• The South African Idols presenter Gareth Cliff (38) has been embroiled in a legal battle between him and his bosses from M-Net following his dismissal due to his unsavoury comments on racism in South Africa.

    Cliff was dismissed by the channel following his controversial tweet in which is subtly defended the racist Penny Sparrow by saying that South Africans do not understand the difference between hate speech and freedom of speech. Immediately after the remark, South Africans thus vowed to make sure that Cliff was removed as a broadcaster. Subsequent to his tweet, Cliff thus apologised in a statement saying:

    “I’ve been an insensitive asshole many times. This whole saga with the idiotic comments of Penny Sparrow has upset me, but I must acknowledge the pain and anger of so many on Twitter who thought I would in any way condone the things she said. If you thought I was on the side of a racist,

    I assumed we were all already in agreement about how you can’t stand up FOR racism. If I didn’t make that clear, I apologise – sincerely,

    With regard to free speech and hate speech, I need to continue my education,” Cliff stated.

    However, his apology was not accepted by most social media users, and this forced the M-Net channel to suspend Cliff, and further dismissing him permanently as the SA Idols judge. After weeks of back and forth between the channel and Cliff’s legal team, Cliff resorted in suing the channel for R25 million for unfair dismissal and defamation.

    The channel responded to the demand, explaining that it will oppose the application as Cliff made it clear that he was not dependent on the channel for income. Furthermore, M-Net defended its decision because they believe that their brand was compromised after Cliff’s social media remarks.

    Despite the channel’s contempt, Cliff’s legal team has served the channel with papers. Cliff’s lawyer, Eric Mabuza stated, “I can confirm to you that the papers were served on M-Net. We await their response to indicate whether they want to oppose the whole application.”

    M-Net responds to Cliff’s affidavit

    The Channel’s Chief Executive Officer, Yolisa Phahle as part of the response from Cliff’s affidavit, submitted a detailed marketing and social media research showing how Cliff became “poison” for the M-Net and Idols brand. Phahle thus explained that in her affidavit the marketing intelligence and social media analysis that Cliff’s insensitive remarks on racism harmed the channel and what it stands for. 

    "If M-Net had permitted the 2016 season of Idols to continue with Gareth Cliff as judge and the threats and calls for a boycott had grown, it would have become even more problematic to address the situation at a later stage and the damage to the Idols and M-Net brands would already have occured," she said.

    According to social media marketing research M-Net submitted, there were 32 886 tweets mentioning Gareth Cliff between 4 and 12 January this year. Idols, M-Net, Mzansi Magic and DStv and MultiChoice were all suddenly mentioned in some of these tweets and social media discussions. Other big words that popped in these discussions due to the high frequency were "racist", "hate speech", "pennysparrow" and "hate".

    Phahle further added that prior to this debacle, she had asked Cliff to a meeting to which he showed up with his manager, Rina Broomberg. Phahle explained that she wanted to give Cliff an opportunity to explain himself, however his manager stated that they were not there to answer questions.

    "I felt that it was important to give Gareth the opportunity to save face publicly by voluntarily stepping down from the show," says Yolisa Phahle in the affidavit. "He was not interested in issuing a joint statement".

    Phahle also added that in the entertainment industry, perceptions are everything, and public response therefore underlies the success or failure of a business.

    Cliff has also has a few remarks on his dismissal describing it as “quite peculiar” considering how other judges have been dealt with in the past when they were involved in similar situations.

    Cliff also expressed his disappointment with the channel, after serving as a judge for SA Idols since 2003.