Media Political Reporting and What It Means for Democracy
By: Steven Friedman
IF you are on the wrong end of a battle in the African National Congress, all is not lost – you can get the media to say exactly what you want the country to hear.
This is on show as the ANC engages in what much of the media portrays as a titanic battle between two evenly matched factions which could spell its end –precisely what the faction loyal to former president Jacob Zuma and suspended secretary-general Ace Magashule wants the country to hear. If it is true, the costs of acting against their faction are high. But it is not true – all the evidence shows that the opposing faction, led by president Cyril Ramaphosa, is in control and gaining influence. And, while the ANC is in the midst of a slow decline, it is not coming apart any time soon.
This is a further example of a threat to democracy’s health: the way most of the media cover politics ensures that, when politicians peddle self-serving and fact-free stories in the hope of boosting their political fortunes, they can rely on the media to convey their message. The losers are the public who are misinformed when they think they are being informed.
The Wrong End of the Stick
What is the media’s evidence that a huge battle is waging in the ANC which could spell its doom?
Firstly, the manner in which Magashule reacted to his suspension – he claimed that he was still in his post and had suspended Ramaphosa. Media did not endorse this, but they did take it seriously. But there was no reason why Magashule’s claim should be taken any more seriously than businessman and former politician Tokyo Sexwale’s allegation that an amount greater than the country’s national wealth had been stolen (which was greeted by widespread mirth).
Magashule’s claim was ridiculous not only or even mainly because he was suspended and in no position to suspend anyone – he has challenged his suspension in court so may turn out not to have been suspended. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of the ANC’s constitution and procedures knows that secretaries-general cannot simply decide on their own to suspend top officials. A procedure is needed which was not followed. So Magashule was not suspending Ramaphosa – he was trying to make a point. This was obviously lost on much of the media.
Second, much was made by some media of audio clips of an ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting which were meant to show that the power of the two sides was evenly balanced and that the ANC faced a great crisis. But the clips were not the product of journalistic skill – they were leaked to the media by Magashule’s faction, who clearly had an interest in putting this story into the world. If any confirmation were needed, much is made of them in Magashule’s affidavit supporting his legal challenge to his suspension.
The clips were selective – no-one got hold of the full recording of the meeting. Given their origins, it took no great imagination to work out that the media was given only extracts which supported the Magashule faction view: they don’t necessarily reflect what happened at most of the meeting and may have distorted what the people captured on them said, as selective clips can easily do. Most important, the clips did not say what the media claimed they did, that the ANC was split down the middle and on the verge of collapse.
The first had NEC member Dakota Legoete complaining that Magashule was being unfairly treated. It is unclear why anyone who covers politics found this interesting. It is common knowledge that some members of the NEC support Magashule – Legoete happens to be one of them. So, all the clip showed is that Magashule still has at least one supporter on the committee; since almost half the members supported his faction when this NEC was elected in 2017, this is hardly surprising. Leaks from the meeting claimed that Magashule now has the support of only around a third of members, which suggests that Legoete’s view is rejected by two out of three NEC members. It should take no journalism training to work out that one person’s opinion tells us little about how a committee with more than 80 members feels.
A second had Limpopo premier Stan Mathabatha complaining that some ANC members who claim to be supporters of the president were ‘spreading lies and promoting factionalism’. Since Mathabatha is a Ramaphosa ally, this was presumably meant to signal that even his own supporters were breaking with his faction. But nothing he said suggests that –it takes no training to work out that complaining that some Ramaphosa supporters behave badly does not signal unhappiness with him or the faction he leads.
The third was a very selective extract from a speech by former president Thabo Mbeki in which he notes that members of the Magashule faction such as ANC Women’s League President Bathabile Dlamini have a point when they complain that the ANC is not in a healthy state. If Mbeki had become a Magashule ally and was convinced the ANC was on the verge of collapse this would be significant (although he may, of course, be wrong on the collapse). But, without the full speech, we have no idea what he was saying. Anyway, there might be many reasons why Mbeki feels the ANC is not as healthy as it should be and quoting someone whose views are opposed to yours is a common debating ploy. There is nothing in the clip to suggest that Mbeki has gone over to a faction which cost him the ANC presidency or that he thinks the ANC is close to collapse.
One more piece of media ‘evidence’ is the fact that some branches in KwaZulu Natal and North West have publicly supported Magashule and called for the NEC to be disbanded. Given the ANC’s divisions, the fact that some branches took this view is not newsworthy. What is interesting is that so few supported him publicly and that none in his Free State stronghold did. Equally interesting was that, in both provinces, which were not long ago firmly in the Zuma-Magashule camp, the provincial ANC took the opposite view. The KZN dissidents said the NEC was beyond redemption because it was now deciding issues by majority vote and was, therefore, divisive. Besides conveying a lack of enthusiasm for democracy, why worry about this unless the other side has the votes?
The Story, Not the Truth
Why did much of the media put into the world an account which was wrong and parroted what one side wanted the country to hear?
An obvious answer would be that, as if often noted some, journalists and media outlets have taken sides in the ANC’s internal divisions. This is true but not the most important reason why a false picture is sent into the world. Political reporting which takes sides is standard in any democracy. But it is not only media who support a particular faction who repeat its view without evidence – the practice is widespread.
Another obvious reason is that journalists like to sensationalise politics – ‘a war is breaking out’ is a sexier story than the reality that a faction is tightening its grip. This is a factor but the most important reason may be the role that inspired leaks play in this country’s politics.
Most journalists like nothing better than a ‘leak’ – information which would remain secret had the reporter not revealed it. Politicians, particularly those in the ANC, worked this out a long time ago and so they fight their battles by ‘leaking’ information to the media. This is not in itself a problem. But leaks have become so easy to come by that they now substitute for serious reporting in which journalists have to find out what is happening. This may be one reason why media report on ANC politics without any knowledge of its constitution or discuss its conference resolutions without having read them.
But the problem is worse than that. So keen are the reporters to maintain the flow of leaks that they don’t do what they are meant to do – check out whether they are true. One well-known political journalist, still seen as a leader in the field, covered an ANC conference from a coffee lounge in Johannesburg’s suburbs. He waited for the leaks to reach his phone and then worked them into reports. It should be obvious that politicians leak ‘information’ because they want to strengthen their position and so what they say may not be true. But unchecked leaks are a large part of political reporting here.
The latest reports on ANC conflicts may be a particularly stark example of passing off factional claims as news. But they are not unusual– they are the norm. As long as political journalism here mainly centres around repeating what politicians feed the media, citizens will be deprived of the accurate information they need to make democracy work.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor, faculty of humanities, politics department, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.