Last weekend South Africans and many across the globe witnessed a City Press newspaper screaming “Mbeki is back”. Without wanting to jump my guns, I read the report to reasonably make up my mind. It was after reading the entire report – and a related one – that I believed the report was speculative and misleading at best, to a reasonable reader, that is.
Because of this I then took to Twitter to say, maybe, just maybe the proper headline should have been: “Mbeki is back, sort of”. I am not sure what difference, if any, it would have made had this been the headline, but I had a strong belief that it would have given the readers, reasonable ones nogal, an idea that events that had taken places in recent weeks suggested that former president Thabo Mbeki is considering returning to the day-to-day politics as he has been very quiet from the public spaces since his recall in 2008 – except when given the space by certain institutions – mostly higher education – to address them.
City Press claimed Mbeki had “made a dramatic jump back into local politics after almost three years of self-imposed silence” and that “in recent weeks he has re-emerged on the domestic political scene in a more aggressive way than ever before”. This re-emergence was based on three points, that:
- He criticised former Special Investigation Unit boss Advocate Willem Heath for claiming he [Mbeki] was behind President Jacob Zuma’s corruption and rape charges,
- He received a warm welcome at the African National Congress centenary celebration in Bloemfontein in early January, and that
- ANC Youth President Julius Malema had apparently asked him to get more involved in domestic politics, saying his presence was “depriving us of that intellectual wealth”.
The newspaper had interviewed 10 sources to back-up it story, and even those “sources” were not sure what role, if any at all, Mbeki would play on his return – as had been suggested by City Press. Nevertheless, the newspaper said it had established that although Mbeki would not want to play any leading role in the ruling party, he would, however, “be influential in the party in the lead-up to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December  by advising party leaders on leadership matters and playing a mediation role between the warring factions”.
And it was only ANC NEC member Parlo Jordan who was quoted as saying “it’s about bloody time [Mbeki returned to politics]”. All sources remained nameless. The newspaper further sought to attempt to give three scenarios of what could happen on Mbeki’s “return”.
Responding to City Press, Eusebius McKaiser penned a critical piece of the newspaper which I entirely agree with. This was just a “non-story”, he said. And even if Mbeki were to agree to meeting Malema – that cannot and should not be read as his “return” to politics nor should it be suggested as his “intention… to return to active domestic politics”. If this is what makes news, then we have a serious problem with our media because – as I have previously suggested – this gives reasonable readers the impression that news is speculated and not fact.
Further, if this continues to be what makes up news – then, as McKaiser suggested, “this is a problem that is going to be widespread this year as political journalists scramble to provide their editors with stories”. And this is the same issue I raised on my criticism of a Sowetan newspaper early this month. But this week City Press editor Ferial Haffejee defended the newspaper.
Haffejee said that that the newspaper’s headline was misleading as “it gave the impression” that Mbeki “had said yes” to Malema’s meeting request was not true, saying “City Press logic does not hold”. She defended queries on why 10 anonymous sources were used except Jordan.
Haffejee claimed, quoting the South African Press Codes, that: “The press shall avoid the use of anonymous sources unless there is no other way to handle a story. Care should be taken to corroborate the information”.
It seems Haffejee applies the Press Codes selectively when it suites her newspaper, and I will elaborate on this later. But before I do that I need to get this out of the way: nowhere in the report was Mbeki consulted. Because of this it is not clear, therefore, whether the report is a “news” item or it is “an analysis” by the newspaper. If so, why is this not stated in the report? Or we should just make up our mind like I did mine when I saw the report?
One of the first Press Codes the press is obliged to comply with is “to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”. And City Press’ failure to indicate whether the said report was a “news” item or “an analysis” resulted in reasonable readers like myself concluding that it was clearly a “news” item because the editor defended the report and even quoted the Press Codes where it refers to the usage anonymous sources when reporting on news.
Further – and this is a point raised earlier – Mbeki as subject of the report was not consulted. And if he was, but gave no response, the codes Haffejee so boldly quotes clearly states that: “only what may reasonably be true, having regard to the sources of the news, may be presented as fact, and such facts shall be published fairly with due regard to context and importance. Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinions, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly”.
This was not the case with this report as not even Mbeki’s spokesperson, Mukone Ratshitanga was consulted nor was it indicated in the report that he was not available for comment at the time. And here’s what the codes says on this point: “if there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report”.
The Press Codes further says the press “should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication; provided that this need not be done where the publication has reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so it would be prevented from publishing the report or where evidence might be destroyed or witnesses intimidated”. Clearly both City Press and Haffejee had failed to provide proof in this report where there were “reasonable ground for believing that by (not seeking Mbeki’s comment or his spokesperson prior to publication) it would have been prevented from publishing the report or where evidence might be destroyed or witnessed intimidated”.
Haffejee admits that the new refurbished Press Codes were “beefed-up” because it had “become increasingly common for newspapers to published information from anonymous sources without any attempts to corroborate it” – something exactly City Press did because only “sources” it quoted spoke of Mbeki’s possible return, but certainly not Jordan. He did not corroborated City Press’ sources’ claim that Mbeki will return to politics except to say that was not possible (that he would seek to the country’s presidency seat) because he had “reached the top of the tree” and that he would welcome his return (my emphasis).
And it was, unfortunately, disturbing for an editor like Haffejee and of a newspaper like City Press to suggest that: “newspapers and journalists are allowed to throw their sangoma bones and speculate on what is likely to happen” and that “their readings of the bones [therefore] should clearly indicate that they are mere speculation and not facts”.
It is therefore very sad and unfortunate that our media – whose freedom to report “truthfully, accurately and fairly” and without any interference from government –would go to this extent of feeding us speculated news as facts that cost us about R10 (in the case of City Press) which is a lot of money, if you can get it. And if this observation is true, then our editors (and journos too) as leaders in newsroom “should remember the lessons from journalism 101” as advised by McKaiser, and that they “must raise the journalism bar” not with speculations but just news. And if it is an “analysis” – it should be clearly stated as such!
Just so you know – I was in the middle of writing a piece titled Why ANC has no dustbins for comrades which I have since abandoned after seeing Haffejee’s response which I strongly believed needed a proper and detailed analysis, hence this article.