I have to have the most difficult job in the world.
One minute I spend my time advising clients to embrace the media and not be scared of them. The very next, I find myself defending my clients from unbecoming and somewhat unethical behaviour by some in the media.
I was reminded of this last week when I had to deal with an intrigued (note, not aggrieved) client who felt hard done by The Citizen.
Let us recap. For the past three to four weeks The Citizen has published a string of articles suggesting that radio and TV personality, Redi Tlhabi lied about very serious and important facts in her award-winning book Endings and Beginnings.
In the book, Tlhabi writes about a ‘Mabegzo’, whom she claims was born out of a tragic gang rape of a woman who subsequently left South Africa for Lesotho and gave her son up to relatives in Orlando East, Soweto.
The Citizen was approached by a family claiming that Tlhabi’s Mabegzo was actually a fictitious person and the ‘real’ person she wrote about was their son who was not born to a woman Tlhabi claims is the real mother.
The reporter put a few questions to Tlhabi in the process of writing a few stories, but for objective and subjective reasons – including space, time and deadlines – she believes that her responses were never captured well and sufficiently.
Well, such is the nature of the beast. Tlhabi as a journalist herself should know better.
Subsequent to this, I advised her to step back, breathe in and out, reflect and not take any more interviews until she had truly thought hard about this matter.
Of course this exposed her to another attack of going ‘AWOL’ and not addressing the media’s questions.
Another friend of mine, Pinky Khoabane, also subsequently wrote in the selfsame The Citizen lamenting Tlhabi’s prolonged silence. Khoabane, who is a seasoned communications expert, was right; silence is never a good response.
In spite of what the court of public opinion may think, I was comfortable that Tlhabi take a little while longer to reply. I just felt that she was put into a defensive corner and made to give undercooked responses.
Who wouldn’t be really? It is not the nicest thing to wake up to a headline screaming ‘Redi Tlhabi is a Liar’. Most of us would react the way she did, if only to save one’s dignity.
After about two weeks, I decided that the only way Tlhabi could get her story across, unmediated, was by requesting The Citizen to allow her theR right of reply. She agreed. The Citizen, to its credit, obliged her.
And so the right of reply was crafted and published. Generously, The Citizen published it almost word for word, in spite of the fact that it was almost twice the required length for their columns.
In her right of reply, Tlhabi repeated that she stood by her story. She stated that she would not avail the mother of her protagonist to The Citizen, mainly because this woman refused to be in the news and get entangled in this public spat.
Most critically though, Tlhabi writes: “I am deeply sorry that the Mapitse is hurt. If there are any similarities between their life and that of my protagonist, they are purely coincidental. I would hate them to live the rest of their lives believing this is a story about their life. I am confident that they are not the characters in my book. I remain confident that I have related to the best of my ability the events related by my sources.
“If I am proven wrong, I will not hesitate to acknowledge and apologise for this.”
So far so good.
But on the very same day that the right of reply was published, the paper ran a concurrent story, in reference to the right of reply and making ridiculous – and dare I say untrue – inferences from what she wrote.
In the story and the headline, The Citizen claimed that Tlhabi admits to her “half-baked book”.
Now, respectfully, the story of admitting a “half-baked book” is a lie. Tlhabi does not admit to anything. She actually not only stands by her story, but also explains why she thinks the Mapitses claims are not hands-down plausible.
Mostly importantly, as stated above, she says, if proven wrong, she would apologise publicly. For all I care, Tlhabi could be lying. But what matters to me is that she has agreed to apologise if she’s found wanting.
How The Citizen reached this conclusion not only baffles the mind, but really leaves one flabbergasted about how journalists can be so married to their story, however shaky and in spite of other facts casting reasonable doubt on such story.
Even more intriguing, for a paper that has run no less than four stories and a column on Tlhabi and her book, The Citizen did not have the courtesy to give her the right of reply and leave it there.
Instead, as Tlhabi said to me, they decided to write their own right of reply to her right of reply. How odd.
Four stories and a column on the one side. A 900-word right of reply piece on the other. Was this not enough to leave it to the court of public opinion to make its judgment about whom to believe?
When journalism becomes a personal crusade by a reporter or a medium, more often than not, some basic rules and tenets of the industry get lost because these tend to work against the crusade.
Just as a cherry on top, The Citizen made mention that Tlhabi is using a reputation manager – being me. They forgot to mention that this reputation manager is the very same guy the paper called to try and reach Tlhabi in the very first place.
Rams Mabote is a journalist, spin doctor, connector, author and MC, and hosts a current affairs show on Metro FM. He owns the consultancy, The Kingmaker. Follow him on Twitter @ramsmabote.
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.