Mbeki's return: A non-story from City Press

Eusebius McKaiser says the political pseudo-story season is upon us

‘Tis the season - nay, the year - of political spin! City Press, today, claims in thick letters and blockbuster, Schwarzenegger-speak, "MBEKI IS BACK". I'm sure there was plenty of newsroom debate about whether to add an exclamation mark. (Like so: MBEKI IS BACK!) The first paragraph promises that Mbeki "... made a dramatic jump back into local politics."

"No wonder City Press was sold out at the first two outlets I sought a copy from", I thought to myself.

Lo and behold, as I read on, two things become clear: first, the evidence for this dramatic headline and opening paragraph is comically thin; second, the story shifts between conclusions- though it started with a dramatic claim it ends with the suggestion that perhaps Mbeki might simply play referee within the African National Congress, a remote possibility hardly in line with the energetic opening paragraph.

Friends, I'm afraid this will happen the whole year until the ANC's elective conference is over: pseudo-lead stories born out of a desire to do better than other newspapers even at the cost of evidence based reasoning.

City Press' story rested on three bits of purported evidence: (1) Mbeki denied recently that he was behind Zuma's rape and corruption charges; (2) he received a great welcome at the centenary celebrations; (3) and Juju has said that he - Mbeki - should take part in more public political debate. You hardly need to be well versed in logic to see how desperately thin these premises are.

Of course Mbeki will defend himself against the claim that he was behind Zuma's legal trials. How can City Press use that as reason to suggest Mbeki is therefore taking "....a dramatic jump back into local politics..."? Equally, Mbeki had NO control over how the crowd in Bloemfontein would react to his presence. So how can that positive reception (from some) count as evidence of an Mbeki decision to make a political comeback of sorts? For all we know, Mbeki might have wished them to be less enthused. City Press makes it seem as if that applause was the result of Mbeki tactics to ensure being well received.

Last, while it might be a Juju desire to see Mbeki more involved, that is simply Juju expressing his own wishes - how does that become the same thing as an intention on Mbeki's part to return to active domestic politics? Besides, we all know that Juju made that comment as a swipe against Zuma. It had nothing to do with Mbeki. In short, City Press' front page story was a non-story.

And before other newspapers get excited: don't be fooled, this is a problem that is going to be widespread this year as political journalists scramble to provide their editors with stories. Last week, the Sunday Times also dropped the journalistic ball. The headline on the front page suggested, anatomically, that Zuma used a cork, proverbially, politically, to roger young Malema. It turned out that the article was actually just an atmosphere piece, a pedestrian, banal description of the centenary bash.

The Sunday Times last week, like City Press this week, misused evidence: headlines, and opening paragraphs, were constructed on the basis of thin evidence. If I was less generous, I'd have said that the front page leads were, in effect, manufactured to be thematic. How could they NOT have a lead about Bloemfontein last week? The fact that there was nothing front page-worthy wasn't going to get in the way of a centenary lead story.

So what should we learn from these two examples? Simple. This is an elective conference year for the ruling ANC. Different individuals and different factions are fighting for leadership positions. And they are, especially ahead of June, fighting for policy positions. They will therefore use the media to plant stories, to influence policy debates, etc.

Journalists know this. I know they know this because many of them are colleagues and friends. The PROBLEM, however, is that although journalists know this, they too are human. Journalists themselves have a professional desire to break the story of who will upstage Zuma, whether or not nationalisation becomes policy, etc. etc. And in that desire to break the year's most dramatic political story, the basics of journalism will be forgotten by some. Evidence might then be used badly - as in the two examples I discussed.

Or, alternatively, the normal filters that should be used to test the coherence of information you get from a political source with political ambition, suddenly don't filter effectively anymore --- because a sexy front page story can lead to amazing sales, and perhaps some temporary collegial praise and envy.

My wish as an interested reader and political animal is that editors and political journalists remember the lessons from journalism 101 throughout this year. We have twelve months of intense political activity ahead of us. God - if she exists - help us if we will face more front page leads like last week's Sunday Times's or this week's City Press one. Our journalists and editors must raise the journalism bar.

Eusebius Mckaiser is a political analyst. He is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter @Eusebius

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter