is an example of the kind of blind, emotional sloppiness to which she has descended that she could not spell this well known man’s name correctly as “Musakwa.”

She mentions another besieged white farmer, Doug Taylor-Freeme, who “has a gang of men allied to the ruling Zanu-PF party camped outside his kitchen door, ordered there by Chief Wilson Memakonde, a Zanu-PF senator who has already taken possession of five white-owned farms.”

The chief has recently gained infamy as a “multiple farm owner” in mockery of the Mugabe regime’s stated one-person one-farm policy. Apart from his notoriety in this regard, he would obviously also be well-known as a politician and a traditional leader, being a senator as well as a chief. It is therefore astonishing to me that Thornycroft, with her long experience and deep, quite obvious emotional ties to  Zimbabwe would mis-spell a Shona name as well known as Nemakonde.

The Telegraph and British readers for whom Thornycroft writes are too far from ground zero to catch these errors that would be inexcusable in a cub reporter’s story, let alone a famous “foreign correspondent” such as Madame Thornycroft. I can also understand how even when pointed out, those readers would consider these errors as really minor issues that in no way change the import of Thornycroft’s main point: how Mugabe is persecuting the white farmers.

Besides, surely everyone understands that those awkward African names are so difficult to remember and spell! How big of an issue can it be that Thornycroft can’t tell the difference between Musakwe and Musakwa, or between Memakonde and Nemakonde?

“Geez, you Africans are so sensitive, such a chip on your shoulders!”

Perhaps, but imagine the derision an African reporter who has lived in Britain for decades would get for not being able to know what a faux pas it was to not understand the weight of an error like spelling the name “Brown” as “Crown.” The error is far more significant than the misplacement of one letter.

My point is not to dispute the substance of Thornycroft’s article. I am in no position to know the veracity of her accounts, but it is not in doubt that white farmers have had a torrid time at the hands of the Mugabe government in recent years.

I am using this example of Thornycroft’s writing to re-iterate my point about how professionalism, accuracy and objectivity about Zimbabwe have largely gone out the door in much of British media reporting.

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