ANC: Devious or Dim?

It's a new game. It’s called "Devious or Dim?", and the rules are simple. We take a statement by the ANC that's blatantly incorrect, and you, the people, judge: is it consciously a lie, or is it just an inability to understand facts? Is it Devious? Or is it Dim?

Today's entry is an ANC press release penned by Jackson Mthembu, headlined "Press Ombudsman vindicates Comrade Tony Yengeni and the ANC on the Mail & Guardian". The statement goes on to claim that "the appeal panel of the Press Council has vindicated the ANC's assertion that the M&G is on a rampage to discredit the African National Congress and its leadership".

Let’s look at the facts, rather than the rhetoric. What Yengeni complained about was:

"A front page headline in the M&G, published on June 14 2013, stating: Revealed: Yengeni's R6-million 'kickback' agreement – German police find record of deal signed by ANC heavyweight when he headed Parliament's defence committee. He also complained about the story itself, headlined Yengeni’s R6m ‘bribe deal’ – Raid on German company revealed 'bribe' to Yengeni to secure purchase of corvettes.

"He complains that these headlines and the story were defamatory and unfair, and based on [unpublished] gossip that had been designed to impugn his name and integrity."

What the press ombud found was that one of the M&G’s headlines was unfair. "The newspaper is not correct in arguing that it was sufficient to have used inverted commas only for the word 'kickback' – by not using inverted commas for the words 'agreement', 'revealed' and 'find' as well, it in fact recorded these allegations as fact. To portray allegations [as reported in the story] as fact [in a headline] is not reasonable and does not meet the criterion set by the Press Code. As such, the headline may unnecessarily have harmed Yengeni."

Fair enough, and we will publish an apology next week, when it has been approved by the ombud. But nowhere is there evidence that the "press ombud vindicates Comrade Tony Yengeni and the ANC on the M&G". On the contrary, what the finding said, quite baldly, was this:

"Finding.

"The story: This part of the complaint is dismissed."

This is the bit where you, the reader, get to vote. "Devious, or Dim?" Although some ANC leaders appear to prefer games like "Deal or no Deal", and "Who wants to be a millionaire?", let's give this one a go anyway. Is it possible that the ANC spokesperson actually believes that the fact that the ombud finds that Tony Yengeni's complaint against the M&G's story is groundless means that Yengeni is "vindicated"? As opposed to the rather more obvious interpretation, which is that the M&G's story is vindicated? Let me repeat the finding, since it's a pretty complicated sentence:

"The story: This part of the complaint is dismissed."

Now, as much as I think it'd be damn funny if President Zuma did emigrate to Australia because he's depressed about all the bad news (imagine how well he'd fit in with the other whingers around the braai), the M&G is actually in the business of helping our fellow citizens build a better South Africa for all. So although we'd prefer not to have to write about "the opposite of the positive", in Zuma's own memorable phrase, it's a little difficult to ignore the issues we have to deal with as a country.

I tried rewriting some stories in a less opposite-of-positive way. So for example, instead of the very opposite-of-positive way that the minister in the presidency for performance, monitoring and evaluation tells us that "80% [of national government departments] were noncompliant with service-delivery improvement requirements", I wanted us to go with "Breakthrough! 20% national government departments compliant with service-delivery improvement requirements!" But alas, we don't have the luxury of treating people like idiots. (But "Here's some good news, President Zuma".)

As to the rest of the ANC's press statement, which claims that "the appeal panel of the Press Council has vindicated the ANC's assertion that the M&G is on a rampage to discredit the African National Congress and its leadership", well … again, you get to vote. Devious, or Dim? The Press Council in fact said that our story was justified.

We are not on a rampage of any kind, but we are fiercely committed to exposing corruption and malfeasance in our country, be it by government officials or private individuals. As much as the ANC would love to demonise the media as "the enemy", in a hapless effort to deflect people's attention from the very real problems the organisation is prey to, it's not going to work.

Some members of the ANC need to realise that democracy isn't a process whereby citizens choose the party that makes them smile. It's a process whereby citizens choose the party that gets the job done, and instead of making excuses for its ethical and procedural lapses, actually tries to fix them. Standing in a corner and whining about how everyone is picking on you is not a great way to instil confidence in your voters.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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