‘Mbeki is back’? Well...

2012-01-21 11:21

We decided last week on the main headline “Mbeki Is Back”. Not “Is Mbeki back?” or “Mbeki: Is he back?”, the other options. Readers prefer statements to questions. We know this from experience.

And it felt clear enough to me that we meant back on the political landscape, not back in office. This had, after all, been the story of the week. While some readers liked the bold analytical headline and its analytical lead story, many others did not.

I’ve therefore asked the press ombudsman Joe Thloloe for his opinion. Thloloe thinks last week’s headline went too far and warned that political reporting must be watertight in this watershed year.

I accept his view on the headline and heed the caution on the road to Mangaung which can be hazardous and potholed for journalists. While we reported deeply – a total of 15 people were interviewed while 10 of those were asked about Mbeki – Thloloe believes we granted anonymity too easily. Getting political sources to speak on the record is tough when careers are up for making or breaking and we try hard to push for on-record comment.

Below is Thloloe’s view. I’d like to hear yours too.

“The headline over last Sunday’s lead story in City Press – Mbeki Is Back – was misleading as it gave the impression that (former) president Thabo Mbeki had said yes to the ANC Youth League suit to get him to return to active ANC politics.

The opening line of the story, “Former president Thabo Mbeki made a dramatic jump back into local politics after almost three years of self-imposed silence”, continues to lead us up the trail laid by the headline.

Three items are listed to prop up the story of Mbeki’s return to local politics:
» “He slammed Advocate Willem Heath for stating that he was behind President Jacob Zuma’s corruption and rape charges”;

» “He appeared at the ANC’s 100-year bash in Bloemfontein...to thunderous applause”; and

» “ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema asked him to get more involved in domestic politics”.

These three items have been interpreted by the newspaper as Mbeki re-emerging “on the domestic scene in a more aggressive way than ever before”.

The City Press logic does not hold.

When the new head of the Special Investigating Unit accuses anybody of serious abuse of power, it is only natural that the person defends himself; an audience’s applause at his entrance at an event does not mean that the person is aggressively “re-emerging on the domestic scene”; and when he is invited to get involved in domestic politics, it does not mean he has agreed to do so.

After this sensational preamble, the story then comes down to earth: 10 sources “could see Mbeki returning to play a role in the party”. This is a dramatic climb down from the story about Mbeki who is back and ceases to be front-page material.

This is, in fact, a speculative story following up on the youth league’s invitation: What would Mbeki’s role be if he decided to return to domestic politics?

The journalists interviewed nine sources that they don’t name – Pallo Jordan is the only published name – and the reader wonders why they had to be anonymous.

There was no reason for the newspaper to grant people they interviewed anonymity when this was really a survey among ANC members, asking them if they could envisage Mbeki playing a role in the ANC today.

The answers do not place any person in any danger.

The South African Press Code states: “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.”

One critic, Eusebius McKaiser, has pointed out in Politicsweb that this form of journalism “will happen the whole
year until the ANC’s elective conference is over: pseudo-lead stories borne out of a desire to do better than other newspapers even at the cost of evidence-based reasoning”.

It has become increasingly common for newspapers to publish information from anonymous sources without any attempt to corroborate it. The beefed-up Press Code addresses this.

On page 2 of the same issue, City Press acknowledged that it had itself constructed three scenarios of what Mbeki’s return to politics could signify, but again the headline was misleading: What does Mbeki’s return mean?

This gives the impression that Mbeki has returned.

Newspapers and journalists are allowed to throw their sangoma bones and speculate on what is likely to happen, but their readings of the bones should clearly indicate that they are mere speculation and not facts.”

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