Gareth Cliff
Gareth Cliff

IN an industry where “perceptions are everything”, M-Net was entitled to protect its reputation and commercial interests and not keep Gareth Cliff on as an Idols South Africa judge, said the pay-TV provider in court papers.

M-Net made its decision to axe 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 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.”

Mr Cliff said that by firing him, M-Net had breached their contract and defamed him. It had made him a “sacrificial lamb” to protect its commercial interests, he said.

But in an affidavit filed in court on Friday M-Net’s CEO Yolisa Phahle said M-Net was entitled to act as it did and had done nothing unlawful.

“Arguably the national debate that ensued after the comments made by Penny Sparrow and others was one of the most controversial and acrimonious in recent history,” she said.

Mr Cliff’s comments had provoked a massive reaction and calls for a boycott of the show, said Ms Phahle. The reaction was mostly negative, according to a report prepared by a social media research company.

The report said that in the week that followed 55% of twitter users were critical of Mr Cliff and only 3% supported him, she said. Mr Cliff’s subsequent apology did not change public sentiment, which remained negative, said Ms Phahle.

“In relation to its brand image, and with less than a month to go before the start of the 2016 Idols SA auditions, M-Net felt that it could not afford to become embroiled in the political and racial controversy surrounding the applicant’s statements,” she said.

She said Idols SA judges had changed over the years. It was not a foregone conclusion that any judge would be kept on the following season.

While there were negotiations, there had been no contract between Mr Cliff and M-Net yet, not even an oral one — as he had alleged. Material aspects — such as what he was to be paid — had not been finally agreed, she said.

Mr Cliff claimed there was an oral contract based on the previous season’s contract. But if this were so, this included a clause allowing M-Net to terminate on a week’s notice with no reasons necessary, said Ms Phahle.

She also denied that M-Net had defamed Mr Cliff saying: “Any harm done to the applicant’s reputation is a direct result of his own statement.”

Addressing Mr Cliff’s allegation that he had been treated differently to fellow idols judges who had also made social media blunders, she said the incidents were “clearly distinguishable”.

Unathi Msengana did not post a profanity on twitter, as claimed by Mr Cliff. She sent a direct message which was then published by the receiver, said Ms Phahle.

The Facebook post by Somizi Mhlongo — in which he criticised racist white South Africans for hiding behind the #ZumaMustFall campaign — used “unfortunate” language, said Ms Phahle. But it was directed at racist white South Africans, not at white South Africans generally.

The context was also “entirely different”. Mr Cliff chose to enter the fray in the midst of an acrimonious national discussion and made statements that even he admitted were insensitive and ill-advised, she said.

The judges of Idols SA were appointed to “entertain and delight the public, not to shock and offend them”. It was appropriate to end the relationship, she said.

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