How the news agenda is being shaped by invisible power-brokers
PICTURE: TREVOR SAMSON
Under apartheid, political news was what the government allowed us to know. Now it is what politicians and the journalists to whom they "leak" stories want us to know. In both cases, we battle to tell truth from fiction.
A report claiming that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan faces "imminent arrest" follows the fashion among political reporters by relying on "leaks" from politicians or officials. So common has this become that most of our political news is based on leaks; a senior political reporter covered an entire ANC conference by sitting in a Johannesburg café, relying on text message leaks from politicians.
On the surface, the willingness of politicians to share confidences tells us what we would not otherwise know. But it is just as likely to mislead us. Political battles in this country are fought through leaks: politicians and officials use them to strengthen their position and weaken opponents.
They are not feeding stories to reporters because they want to increase our knowledge, but because, whether the "leaks" are true or not, they suit their agenda. Because the source of the leak is never named, they can get away with half-truths or untruths.
This might not be a problem if reporters carefully checked the information. Reporters who receive such leaked information should treat it with suspicion precisely because it comes from people trying to gain an advantage.
They are meant to check it with sources who have no axe to grind and balance it by speaking to those the leak targets. Even if the information is accurate, reporters may need to explain the context, since this can make a huge difference.
It seems likely, for example, that the Hawks want to prosecute Gordhan, but they don’t make the final decision, which means that his "imminent" arrest may never happen. And, while the sources of leaks can’t be named, reporters should tell their audience enough about the "leaker" to enable us to know what their motives might be.
But reporters rarely do this and so much political news is what people pushing an agenda want us to hear. A senior reporter, asked on radio a couple of days ago how reliable their sources were, replied: "Well, sources are sources, but we feel it is our duty to tell the public what they say."
Why is that a duty if you are not sure that the leaks are true?
Truth is an inevitable victim. If there is a threat to Gordhan, it is partly a result of a Sunday Times report relying on leaks that claimed South African Revenue Service officials set up a "rogue unit". It apologised after the press ombudsman found the report "inaccurate, misleading and unfair".
But leaks are not always untrue — if they were, we could ignore them. They are sometimes true and sometimes not, and we have no way of knowing which they are. Since they are often alarmist, we are being told to worry, but have no way of knowing whether the threat is real.
Addiction to leaks makes fighting corruption more difficult because we never know whether allegations are true, or politically inspired, or both. It weakens democracy because the information on which citizens form opinions is suspect.
All these problems are worsened by the role of social media, where anyone can put anything into the world, true or not, and find enough people to believe them.
What can be done to change this? First prize would be a refusal by media to publish leaks unless they are thoroughly checked, the full context is provided and the people named have replied. If that does not happen, citizens need to be far more sceptical of these reports than many of us are now.
It is useful to react to what happens, not what media say will happen. Gordhan has not been charged, the Cabinet has not been reshuffled. If either happen, there will be time to worry about them then. This makes more sense than fretting about something that may not happen.
It is best to doubt media reports based on leaks unless we know more about their source, why they were put into the world and whether we have been told the full story. If reporters won’t tell us what is true and what is not, we are forced to figure that out for ourselves.
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy
This article first appeared in Business Day