So David Bullard didn't believe the column he wrote that led to the Sunday Times axing him?  The Mail & Guardian's ombud, Franz Kruger, discusses the underlying opinions satire often reveals.

Franz Kruger writes in the Mail & Guardian:

I was struck by one sentence in the apology written by axed Sunday Times columnist David Bullard for the article that abruptly ended his tenure at the paper.

"I can't claim to believe everything I have written because some columns were written purely for sensation," he wrote. Elsewhere, he has referred to his writing as "showbiz".

"My brief is to be outrageous — a guy who upsets people on a Sunday and sells newspapers," he told the Saturday Star.

In the apology, carried in Business Day, he came across as honestly chastened by the outcry. He cited the various comments that drew most fire and said he was sorry for each.

In the context of the generous support he received when he was shot in a robbery, he wrote: "I betrayed the friendship of so many unseen good friends and that is unforgivable."

But there was also that hint that he should not have been taken seriously, that the column was simply written "for sensation".

It was a way of backing away from views that have earned him such a torrent of criticism. "I didn't mean it" is every child's excuse when in trouble.

But it took him straight into another difficulty. The Press Code says the press is entitled to comment freely "provided such comments are fairly and honestly made".

The idea of columnists writing simply to upset people, choosing views on the basis of what will make the biggest waves, is surely problematic. It's a way of making fools of your readers, a form of trickery. After all, people get upset only if they take you seriously.

Of course there is an element of showbiz in newspapers. Strong views and controversy are interesting and writers who have a pointed style are sought after commodities. As a result writers will often look for the strongest possible way to say something.

But their credibility rests on an assumption that at some level they are making a serious point — expressing a view they actually hold. And that applies also to satire and humour.

Even cartoonists have a discernible opinion. Take Zapiro, for instance, who created the image of Jacob Zuma with a shower clamped to his head, an image that is indelibly engraved on the country's consciousness. It's pretty clear what Zapiro's point is: that Zuma will never get rid of the burden of his testimony about showers and Aids.

In Bullard's case the underlying point was also clear: black people are "indolent savages", as Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya put it. They should be grateful to white colonialists for having dragged them out of their primitive lives. Along the way, he made various insulting references, for which he has now apologised.

The Washington Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, recently dealt with the outcry over an opinion piece that wrote off women as generally dim and superficial. She wrote: "Readers come to the newspaper looking for news, facts, analysis, opinion and a little fun. They do not come to The Post to be insulted."

The reaction against the Bullard column was driven by the specific insulting references, but more importantly by the underlying views they revealed. The outrage was no sense-of-humour failure.

Makhanya felt after a discussion with the columnist that he really did hold these views. And it's noticeable that Bullard's own attempts to distance himself from them remain half-hearted.

Professor Anton Harber of Wits University points out that satirists and humorists create a persona to convey things they really want to say. Bullard created the image of an upper-class English toff living the high life in Africa while looking down on everybody else.

Pictures of him always feature cigars and pinstriped trousers. There's much drinking of expensive whisky. Crucially, the image lacks any sense of irony.

It's small wonder that, driven by the relentless hunt for controversy, and by the resonance of these views in some parts of the white community, that persona carried him into these racist waters.

I welcome the decision by the Mail & Guardian editor, Ferial ­Haffajee, to step back from the Clover advertising campaign.

She has pointed out she was not paid, and that she did not know exactly how the images would be used: in supermarkets and with the compromising slogan, "Ferial Haffajee for Clover".

It is not always easy to navigate the line between advertising and editorial, but I believe it must be done. Journalism has to be careful of anything that may create a perception of conflict of interest. In this case the campaign tried to present itself as a tribute to iconic women, but in the end its brand-building aims emerged as primary.

It takes courage to admit a mistake. Haffajee deserves a great deal of credit for doing so. 

*  Frans Kruger is the ombud of the Mail & Guardian. This column first appeared on May2 2008.