On the Mail & Guardian website this week there was a sharp exchange between the Rhodes journalism lecturer, Robert Brand, and the Guardian's Africa correspondent, Chris McGreal, over his newspaper's reporting, last month, on a leaked report supposedly emanating from within the South African presidency. Brand has been highly critical of the Guardian's failure, thus far, to publish a retraction of the story - despite repeated government denials.
The issue goes back to August 8 when Reuters ran an article on a "confidential" draft report on the mediation process between ZANU-PF and the MDC - which President Thabo Mbeki was expected to present to SADC later in the month. The headline was "Mugabe nears deal with Zimbabwe opposition."
Buried deep within the article was the claim that the draft report had stated, "The most worrisome thing is that the UK continues to deny its role as the principle protagonist in the Zimbabwean issue and is persisting with its activities to isolate Zimbabwe."
The story was picked up by the Pretoria News on August 9, and the report was also mentioned in Zimbabwe's Financial Gazette on the same day. It described the document as "a preliminary report prepared by Mbeki's mediation team."
On August 10 the report was referred to in Beeld and in Business Day. The latter story discussed the question of whether a deal could indeed be close. Towards the end it said that according to the report:
"None of the western countries that have imposed the sanctions that are strangling Zimbabwe's economy have shown any willingness to lift them. [The] government and Zanu (PF) are, therefore, committed to the Mbeki-mediated dialogue, in the hope that it would highlight and ultimately resolve Zimbabwe's bilateral dispute with Britain".
Up until this point the spin put on the story by the press had been good for the presidency, as it suggested that the mediation was going well and a deal was close. However, on August 13 the Guardian published a story by McGreal under the heading "South Africa blames UK for Zimbabwe crisis." It now foregrounded the claim that "South Africa has blamed Britain for the deepening crisis in Zimbabwe by accusing the UK of leading a campaign to ‘strangle' the beleaguered African state's economy and saying it has a ‘death wish' against a negotiated settlement that might leave Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF in power."
On August 14 Business Day ran a story on the Guardian article - the facts of which it had already reported - under the heading "Mbeki ‘blames UK for crisis in Zimbabwe'." On the same day Tony Leon, the DA's spokesman on foreign affairs, issued a statement criticising Mbeki for the report, which received coverage in the South African press the following day.
In a comment piece in the Guardian on August 15 Simon Tisdall wrote, "According to leaks to South African media, Mr Mbeki's report backs Mr Mugabe's claims that British-orchestrated sanctions are the principal cause of Zimbabwe's woes." It added, "Mr Mbeki's buck-passing and apparent resort to anti-colonialist arguments will cause particular alarm in Washington."
It was only now that the presidency was moved to deny the reports. In a press briefing to journalists that morning the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aziz Pahad said:
"We are very surprised at reports in the international and domestic media of a leaked report purported to be coming from the President dealing with the facilitation and indeed indicating that this report of the President is apportioning blame to the British government. I want to categorically state that we are not aware of any such report prepared by the President and indeed, the President's mandate is only to deal with the political facilitation process so the source of these reports is difficult to determine."
The Presidency issued a denial on the same day, stating that it, "wishes to make it clear that it is not aware of such a report and that if it exists, it was not authored by the Government of the Republic of South Africa.
The following day the Guardian website ran a story by Fred Attewill on the upcoming SADC summit. It claimed, "South African media reports said Mr Mbeki would back Mr Mugabe's claims that UK-orchestrated sanctions were the principal cause of Zimbabwe's woes, which include hyperinflation and accelerating economic meltdown."
The following week on August 22 Brand entered the lists on behalf of Mbeki. In an article on the Mail & Guardian website he accused McGreal's and Attewill's articles of being "shoddy, to say the least."
"Neither made any effort to verify that the ‘leaked report' was in fact an official South African document. Neither made any attempt to obtain comment from the South African government or presidency. Neither published the comments offered by the South African government and Presidency.
The so-called ‘leaked report' story originated with the Guardian, yet within a day or two the newspaper managed to disown its own story and attribute it to ‘South African media'. As is clear from my analysis above, the South African media followed, not originated, the Guardian's reports. The story has turned out to be wrong - yet the Guardian has made no attempt to correct the record. How does that square with the Guardian's editorial code, which is strong on accuracy, fairness and admitting mistakes?"
In a follow up post on August 31 Brand wrote that the Guardian "is still ignoring the government's denial. The newspaper's reader's editor... sent me a long and detailed response after I queried its handling of the story. But it still hasn't corrected the record."
In a reply posted on the M&G website earlier this week McGreal wrote: "Brand knows that much of what he says is wrong because he sent a letter to the Guardian's readers editor making the same complaints and the readers editor replied pointing out his errors."
He added that Reuters had originally broken the story - and it had been reported on the South African press before his article was published. He then said that he and Reuters "did indeed attempt to get a response from the government. There was none... Two days after my story appeared, one South African official called me to say he still couldn't get a straight answer from the foreign ministry. The Guardian has indeed run an article saying that the South African government denies knowledge of the document [see here]. Mbeki's ANC internet letter [see here] though came remarkably close to expressing its sentiments."
The key question raised by this exchange is whether - as Brand assumes - that a simple denial of a damaging story by the presidency is sufficient grounds for a newspaper to publish a correction?
The presidency refused to publish its actual report, and the authorship of the leaked version - which does exist - has yet to be established. So it is still impossible to know for sure whether Pahad (et al) were telling the whole truth. After all, what if the report had been written by someone close to the president, but in her "personal capacity"?
Do politicians never lie? Is this government incapable of dissembling? If you believe that you also have to believe that there was no impropriety in the arms deal, Zimbabwe's last three elections reflected the "will of the people", and Mbeki has never denied the causal connection between HIV and AIDS.
This is not the first time that Brand has displayed a certain credulity when it comes to the presidency. In October 2000, while a journalist for the Independent group, he wrote that Mbeki was right to oppose the provision of anti-retrovirals as a post-exposure prophylaxis for rape victims. "A good part of the world now believes [falsely - he suggested] the South African government is irrational and callously refusing to provide cut-price, life-saving drugs to survivors of rape. Can you blame Mbeki for believing there is a conspiracy?"
In a follow-up article he claimed that Tony Leon's "dogged belief in anti-retroviral drugs as a primary weapon in the fight against HIV and Aids flies in the facing of the latest thinking on the subject internationally."
Simon Jenkins has written - in the British context - that the primary duty of a reporter should be "as rat-catcher, setting the traps, laying the poison and catching the little bastards. It is to make life hell for those who purport to wield immense power in the public's interest and so frequently fail."
One wonders what journalism students at Rhodes are being taught in this regard.