Transcript: Couch Talk with Telford Vice

Couch Talk 111 (Play)

Guest: Telford Vice

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is South African cricket journalist Telford Vice and he talks about the controversial circumstances under which Cricket South Africa have revoked some of his journalistic privileges, and dealing with Haroon Lorgat in the aftermath of David Becker’s incendiary press release about cricket governance at the ICC that led to all this. Welcome to the show, Telford.

Telford Vice (TV)– Thank you very much. Good to be on.

SJ– It is my pleasure!

On December 22nd of 2013, the South African Newspaper than you write for, it carried an article written by Werner Swart, titled ‘Cricket Bosses Punish Our Writer’ in which it was reported that Cricket South Africa had revoked some of your journalistic privileges. What were the privileges that were taken away from you and why did it happen you think?

TV– It is an interesting question because as yet, I still haven’t been told that anything has happened to my status with Cricket South Africa. They haven’t had the decency to pick up the phone or send an email to me saying that we are taking this action, never mind why. The only way I actually knew that this was happening was that I saw an email release that I would have got previously, but I didn’t get and thought nothing of it. a couple of days go by and a few more of these emails happened. It was routine stuff that press conferences were happening here and there. So, I emailed my editor saying I am not getting these releases, something strange is going on. He then got hold of Cricket South Africa, and asked “Is it true that you have taken away Telford Vice off your mailing list?” They said, “Yes.” There wasn’t much in the way of I heard at that point. Also, what on earth, is receiving emails a special privilege? If that’s case, I could with a lot less that privilege form all sorts of people, thank you. That was essentially how I found out about this.

There have been strange bits of communication between my editors and Cricket South Africa. In the first place, my editor got on the front foot straight away and got all the editors in our group, 7 of them I think, signed a letter that ‘we protest this, it is not a good idea.’ And also sent a copy of this letter to South African national editors’ forum, which is the only place really where aggrieved journalists can try sort stuff like this. That happened without my knowledge, my editors thought it was a good idea and so did I.

That went off to Cricket South Africa and weeks passed without a reply. Eventually Haroon Lorgat thought to write a letter back. It said something along the lines of “Cricket South Africa no longer trusts me, and that my work is not upto the standards of my colleagues and there is inaccuracy etc.”. Nothing specific. Nothing like ‘here is the list of what he got wrong.’ Or ‘this is why we don’t trust him.’ Actually, when I saw the line about we don’t trust him’, I thought, thank heavens. The last thing I need as a reporter is for a powerful organization like Cricket South Africa to “trust” me. My credibility would be out of the window in an instance.

SJ– I think Lorgat was quoted in The Times as saying that the “special privileges are extended to selected media partners and those that qualify on the basis of basic trust relationship”. From your point of view, can you define what that “trust” is supposed to be? What kind of expectations did CSA have of a journalist?

TV– That sentence that you just read out from Mr. Haroon Lorgat’s letter is a long description for a short word, and that word is “co-opt”. I think that is essentially what they are talking about. They are having secret briefings with selected media, off the record thing, you think you are talking to Barack Obama or someone like that. This kind of stuff. They are flying certain reporters to functions and events and not others. Not only me, it has to be said, but you need to see who they are flying and who they are not flying. The ones they are not flying are the ones who are asking more critical questions about the way CSA deals with things. I hold that truth to be self evident. It is amazing how the people who do not toe the CSA company line are quite clearly being singled out.

SJ– For listeners who aren’t completely aware of the situation, can you explain briefly or at length, as you will, from where you think this started and where it is right now, where you seem to have lost some of your special journalistic privileges.

TV– I will start answering that question with this. If I was a journalist and was not aware of all this in South Africa, I would have read of that story and thought “Hey! Where are my special privileges? What are they? Is it like pornography, I’ll know it when I see it?”

It started with South Africa’s series against Pakistan in the UAE. A man I had never heard of in my life before, I might have seen his name on a letter head, David Becker, who used to be ICC’s head of legal and was there during Haroon Lorgat’s tenure as the ICC Chief Executive, which coincided with Mr. Becker’s involvement with the ICC as well. One day, during this tour, things were very normal. The Indian tour to South Africa was obviously a problem for Cricket South Africa. There was negotiations went back and forth, quite nervous and fragile.

I don’t know if I mentioned that my wife is Firdose Moonda who writes for ESPNcricinfo, and we go on tour together. She was also there and she received in quite a long-winded fashion, a media release from David Becker, who was keen to get his media release to cricinfo. This media release said some disturbing and alarming things about the way ICC is run and also made some very heavy claims against Mr. Srinivasan, the president of the BCCI. The things that Becker said, about real attitude of governance, the way ICC is managed, the dominance of BCCI at the ICC and I am sure that for your listeners none of this will come as news. We have known this kind of thing for a long time. The difference was that here is a bloke who has very recently been inside the ICC and was saying these things. Sometimes, part of being a journalist is simply confirming your readers’ suspicions, and here was a man who was doing exactly that. It wasn’t news in the way that it was not something that we didn’t know before. But it was news because it lent weight to existing opinions and certainly added to the existing evidence to the world view about the ICC and the BCCI’s Mr. Srinivasan. Firdose and I thought to ourselves “My goodness, this looks quite a story.”

What I did, perhaps the wrong thing to do, I am saying “wrong thing” in terms of what subsequently happened. But, I sent this thing off to the ICC for comment and to the CSA for comment. I thought that was the right thing to do because the ICC was being charged of all sorts of things in the media release and of course CSA were on tenterhooks regarding the Indian tour and they were not sure whether it was going to happen or not. So, I needed comment from both of these people, if I were to write a proper story. The ICC, I say a lot of terrible things about the ICC, but in this instance they did the right thing. They came back and said “We would rather you didn’t write the story on this. But if you are going to, we will give you a comment.” Which, I thought was fair deal. I can see why they wouldn’t want to story out there with about awful things about them to appear, but are willing to give their comment if the story is going to be published. Fine.

Cricket South Africa, I’m afraid took the wrong route. At some point during this whole communication between myself and the Cricket South Africa, I’d much I prefer emailing people like the CSA simply because, “if it wears the suit, it lies.” I distrust the administrators until they prove otherwise, I just learnt that over the years. i would prefer to have that in writing, thank you very much, what you are going to tell me, if you are an administrator. That is a fair system to work with, because both of us have a record of what was said and what was not said, and there can be no comeback.

At one point, Haroon Lorgat asked for my telephone number when I was in the UAE, my local mobile phone. That was a mistake of mine, I shouldn’t have given him my phone number and said “Let’s keep talking on email“ instead because as soon as I gave him that number, my phone wouldn’t stop ringing and there were many calls from Haroon and all of them trying to pressure me into not writing the story. “If you wrote the story, it will be bad for the tour.” And every step of the way, I was going “I understand that, Haroon. But it really is not my problem that it is bad for the tour. I am not a part of your marketing staff. My role is that of a journalist. I have no side to pick. I simplay am writing the story.” He tried quite hard. It got heated and certainly, there was much pressure, repeated pressure. He kept phoning. He would tell my editors, and Firdose was also writing the story for cricinfo, he would try to play our editors off against each other by saying to Firdose “Well, The Times have agreed not to write the story.” He would tell me that “cricinfo are not going to write the story.” Or, “all South African newspapers are not going to write the story.”

That is just ingenious in the extreme because in the first place, no other South African newspaper had the story as far as we knew. Also, If I want to know what cricinfo is doing, I can simply ask my darling wife “What are cricinfo doing?” I don’t need Haroon Lorgat to tell me. This was the kind of conversation it deteriorated into. At some point, as I was also saying to Haroon, I am only writing the story. If you want to find a way that it is going to be published or not, then you have to talk to my editor, because I don’t say “yes, publish this.” My editor tells that. You are talking to the wrong fellow.

At some point in all this, when Haroon realised finally, it took a long time, that he was not going to help stop me from writing the story, and I didn’t know if the story will get published or not – that was not my decision, he did say to me and the problem is that I only have a hand written note of this line: “What can I offer to share with you, what kind of information can I share with you as compensation for not writing the story?” I didn’t quite know what that meant. I thought I knew what it meant. But I wasn’t sure and I backed away instantly and said “There is nothing and I don’t want to get in that kind of relationship with you. This can’t happen.” I think that is where it all went wrong. I don’t know if that was mistake on my part or not. It was in cricket public’s interest that they should know that the high powered people within cricket are saying things like these to reporters, which I would, if I was a reader, be aghast about what was going on. That is not how this kind of relationship should be about. I have reported that line, and obviously I am doing it again now. That is where the problem really started or escalated. Since then, myself and Cricket South Africa have been on pretty poor terms.

SJ– As you mentioned earlier, Firdose had the story as well and your paper The Times reported that Firdose was also sanctioned. Some of her journalistic privileges have also been revoked. Essentially speaking, Cricket South Africa is stopping you and Firdose from carrying out your job as cricket journalists at some level. Would that be accurate?

TV– Yes. That would be exactly right. In the case of Firdose, it is completely unfair. The only wrong thing she did was to completely marry me essentially, because otherwise she wouldn’t be in this problem, in this predicament. i can see their logic for being unhappy with me. Being unhappy and taking the actions they took are two different things. They have absolutely no reason to be unhappy with Firdose. The problem is that most of the times, we are together, we can share information. She gets a press release, and she would say “Have a look at this.” That is just dirty, you can’t fight like that. If you want to, do it properly, go to a lawyer. Or go to the press ombudsman that we have in this country. Or talk to our editors say, “this is not on”. Don’t just do these things and expect us to simply accept it. This whole saga reminds me, because we are still accredited as journalists, we can still go into the press box and to press conferences – the ones that we know about – and go and ask our questions. Nobody stops us. It is all insidious and below the belt and it reminds me of a man who beats up his wife – be careful to put his punches where the bruises won’t show. And that is essentially what Cricket South Africa are doing. I think it is unfair, it is dishonest, it is slimy and dirty.

SJ– There was a news story on the Times of India on October 24th where it said the sources close to the development told the Times of India that the deal offered “amounted to bribing the journalist” and it said an official complaint was lodged with the ICC. So now, talking to you, I can see that, as you say from your handwritten note, Haroon Lorgat offered information in exchange for delaying the story or not publishing the story. And I am assuming Firdose also received some sort of that offer?

TV: Yes, she did. A few months ago she wrote a piece criticizing South Africa after their poor One-Day performance in Sri Lanka – they lost 4-1. And they lost properly. And she wrote a piece – it was a very well researched, very well backed up cricket piece, why SA had a bad tour and all those kind of things. Of course, Alviro Petersen the opening batsman was written about in that piece as well. He did not have a good series and he got what he deserved. He took a to Twitter and the argument between Firdose and Alviro escalated on Twitter, it went back and forth — Alviro has half a million Twitter followers and eventually one of them tweeted in with a sexist message like “Why didn’t you send her to the kitchen?” or something like that and he retweeted it without any comment saying, “This is not on” or something like that, which seemed very much like an endorsement. It got worse with people sending stuff to Firdose, like a video of a man beating up a woman, and it started to get really out of hand and she told CSA about this. She told them privately, “Look, you better do something about this because it can only get ugly”. And they refused to do anything about it. They just said, “You got yourself into this fight and we’re not going to do anything about this”. They took no public action as far as we know. I am sure they spoke to Peterson behind the scenes but there was no attempt to say we are not a sexist organisation or we do not condone sexism. Nothing, as you say, happened.

But this is months before this incident with David Becker statement. When that happened, then suddenly Firdose is being offered apologies from Alviro Petersen. Not by Alviro Petersen, mind. CSA said we will get Alviro Petersen to apologize. Months previously, you didn’t want to do anything about a bad situation. Now suddenly because the sky is about to fall, you decide to do something about that situation. That is just completely transparent and despicable, really. How can that be good business tactics for anyone, much less somebody like CSA who has to be the custodian of an entire game and a sport. It’s not just very good behavior?

SJ: Was it CSA? Was it specifically Haroon Lorgat who offered an apology from Alviro? Or was it somebody else at CSA?

TV: As far as I understand, it was Haroon.

SJ: OK. So she actually had the terms of the offer, if you will, but you didn’t have the terms of an offer — there was something on the board but you didn’t know what it was, correct?

TV: Sorry, can you say that again?

SJ: What I am trying to say is that there were carrots dangled in front of you not to run the story.

TV: That’s right. That’s absolutely right.

SJ: OK. I remember reading your article where you quoted from your conversation with Haroon where he said, “What can I offer to share with you as compensation for not publishing this story for a week?” Because he felt this would have jeopardized the Indian tour of South Africa. What was going to be accomplished by delaying the publication of those David Becker’s comments by a week unless it was requested that they be not published at all?

TV: Negotiations between CSA and BCCI were very delicate at that stage. In fact, the president of CSA Chris Nenzani was actually about to get on a plane to India to try and salvage the tour. In CSA’s logic, a week would have given them enough time to sell out the tour and get it stamped and sealed and almost delivered. So they thought a week would do the trick — I’m not sure. Those things would have been just as explosive were they printed today or two years ago or at that time when they were printed. I can’t quite see the argument or the logic of the argument but that was the argument that they hoped to be able to secure the India tour before that story came out.

SJ: OK. Your organization, the Times, wrote that article in the newspaper and your editors got in touch with the CSA and so on and so forth. What has happened from Firdose’s side, her organization? Have they taken any action? The Times of India story mentions a letter to the ICC. Are we to believe that Cricinfo sent a letter to the ICC that you’re aware of?

TV: My organization, my newspaper, hasn’t written to the ICC. Our interaction has been purely between the newspaper and the CSA. It’s a funny thing because when my editor took this up with CSA, with in fact, Altaaf Kazi, the PR and Communications manager at CSA, he was told — according to my editor — that they should meet for coffee and they should sort this out. The impression that my editor got was that it was quite an urgent matter and it needed to get fixed up there and then. This must have been about two and a half or three months ago now. You can drink a lot of coffee in that time. My editor has been back to CSA and said, “When is this going to happen?” and CSA”s standard line is that they’re not going to comment on this whole thing until they have their meeting with Times media. Well, can they hurry up and have a meeting please because this urgent meeting has been dragged out for months now and something has not taken place. We still don’t know specifics. We still don’t have examples. There’s just nothing and it’s a very puzzling thing. I am almost getting used to being out in the cold.

SJ: You’ve written about the fact that the ICC was going to investigate this matter and set up an ethics inquiry into this. Are you aware of any investigation launched by the ICC into this matter? And if they have, do you know where it is at right now? Have you heard anything from ICC’s head of legal?

TV: Yes I have. I am aware of the investigation. Last week, in fact, I did get a letter from the lawyer acting for the ICC asking whether I would be willing to give evidence. You can have all the theoretical debates but when it suddenly happens to you, then it becomes real like a lot of things in life. I spoke to my editor and had a think about it myself. The company position was that no, we should not co-operate with this inquiry. Once I had calmed down and thought about it, I think that is the right position because it sets a very bad precedent. Why should anyone come and tell you anything ever again if it is going to end up in an official investigation? So no, I shan’t be co-operating with the inquiry. But just as I have done now on your podcast, almost everything I know about this is out there already. So whatever evidence I would have given would have been pretty similar to what I have told you. So no direct co-operation with the investigation but I’m not a person that hides things very easily.

SJ: Okay, that’s interesting. We had talked about it earlier, about how you and Firdose are facing hardships, just to carry out your job. So why would you not want to participate in this enquiry? As a journalist, that’s what you might want to do – to be able to do your job. If it’s being made difficult for you, why wouldn’t you try to sort that out? I would think, from an outsider point of view, participating in this enquiry, could actually help your position. Don’t you think so?

TV: It certainly could. I think it would be a good thing to do. Certainly, a worthwhile thing to do. On the surface of it again, and for the purpose of this hearing, I also hope to be a journalist for a lot longer. And I can see why, if I cooperate with this, other people who might have told me something, will go “Oh, no. This is sensitive information. We can’t tell him that, it might end up in an enquiry.” I don’t need that. As a journalist I may be willing to arch people into some or the other official investigation.

The first thing I try to ask myself whenever someone calls me up is this – “What is this person’s agenda?” People have different agendas. I can tell you that. This one particular fellow called me up these days, and said “Hello, it’s Mr. Unknown, again!” It’s a very odd world, when you start writing about cricket administration. It stops being about cricket almost entirely, and it becomes about power and money. And it’s almost a political reporting job. I think, when we look at the bigger picture, there’s a lot more at stake, than simply me not getting a press release. It’s about people outside of the official structure being able to trust me as a reporter. We spoke just now about CSA’s inability to trust me. I’m happy with that. I’d be a lot more upset if the people in the great out there did not think they could trust me. I think that’s a very valuable thing for a journalist to preserve.

SJ: Where does this leave Haroon Lorgat? How does his position vis-à-vis CSA, and also because he recused himself from dealing with the BCCI? You had also written about conversations with your sources in CSA, who felt that the Board is incurring a lot more losses because of his association with them. In terms of a big picture view, about his relationship with the BCCI and this enquiry, where do you see this going?

TV: It’s one of those things that in South Africa we’re quite good at denial. We deny that we were approaching black people for, something like 300 years, you know… If you talk to people within South Africa, Haroon Lorgat seems to be in a very strong position. He is the figurehead, actually, he is the hard nose of a section of the administrators who we could call the “Cape Cabal”, who look after his interests, along with their own, of course. And he is the standard over there, for them. But if you look outside of that, and we saw this week with the proposal to restructure the ICC, Cricket is much, much bigger than Cricket South Africa. And it’s also much bigger than any kind of argument involving Haroon Lorgat, or any other figure. A figure who is perhaps exempt from all of that is Srinivasan. He is above all that. And so, I think, outside of South Africa, I would not be surprised if the enquiry does find him guilty of doing the wrong thing. Then, it comes down to recommendations. And since they have already committed themselves to accepting those recommendations being binding. So, I don’t know if he will get fired because of this. I don’t know if the charge is so serious. Or what other kind of sanctions can be placed on them. I really don’t know if that’s the case.

We do, of course know that, there is absolutely no love lost between Lorgat and Srinivasan. I don’t know how much Srinivasan actually wants Lorgat out of the picture. I have a better line, and I don’t know if this is true or not. But apparently, Srinivasan said to somebody that Lorgat would never work in cricket again, after Lorgat left the ICC. So that would imply, there is still a lot of blood to still hit the floor. So, inside South Africa, Lorgat seems to be in a strong position. But once you talk to people outside of South Africa, that position does not look so strong. And logically, that is a much bigger picture. And I’m guessing if you like, perhaps Lorgat’s days are numbered.

SJ: Okay, but where does that leave you and Firdose? Because, you have a job to do.

TV: We have a job to do. And this actually affects Firdose more than it does me. Because, she works for real-time, and its deadline is now. I work for newspapers, and my deadline is tomorrow morning. So, if the squad comes out, I don’t see it until it hits the wires. That’s not a disaster for me, because I can still do my job. Firdose has a real problem with that. Our colleagues, some of them in the Resistance – Our Comrades, have in fact been sending us press releases, as and when they come out. So we do have some sort of clandestine conduit to information. So we do get it that way, and for the most part, we can still do our jobs.

It makes it complicated a bit. For instance the other night, when CSA sent out a statement saying that, they consider this ICC proposal for restructuring to be unconstitutional and were voicing their opposition to it. Altaaf Kazi sent out an SMS hours, or at least a good time before the statement actually came out, saying the statement is coming. And that’s because of the deadlines involved, that statement came out late in the evening, and that’s going to scramble anyone’s evening if they did not know it was going to happen. And he sent that SMS to all sorts of people, and mind you, he didn’t send it to me. So, I did not know that statement was coming. So, it’s these kind of little things that can upset your day and more than really have a big impact on how you do your job. So that’s just one example. It’s not the ideal way to try and operate as a journalist, but I’m not going to die. I’m still going to be here. The bruises will be under my coat, but I’ll still be smiling. I’ll just keep going, I suppose.

SJ: But, what needs to happen for the situation to be resolved? Especially for Firdose, because she works for a website, a website that’s the largest cricket website in the word, and you work for the largest newspaper in South Africa. If it can happen to two journalists with such backgrounds, what are other journalists in South Africa supposed to do when it comes to dealing with power?

TV: Yeah, it has been disappointing. My colleagues have disappointed me, I have to say. Some of them have been just happy to be co-opted. And I think, some of them haven’t had to often think about these kind of things in the past. I think becoming a sports journalist, in a lot of ways, is an escape from reality. You don’t have to think about things like this, to a large degree. As I said, there isn’t much in the way of critical thinking, and critical writing in South African cricket. I can name them, if you like me to. Two examples. One is a fellow called Christo Buchner who works for the Afrikaans newspaper and I think he is their senior cricket writer. And he is also one among the, how shall we call it, ‘The Unadvantaged’. Then, the other one is and she has actually left the cricket beat now, and has become the editor of The South African Press Association, and her name is Jennifer Bernstein. And honestly, that’s about it. The rest of the writers in this country are pretty much happy to toe the line. Utmost, you will get neutrality out of them, in terms of how they might cover a contentious story. But neutrality, objectivity, and fairness, are different concepts. You won’t see too much of objectivity, or fairness. You will however, see neutrality, sometimes. And sometimes, even that goes out of the window, and it’s just “Right CSA, what do you want us to say?” And that’s what happens.

In the broadcast media, of course, Cricket South Africa own, the television production. So they have a large say in who their commentators are, and those commentators are clever enough to know that CSA, by extension, have a large say in what they in turn say on the air. So it’s not a very healthy media environment here. In fact, there’s a lot of marketing masquerading as journalism, in fact, and the journalists here are keen to hold on to their privileges here and it’s part of an unhealthy society.

SJ– From the two of your points of view, what needs to happen for things to return to pre-October levels?

TV– I honestly don’t know because as I said, I officially don’t know and I haven’t been told why CSA have taken the actions they have taken. I can guess why but they haven’t told me why or what will fix it or what their view is. I don’t know. I never wrote what I was told to or knew what was untrue, so I am not gonna start now. So, I’m not sure what they’d want. It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I’m in the dark about this whole thing.

SJ– Since you’ve chosen not to participate in the ICC enquiry – and you’re the aggrieved party here-  how do you see that going, besides there being not enough evidence to do anything against Haroon?

TV– I don’t know. It’s not hard for the investigators to know what I have written about this. I wouldn’t have anything else to say. Perhaps, they could ask me few more questions that I haven’t thought of but essentially [what I have already written] is what has happened. I have seen the letter of reference of the eqnuiry and they do seem to centered quite heavily on what happened in those few strange days. It’s up to those people to do their jobs, I suppose.

They do have a report from Cricinfo on what happened. So there is evidence against [Lorgat] coming in from that channel.

I reported on the Hansie Cronje – King Commission thing; It’s a strange world which cricket doesn’t often get involved in, Thank Goodness, but it’s a different way of looking at things. I don’t know how the enquiry is going to be dealt with.

If you ask me, “Is Haroon Lorgat guilty as charged?”, Yes, I do think Haroon Lorgat is guilty as charged. I suppose I would, wouldn’t I? I was in the middle of of it all, but of course, I am not part of the enquiry and even if I was to give evidence, it would only be evidence. It wouldn’t be a decision. That’s up to them. I wouldn’t like to make the decision or what should happen to Lorgat but I do think he is guilty. I’m not sure where it goes from here. I don’t know what the possible sanctions are. I’m sure one of them is that he should be fired but I am not sure what he should do for that to happen or should have done for that to happen. I don’t know whether he will be fined or whether he will never be allowed to attend another ICC meeting again, who knows? We have to wait and see.

Like I said, I covered the King Commission and I was woken to the fact that Cricket isn’t really about cricket. Then, I covered the Gerld Majola bonus scandal for which he was fired and I was reminded that cricket wasn’t really about cricket at this level. Now, along comes this story and one day, I will not forget that cricket is not about cricket. It’s difficult to do that when you are watching a fine bowling spell or a magnificent century or somebody takes a catch that should not be taken. But, I’m afraid it’s the reality. Cricket is not really about cricket and it’s about power and money and most of the time, it’s about bad people, and that’s unfortunate.

SJ– That is indeed unfortunate, sad and depressing. I hope, for your and Firdose’s sake, that you come out of it and are allowed to continue your job as cricket journalists without any hindrance. I hope things fall your way properly, as they should, and I wish you both the very best.

TV– Thank you very much.

SJ– Thank you.


Episode Transcribed by: @bagrat15, @NvrKnwn and @IndolentView