The lead story in the Mail & Guardian two weeks ago contained a buried landmine. About six paragraphs in, the story raised the explosive possibility of a romantic relationship between President Jacob Zuma and the chairperson of SAA, Duduzile Myeni (JZ links to ‘untouchable’ SAA boss).
The story as a whole was focused on the relationship between the two and the impact this might have on her position at SAA. It has been reported that Myeni is facing down Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown in her attempts to intervene in the troubled airline’s affairs.
Clearly, if Myeni is using a close relationship with the president for political cover, that is of significant public interest. And if that relationship is sexual, it raises the stakes.
That’s not just because our interest is immediately piqued by any talk about prominent people sleeping with each other. In a context of this kind it matters: if there is, or was, a sexual relationship, particularly a long-running one, and it has become a factor in the current battles around SAA, there is obvious public interest.
Zuma is known for his, shall we say, colourful private life, which has had significant impact on our politics as well as on the spending of taxpayers’ money.
So it does matter what exactly is meant when the report uses the word “intimate” to describe the relationship. Does it mean sexually intimate, or just close?
Reading the story, I was immediately struck by the fact that the suggestion of a sexual relationship was not highlighted. Any number of other newspapers would have zoned in on this, and one can imagine the screaming headlines that some Sunday tabloids might have relished.
Stefaans Brümmer, the managing partner of the investigative amaBhungane unit, which produced the report, points out that in South Africa there is still some delicacy about reporting on the sex lives of politicians. In some other countries this is standard fare. It would have felt uncharacteristically “tabloidy” for the M&G to have highlighted this aspect.
It could also have distracted from the bigger question of how it may be having an impact on public life. The piece, appropriately, was focused on that relationship in broad terms, not just the possible romantic aspect.
But there was another issue. The evidence of a close relationship is clear. Myeni chairs the Jacob Zuma Foundation and the report provides several examples of personal connection, from Zuma’s attendance at a family wedding to her son using the president’s Forest Town home as a base. In any event, she confirms that she is among his friends, but insists this is not a factor in her professional life. So far, so predictable.
The evidence for this being a romantic relationship felt less solid, and this felt like a second reason to downplay the claim somewhat. The first reference to an affair says that rumours to this effect “were not denied this week”. I read that and felt less than persuaded. It’s a bit like asking somebody whether they have stopped beating their wife. And rumours are, well, rumours.
Admittedly, there is more to come. One source, who saw interactions between the two that created the impression of intimacy, although there were no displays of affection, is cited. Another “did not deny” there was once an affair but said there was not one at present. Some money has moved between the two in a way that suggests she and her family are integrated into his.
There are a range of possible explanations and counters for each of them. Brümmer argues that, taken together, they create a clear picture that was strong enough to publish. He also says the lack of denial, both from the second source and from Myeni herself, is significant.
If so, more could have been done to highlight this point. As a reader, I remained unconvinced. The pieces of the puzzle are suggestive, perhaps, but not conclusive.
The question is how high the bar needs to be set for claims of this kind. In my view, the higher the stakes the stronger the evidence needs to be. It is simply not enough to rely on the readers’ trust; we need to be persuaded that the story is solid.
It must be made as hard as possible for spin doctors to dismiss reports as simply speculative. It’s not only the particular story whose credibility must be protected; it is that of the journalist and newspaper as a whole.
There is a great danger that reporters can get carried away by their beliefs and start reading more into information they have than it can support. It is easy to believe that something is so because it simply must be. The basic facts may stand, but they may not be strong enough to support the inferences drawn.
One needs to write for a sceptical reader who comes to the matter cold.
Of course, this particular claim may well turn out to be true. Down the line, additional evidence may emerge. There have been other stories that started out as wild speculation and turned out to be rock solid. But that doesn’t help.
Stories need to be judged on their merits at the time of publication.
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