Helen Zille and The New Age fought for space on the front pages of the country’s newspapers again this week, and it wasn’t a pretty sight for the media industry. The DA leader and premier of the Western Cape accused the media of “not getting it” over the issue of whether President Jacob Zuma’s benefactors, the Gupta family, had in fact donated money to the DA.
The New Age and the ANC accused her of hypocrisy. Enter Western Cape ANC leader, Marius Fransman. “The DA boasts it just spent R4 million cash on it provincial office in Cape Town… Where does this money come from? Could it be sponsored by the likes of generous companies who won lucrative contracts from the DA-run government – like TBWA\ Hunt Lascaris?” he asked.
Zille responded. “Of course, there are risks associated with confidentiality as well – such as the opportunity this creates for people with malicious agendas, such as Marius Fransman, to invent insane allegations, such as that the DA received R4-million from the Guptas to renovate our Cape Town offices! That is so ludicrous that most thinking people would just dismiss it. But some journalists took it seriously and gave it substantial airtime. Within minutes it was being repeated on social media as ‘fact’,” Zille wrote.
“Most journalists didn’t get it. They kept asking me whether we had received money from the Guptas. I kept replying: Ask Them. If they wish to answer the question, they are free to do so. Indeed, I would welcome them clearing this matter up.”
The New Age came back with a story about the long-running TBWA/Hunt Lascaris communications tender that has dogged the DA in the Western Cape for a few years, despite the Public Protector ultimately clearing the party of wrongdoing.
DA head of strategic communications then gave The New Age a tongue-lashing, calling its report “as hysterical, inaccurate and obstinate as a rebuked three year old. Fine for a three year old – not so much for a national newspaper.
“The headline and story are factually inaccurate, misleading and clearly motivated by animus. Consequently, we will be submitting a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman.”
By this time readers could be forgiven for being confused, because it certainly appeared many reporters were too. Zille accused them of reporting rumours as fact, and it certainly seemed as if some journalists were using other media outlets as sources, and not verifying information for themselves.
Did the media ”not get it” as Zille charges? Has the media reported this story in a clear and coherent manner? The Media Online asked media analysts what they thought about the continuing saga.
“It’s all hysterical – and this makes for entertaining journalism – I am not morally outraged by any of the reporting on this saga,” says Glenda Daniels, former journalist and senior researcher at Wits Journalism. “It does not surprise me in the least that journalists keep prodding her about whether she received money from the Guptas – why is she so outraged, they are just doing their jobs.
Unisa’s Dr Julie Reid says the drama this week was “less about the state of journalism in SA and more about how our politicians/government deal with the media”.
“Political reporting is not an easy job, and journalists have to try and make sense of the various different bits and pieces of info that they are getting from all sides of each political camp, then they need to try to string that together into a coherent story. It’s a complicated business, and I think political journalists can be forgiven if they get things a little mixed up every now and then.
“Government officials and politicians have a crucially important role to play in all of this, though: they really have a rather large piece of responsibility to make sure that journalists get things right (even though they don’t want to admit it – its much easier to simply lash the media than take responsibility),” Reid says.
Daniels believes Zille should take the lead and “insist her donors allow themselves to be disclosed – all the better for transparency and democracy in the country. Once one party discloses all – imagine how stupid the other parties will feel!” she says.
At the same time, Daniels says some of Zille’s statements are off the mark. “Zille saying she couldn’t get hold of the Guptas – because she had a number that was not operational – is rather weak and pathetic. She used to once be a journalist, she ought to know how to get numbers, plus she is now one of the politically connected rulers of this country,” she says.
Reid believes the “misunderstandings” of the press were “also logically drawn conclusions”.
“In her response letter Zille points out that many of the ‘facts’ reported by the media were mere misunderstandings (e.g., her supposed hypocrisy for speaking at a breakfast in February 2012, but turning down this year’s invitation). However, I think these misunderstandings by the press, although perhaps mistaken, were also logically drawn conclusions,” Reid says.
“I think Zille should recognise that the ‘hypocrisy’ she was accused of by the media, although perhaps not fair, was reasonably perceived by the press. That said, her reaction in her letter is a good one: point things out as they really happened, clear up any misunderstandings, tell us the whole truth, and then ask ‘so where’s the scandal’ (we assume of course she IS telling the truth). Imagine, for example, each time the media latched onto something scandalous to do with the ANC – if the President could write us a letter clearing everything up and putting our mind at ease. How wonderful. He could begin with: Dear South Africans, I would like to tell you the full story about how the cost of my possie at Nkandla escalated to over R206 000 000’…”
Daniels says the whole affair shows just how “dirty” politics can get in South Africa. “I find it astonishing and a good story that Zille had a meal at the Guptas and got funds from someone closely connected with them – shows how dirty politics is – with everyone, not just the ANC. It’s so bizarre that she had to collect a cheque at the Guptas – could she not have asked to meet her donor somewhere else, knowing as she did what a scandalous relationship the Guptas have with Zuma,” she says.
And she sums it all up. “Fransman statement? Hysterical. Nick Clelland – as hysterical as The New Age. Helen Zille – having a meal at the Guptas and getting funds from one of their connections? Priceless.”
Seriously, though, both Reid and Daniels say the reporting of rumour as fact is an issue of concern in South African journalism.
“That journalists often post rumours as fact is true – this is now part of the social media culture or milieu – everyone wants to be first with the news…and so far too quickly post things, without verifying – it’s a horrible trend,” Daniels says.
Reid says she doesn’t believe there is an alarming trend towards taking that route, but that journalists do need to fact-check especially when reporting on politics. “Journalists too often get caught up as pawns in political mud-slinging and simply buy into what politicians say about their opponents, which isn’t responsible journalism. Everything that politicians say should be treated as hearsay until its been verified.
“In this case it would have been quite easy to do. After Fransman accused the DA of a R4 mill upgrade on the provincial office, journalists should have tried to verify that with the provincial office itself, and asked to see the budget/finances of the refurbishment work; they are entitled to this because its public money that’s being spent. If the DA had refused to hand over this info, it would have indicated a lack of transparency on the part of that party… then THAT would have been the real story,” Reid says.
She says the problem with political reporting in South Africa is that journalists and editors are overly obsessed with it, and there is just too much of it too. “Every mainstream newspaper allocates a great deal of space to political reporting and government scandals – all of that is important and it is in the public interest, so yes, it must get ‘airtime’ in the papers,” says Reid.
“Very little space is given to stories emanating from grassroots communities – the only time this type of journalism ever happens is if local communities ‘go on the rampage’, such as the farm workers in De Doorns, or the community in Sasolburg. Otherwise, the mainstream press largely ignores local communities. This is a huge pity, because if you want to find stories about political scandal, corruption, mismanagement, and the like, you need look no further than your average local municipal office. The real scandal in SA is how the poor are being grossly failed by the state in almost every respect.”