Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Famous Grouse: April 2

Latest column, in yesterday's Weekend Argus, as submitted, and before editing. -- AD

BACK to Mahogany Ridge where we briefly celebrated advocate Nehemiah Ballem’s intemperate outburst in which he swore at Western Cape High Court judge Lee Bozalek in much the same way a stevedore would upon having a large weight dropped on his toe.

Ballem, for those of you were visiting another planet this week and have only just returned, had reportedly grown a little tired of the judge’s questions about his tardiness and had snapped back, “Jou ma se p***, man, f*** you!” before storming out the court.

Now, it’s not as if that sort of language has never been heard at 35 Keerom Street before. Years ago, when I was a court reporter, it was quite customary for witnesses in the more lurid criminal trials to say such things about those in the dock, and vice versa.

However I cannot ever recall an officer of the court addressing a judge in such a manner. 

But these are modern times, and Ballem’s crude remarks were seen at the Ridge as a welcome departure from the rigid decorum of the courts -- a throwback to the colonial era if ever there was one, what with all the robes and stuff -- and a bold foray towards an open and more “democratised” jurisprudence, one in which all that stuffy, deferential bowing and scraping was done away with and the interests of justice could now be served in the language of the humble man in the street.

In this respect, it has been pointed out that Ballem certainly has the common touch. Rushing to his defence, senior High Court judge Seraj Desai said of the advocate: “Mr Ballem comes from a particularly humble background. I do not believe he would deliberately place his hard-earned place in the profession on the line.”

Maybe not. But here at the Ridge, the advocate soon lost our respect when he claimed that he was drunk at the time of the outburst.

Actually, we have nothing against being drunk per se. Some of the country’s best judges have been known to take a drink. And who wouldn’t take a drink when your car breaks down, especially in Gordon’s Bay? Which, according to an interview with the Cape Argus, is what happened to Ballem.

But to admit to getting drunk on Smirnoff Storm? An alco-pop? That’s beyond the pale, man. That’s what schoolgirls drink, not hard-arsed, sweary lawyers.

What shame Ballem has brought upon himself and his house.

At which point, and by way of this column’s customary segue, we now turn to one who appears to have no shame whatsoever -- the government’s chief spin doctor, Jimmy Manyi.

In a bid to somehow sharpen the skills of the government’s various media heads and communications officers, Manyi has roped in the services of Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alistair Campbell.

Described, and with very good reason, as the Gordon Ramsey of spin, Campbell is a man who could possibly teach even Ballem a thing or two about swearing.

For some idea of Campbell’s colourful management style, if nothing else, readers are urged to search their DVD rental outlets for the hit BBC comedy series, The Thick Of It, or its spin-off movie, In The Loop, which stars Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, an aggressive, profane and greatly feared communications director who regularly uses smears and threats of violence to manage Whitehall’s crisis management public relations. Tucker’s character was partially influenced by and bears a distinct resemblance to Campbell -- a comparison that Campbell himself has acknowledged.

The show is not for the faint-hearted. Before production, scripts are sent to a “swearing consultant”, a Lancastrian by the name of Ian Martin, who helps with the series’ more livelier language. Talk of sexual acts by fat, bald German men is not uncommon.

Perhaps Floyd Shivambu, the ANC Youth League’s spokesman, has seen the show, for his enthusiasm for insulting reporters has approached distressingly uncomfortable levels in recent weeks.

Shivambu, however, is apparently not very intelligent so his comments to the effect that journalists were white bitches, drunkards, racists and so on, are perhaps of no significance save the odd bother with the Equality Court.

But we digress. Just what advice did Campbell have about a hostile media?

In his blog, the BBC’s Andrew Harding quoted him as telling government communcators: “I don’t think you have it as bad as you think you have it.”

And they should get used to being insulted -- “be a bit more chilled,” was how Campbell put it. “When you’ve been called Hitler or Goebbels or Rasputin, there’s no question capable of upsetting me.”

So, there you have it, Jimbo. Suck it up, jou ma se seun.

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