Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

The bizarre case of Tsvangirai’s Australian ghost speechwriter

Posted by CM on July 10, 2008

by Chido Makunike

I had initially missed it, but I have since found out that the Guardian (UK) sought to explain how it came about that on June 25 it ran an article with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s byline, only to have the “author”  deny having written the article the next day, causing the paper to remove it from its website.

What caused a furore about the article was its call for UN peace keepers in Zimbabwe, which was interpreted by many as a call for military intervention.

Tsvangirai swiftly responded with a letter in which he said, “An article that appeared in my name published in the Guardian … did not reflect my position or opinions. I am not advocating military intervention in Zimbabwe by the UN or any other organisation.”

What was strange was that he did not out rightly contend that the article was a fabrication. He explained the mix up with a wishy washy, “Although the Guardian was given assurances from credible sources that I had approved the article this was not the case.”

Siobhain Butterworth, a Guardian editor, sought to explain what happened in an article on June 30. “The piece turned out to have been ghostwritten by a writer who works with the MDC” she tells us, also explaining that the practice is a lot more commonplace than readers may realise.

So far sort of okay. One can understand that busy politicians would have trusted writers who know their positions on important issues compose speeches and articles for them.

Apparently The Guardian used “an intermediary” to receive or commission the article. We are not told if the idea to feature the article was Tsvangirai/the MDC’s, The Guardian’s or the ghost writer’s.

Asks Hunter rhetorically, “Why did the Guardian use an intermediary?” The answer she got from her colleague Toby Manhire, the Guardian’s comment editor, shocked me.

“The MDC is a disparate and diffuse organisation,” Manhire says authoritatively, somewhat surprisingly speaking like a person intimately familiar with the inner workings of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. To Zimbabwean readers, if the name “Manhire” looks like  a name in Shona, I assure you in this case its owner isn’t, judging from his picture. So Mr. Manhire’s helpful insight about the sort of organization the MDC is is not because he is a homeboy.

I have previously expressed surprise at how the Guardian acts like the MDC’s publicity department. Sure the MDC is completely crowded out of the official media space in Zimbabwe and I can understand how it would gravitate towards any sympathetic media, especially if it is as prominent as the Guardian. But I would not have thought it was the business of distant newspapers to show such open partiality for a political party in a foreign land as the Guardian does for the MDC.

Ah  well, but let me not let suspicion and paranoia carry me away. Perhaps it is just part of Mr. Manhire’s job to know a lot about the world’s opposition parties!

Trying to explain why it did not get/seek comment straight from the source, Hunter explains how, “The MDC was also in the middle of a political crisis. Tsvangirai had taken refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare after pulling out of the presidential election amid concerns that MDC supporters would suffer intimidation and violence.”

So, “The comment desk turned to James Rose, an Australian with a background in journalism and a trusted source for pieces from Tsvangirai as he’d supplied a comment piece from the MDC leader in April. Rose wasn’t paid either time, ” Hunter says Manhire told her.

This is the first hint that the comment piece with Tsvangirai’s name on it was not volunteered by the “author” or his party, but was solicited by the Guardian, no doubt trying to do its heroic bit for the downtrodden Zimbabweans. Very noble I’m sure, but I am still very suspicious of the level of pro-activeness by the paper: soliciting the commentary, doing so through a distant non-Zimbabwean “intermediary,” and Manhire’s bending over backwards to give very weak excuses for why he couldn’t have gotten the comment from some other MDC official if Tsvangirai was unreachable during his period of “exile” in the Dutch embassy (during which time he gave some international interviews, I think including with the Guardian’s own “Chris McGreal in Harare.”)

And what on earth does it mean that Australian James Rose had “supplied a comment piece from the MDC leader in April?” I do not at all find it re-assuring to learn that perhaps a lot of the material that comes to light as the thoughts of the man who wants to be the next president of Zimbabwe might actually be the thoughts of an Australian! I have nothing against Australians, but I think my trouble with this as a Zimbabwean should be so obvious it doesn’t need much elaboration.

Apart from just how much his own man Mr. Tsvangirai is, I find it incredible that a man who has to a large extent been successfully tarred with the brush of “puppet of the imperialist West” by Mugabe should be so consistently careless in having that charge stick to him by persistent bungling in managing how he comes across to the world. There might well be several ways in which perhaps he could make convincing arguments for having an Australian write his articles for him, but it is putting things mildly to say that in the context of how Mugabe has framed what The Zimbabwe Crisis is about, this does not at all help how Tsvangirai comes across.

Hunter goes on to further amaze me by relating how Rose has “has worked with the MDC on four or five pieces, published under Tsvangirai’s name, which have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Melbourne Age among other newspapers – one that appeared in the Age, last month, also called for a UN peacekeeping operation in Zimbabwe.”

“In this case, when Rose got the go-ahead for Tsvangirai’s Guardian piece from his contact (second hint that the article was initiated by the Guardian)– an MDC spokesperson who works closely with Tsvangirai – he drafted the article without input from anyone else based on what he already knew. This was unusual but he assumed that because the MDC was in crisis it couldn’t do more. He read the finished piece over the phone to his contact, who approved it for publication.

If all this is true, the idea that this casual, third-party way is how the MDC communicates important messages to the world is incredible! A foreigner can write and have published articles on Zimbabwean policy issues on behalf of the country’s main opposition party “without input from anyone else?” Is this a political party ready to assume office or a bunch of jokers we are dealing with here?

Hunter claims Rose said it was “unusual” to not get input from MDC officials for such an article and that in this case it happened because he “assumed” the MDC “couldn’t do more” because it was in crisis! My ass! How is it that an Australian is allowed to be in such a position of influence and closeness to the center of Zimbabwe’s opposition hiearchy as to be able to make such “assumptions” on such a potentially important issue. An article with Tsvangirai’s name on it is the official position of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party to the world! How can such a crucial function be left in the hands of an Australian freelancer?!

It is not just outrageous that it had such potentially disastrous consequences for Tsvangirai this time, it is also incredible that even the distant Guardian took this arrangement as “normal” based on past practice.

Manhire wrote his own cryptic account of why the supposed Tsvangirai article was taken down from the Guardian’s site. There is nothing in it that Hunter does not go over in her fuller article. But in the comments section, a reader made some good point in response to Manhire.

Aram Harrow writes, “This retraction doesn’t provide enough information.

If you don’t want to print the name of the consultant who provided the article (Manhire does not mention Rose by name at all, unlike Rose in her article), at least you could tell us where he got the article from and what led him to believe it was genuine. You should also explain what provisions you have in place to stop this from happening again.

The original article was extremely provocative and you published it at a time of international crisis. Your readers deserve a far better explanation than you have so far given.”

Essentially, what we have here is the bizarre situation of an English paper getting in touch with its Australian contact to write a position paper for Zimbabwe’s MDC party and then simply call up the purported “MDC spokesperson who works closely with Tsvangirai” to have him or her to put a verbal “X” on the document on the article. Amazing and incredible, unforgivable in all the wrong ways!

And since we are told that Rose wrote the article on his own “based on what he knew” about the MDC’s positions (which is contradicted by Tsvangirai’s repudiation of the call for peacekeepers in Rose’s article) I wonder if Rose called anybody at all for final approval after writing it. Based on everything else Hunter telIs us in her article, I’m not sure I believe that there was any final checking of the acceptability of the article by Rose with the claimed close Tsvangirai aide.

What also comes out from Hunter’s account is the casual disrespect the Guardian exhibits for Tsvangirai and the MDC. Manhire’s characterization of the party suggests a close familiarity with it, but the way the paper skipped over its leader and other top officials to contact a foreign freelancer in its bid for an article from the MDC suggests a real contempt resulting from that familiarity.

And if there was a final validation call about the article, how could the “MDC spokesperson who works closely with Tsvangirai” have approved the bit about the peace keepers if it was not MDC policy? Did the “spokesperson” not hear that part during the phone call? Did s/he not know it would be controversial? Why not? Did s/he agree with the idea of peace keepers, only for the party to then back down when they realised what a significant new policy direction it implied in the ensuing public furore?

Tsvangirai and the MDC have made brave contributions to giving the marauding Mugabe a tough time over the last few years,making an important contribution to eventual change in Zimbabwe. They have bravely borne brutality and all kinds of skullduggery from the Mugabe regime. They probably have been robbed of clean electoral victory at least twice. They are clearly the mistreated underdogs in the unfolding Zimbabwean drama and have generally received my sympathy, if not my full support because of how thy have simply failed to inspire me on many counts.

But I am increasingly alarmed at the prospect of an MDC government led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Incidences like the screw up of this article and what has been revealed about the careless, casual way the MDC does important business and fails to keep tight control over its image are to me worrying signs of how they are not our way out of our present political wilderness.

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