By Franny Rabkin, Business Day Live
Photo: Sunday Times on BDLive
AXED Idols presenter Gareth Cliff says he was made a "sacrificial lamb" by M-Net and that the pay-TV provider fired him to protect its commercial interests.
M-Net fired Mr Cliff after he weighed in on the furore over a racist Facebook post by the now infamous estate-agent Penny Sparrow, then himself becoming the subject of controversy and accused of racism.
In urgent court papers, Mr Cliff has also turned the tables on M-Net’s parent company Naspers, accusing it of hypocrisy because of its "key and pivotal" role in the apartheid propaganda machine.
In her post, Ms Sparrow likened black people to monkeys, lamenting their being "allowed loose" onto public beaches because it "invited huge dirt and trouble and discomfort to others".
Responding to a Twitter poll on whether Ms Sparrow’s remarks were hate speech or were protected under the Constitution, Mr Cliff tweeted that "people don’t understand free speech at all".
Later, responding to an accusation of racism, he said: "This woman is an idiot and a racist, but I believe in freedom of speech."
In his affidavit, filed in court on Tuesday morning, Mr Cliff said he felt his firing was motivated by "fear" — because some of the negative reaction to his comments were from members of the African National Congress Youth League, who threatened to boycott Idols SA.
"The intention was clearly to use me as a sacrificial lamb in order to protect (M-Net’s) commercial interests," he said.
For the time being, Mr Cliff has asked for an urgent order reinstating his earlier contractual arrangement with M-Net and prohibiting any auditions for Idols — due to start next Friday — without him on the judging panel.
Part B of his application — a R20m claim for the unlawful termination of his contract and a R5m claim for defamation — would be argued at a later date.
He said that, in commenting on the Sparrow comment, he may have "misunderstood the line between free speech and hate speech", but he had the right to freely express that misunderstanding.
"My defence of free speech formed part of the necessary debate in the long and arduous road to building a vibrant, constitutional democracy."
Mr Cliff said Naspers had "put a lot of decisive effort into building, promoting and supporting the hateful, racist and cruel policy known as apartheid".
One of the ways racism and apartheid were maintained for so long was "the highly effective propaganda machinery" — of which Naspers was "a key and pivotal part".
The likes of Naspers were "the last people to lecture me about the pains of our past", he said.
He also said that he had been treated differently from fellow Idols judges. Unathi Msengana — who swore on Twitter — and Somizi Mhlongo’s Facebook post on the ZumaMustFall campaign, had also led to social media storms.
In Mr Mhlongo’s case, this had also led to accusations of racism, said Mr Cliff. But both had apologised and had been kept on by M-Net.
The first time he had heard of a new zero-tolerance policy for social media blunders was when the announcement was made that he had been axed, he said.
Mr Cliff said the effect of his axing was that his name "continues to be mentioned alongside those of allegedly and probably racist white people".
He has also asked for a punitive costs order — "given the deceptive element and the persistent attempt to fake morality for selfish commercial expediency and political cowardice".
Naspers and M-Net could not immediately be reached for comment.