Today, Ivo Vegter posted his version of an impromptu debate with me on Twitter, Sunday June 30. Read all about it.
Anatomy of “a lie” by Ivo Vegter
Yesterday, Jonathan Deal, whom I have reason to believe is no longer the chairman of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, challenged me on the social network Twitter, demanding that I admit to lying. His quibble? Well, there were two.
In a column for the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport, I wrote: “Plaaslike prospekteerders het hulself ook daartoe verbind om alle chemiese bymiddels wat hulle gebruik, te identifiseer.” Or, in English, “Local drilling companies have committed to disclosing all chemical additives used in the fracturing process.” As far as I know, it is true that only Shell is officially on record having made this promise, so Deal wants me to admit to a lie. But I’ve heard others say the same in conversations at industry conferences. I have no recorded proof of these conversations, so without admitting to lying, I offered to reduce my claim to “Shell has committed to…”. This would give regulators cover to require such disclosure, in any case. No deal. I’m a liar, says Deal.
His second beef was about this passage: “Lisensieaansoekers sê nou dat hulle selfs brakkerige water uit diep boorgate of selfs seewater in die proses sal kan gebruik. Dit beteken dat hulle nie met die inwoners van die Karoo sal kompeteer vir oppervlak of vars grondwater nie – en dat hulle selfs die Karoo met meer water sal laat as waarmee hulle begin het.”
The second sentence, Deal claims, amounts to me asserting that there will be more water available to the Karoo after shale gas drilling than before. While this claim may well prove true, I asked him not to put Shell’s words in my mouth, because that would misrepresent my view. It is not my assertion nor opinion. I have always reported this claim as being that of the drilling companies, opposing the claim of the environmentalists that there would be less water. I would be satisfied, my argument runs, if the truth lies in the middle and there is no significant change.
He said I put Shell’s words in my mouth myself, and therefore must “own up to a lie”. I pointed out to him that my original English text read: “Licence applicants say they are now able to use brackish water drawn from deep aquifers, or even sea water. Either way, they claim they will not compete with Karoo residents for surface or groundwater, and may even leave the Karoo with more water than when they started.”
I conceded that the translation omits the phrase “they claim”, which makes the second sentence slightly ambiguous on a highly critical reading. It could be read in context as a continuation of what “Licence applicants say”. An ungenerous reading would make it my own assertion. This also was not good enough. Even a minor translation mistake, he believes, constitutes “a lie” on my part. Never mind that “lie” is defined as “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth”. Clearly, this wasn’t one. Deal demanded a full retraction and apology to be published in Rapport. I notified the editor of the dispute, but did not ask for such a correction to be published, because frankly, this is petty nitpicking.
It is a desperate attempt to poke holes, however trivial, in my arguments, in the hope of discrediting them. “Is your argument based on a lie?” he duly asked. Well, no, it is not. Even if I were to concede both points, which I am not inclined to do beyond what I wrote above, my overall argument would not be affected in the least.
Demonstrating his fragile grip on the logic of rational argument, he compared my position, of being “cautiously in favour of fracking”, to being “half-pregnant”. To him, one is either for or against. Shale gas drilling is either harmless or it will “destroy the Karoo”. Any argument that it might involve manageable risks, or that the benefits might outweigh those risks, or that it can be done fairly safely given a degree of caution, is incomprehensible to his binary, activist mind.
I dismissed this simplistic argument as “juvenile”. He said that was “playing the man, not the ball”. Well, colour me guilty, as far as it goes. I do think his style of argument is childish badgering. “Schoolyard bullying”, another victim of his attacks called it once.
I suppose he’d know about playing the man. It’s not like the Treasure the Karoo Action Group is a stranger to ad hominem attacks. Witness this letter, written by a passionate greenie who vehemently disagrees with everything I have ever thought or said, and is not inclined to credit my inexpert attempts at humour about having had International School of Well Drilling course material as bed-time reading:
An environmentalist reporting on a WESSA debate between Ivo Vegter and Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor, of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, in a 23 November 2012 letter to the Cape Times.
The TKAG fellow told the audience if I’m not paid by Shell, I must be paid by the ANC. “Character assassination,” Ms Dewberry called it. And Deal, who spent hours on Twitter trying to accuse an independent journalist of lying in a vain attempt to discredit him, accuses me of playing the man. Perhaps that is because there are no balls to play.
A BODY OF EVIDENCE – the response from Jonathan Deal
The facts of the matter, and an alternate perspective of the Twitter debate from my viewpoint, differ from Mr. Vegter’s recollection of the afternoon. For the sake of good order, it may come as a surprise to him, but at present I am still very much the chairman of TKAG. Mr. Vegter is apparently intrigued as to information (or perhaps misinformation) with which he may have been furnished, relating to TKAG leadership. Ms. Jeanie Le Roux, a director of TKAG, received an email from Mr. Vegter asking about TKAG’s strategic intent, and also enquiring as to what my personal plans are. He was informed that TKAG will be issuing a press statement on July 3. Whilst it may appeal to Mr. Vegter in his latest text, to fuel speculation around TKAG leadership, it is of little consequence within the events of Sunday afternoon.
The column for Rapport newspaper is unambiguous. The specific focus of my first ‘quibble’ is, I submit, reasonable. If there are three applicants waiting for exploration rights, (and there are) it is deceiving to repeat the offer of Shell to ‘disclose fracking chemicals’ and extrapolate that to all of the applicants. Either all of the applicants made this commitment, and that is then provable, or they didn’t. Mr. Vegter endeavours to make my ‘quibble’ trivial but actually, his words commit Challenger Energy and Falcon Oil & Gas, to commitments that they haven’t made, and have the effect of creating, in the mind of the reader, the assumption that a significant element of public apprehension has been dealt with. This is not the case and Mr. Vegter is trying to squirm away from the truth of it.
Firstly as a journalist, and secondly as an ‘opinionista’ who holds environmentalists to his standard of accuracy, Mr. Vegter should know better than to complain when being held to the same standards. Similarly, his article reads, and de facto claims, out of his own mouth, “Hulle sal selfs meer water in die Karoo agterlaat as wat daar aanvanklik was…”
To address the allegations of lying, Mr. Vegter is on record ahead of me in the Twitter posts of June 30, as pre-empting allegations of lying. My second ‘quibble’ will be evident to anyone reading the article. If Mr. Vegter desired that the text should have been viewed as quoting Shell, then he should have applied quotation marks, to indicate that he is quoting another, rather than forwarding his personal opinion.
In the Rapport article, not only is the text dealing with this issue devoid of quotation marks, but the statement about water surplus is actually in a separate paragraph. Now, Mr. Vegter may view this as nitpicking, but I suspect that readers will agree that the placement, or omission of quotation marks, or punctuation can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence, as can the modification of a word by the addition or removal of an ‘s’. Whether this was by design or by accident will unlikely be settled. As one who has constructed a public platform on his ability to wield the pen, Mr. Vegter may wish to reflect on the advantages of adhering to accurate presentation of the facts in a public forum.
Mr. Vegter may elect to categorise my argument as having a ‘fragile grip’ on logic, and that is his privilege. I believe, however, that he became increasingly annoyed and emotional yesterday afternoon – a situation that manifested itself in him making [incorrect] assumptions about how I spend Sunday afternoons, while he ‘has to work’, and culminating in him telling me on more than one occasion to ‘get lost’ – a turn of events, which for reasons best known to Mr. Vegter, has not appeared in his rendition of the story today.
Mr. Vegter appears to place much weight on a letter written to the Cape Times by a TKAG supporter who took issue with the conduct of Mr. Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor, who, in 2012, represented TKAG in a debate against him. Firstly, it was not me who made the comments about Mr. Vegter, and secondly, Mr. Vegter appears to forget that on occasion, when he has debated me, members of the audience have berated him for attacking me personally – and not sticking to the issue. I have chosen not to raise those issues, because, quite frankly they do not lend anything to the Twitter debate of June 30.
What actually is taking place, to his obvious chagrin, is that Mr. Vegter’s debating style is militating against his assertions. He is being held to his own standards – and, it would appear, is not deriving much enjoyment at being required to defend statements that he has written – and spoken, such as “A more important reason why poor people have more children is that they grasp the simple economic fact that on average, a person’s potential production exceeds their likely consumption. They’re an economic benefit to their family, their village, and their country throughout their lives.” And, “The inevitable answer to this observation [within the context of global resource scarcity] is that even if people can produce enough to sustain themselves, we’re running out of resources. The problem is, we’re not. [asserts Vegter], This can be reliably concluded from the fact that even if a particular resource were to become particularly scarce, the price mechanism unfailingly makes it worth our while to economise, or seek alternatives, or both. Resource replacement has happened before, and will happen again, but more often, the opposite happens: improved productivity and new finds simply combines [sic] to match growing demand.”
I choose not to respond to the crude placement of an ‘s’ when referring to ‘the man or the ball’ – it is in the same vein as some of his apparent supporters on The Daily Maverick who appeared to derive amusement from the name of the theatre in Cape Town, at which he screened FrackNation. Mr. Vegter has saddled this horse, and now he must ride it.
 Footnote Shell, as far as I am aware, have not offered, to not make use of toxic chemicals in the shale gas mining process – merely to disclose what chemicals they intend to use. What, may I ask, difference does that make? Your water may still be at risk of toxic chemicals, but at least you will know what they are.