Defend Truth


iChris flying too close to the spin


Ferial Haffajee is Daily Maverick Associate Editor. In her long and storied career, she has been editor-in-chief of both City Press and Mail & Guardian.

As I read the Daily Maverick article by Chris Vick earlier this week, I wondered, has iChris been flying too close to the sports minister’s spin? 

What did he learn at the minister’s swish 40th birthday party, which I hear he attended last week, to pen such an uncharacteristically one-sided piece of work. And is Vick on contract to the minister?

Ooops, sorry, I forgot to check my facts and ascertain if Chris was in fact at the party.

One learns from one’s teachers.  While Chris had all my details, he failed to call to check City Press’s reporting on the sex scandal Mbalula finds himself knotted in and while he parades as one who has swallowed the press code and knows its every clause, he seems to have forgotten that even opinion has to be grounded in fact.

Throughout the week, City Press has faced questions about our decision to publish the story of Mbalula’s affair, though it’s worth noting that the minister’s lawyer said he found our report to be fair and balanced when he read it last Sunday.  
It’s not as if we didn’t have anything else to lead the newspaper on:  before he was so brutally assassinated, Muammar Gadaffi had apparently been in talks with mercenaries who planned to place him in exile in a tent in the Karoo.  S’troes.  Sunday lead stories don’t get a lot better than this.  My personal best was an arms deal-linked story that has withered on the vine, but should not have. 

So, if we were not chasing a lead, then what was the motive?  Well, if you believe Chris, it goes something like this: Mbalula is a rising star in the governing African National Congress; he wants to topple the secretary general Gwede Mantashe at next year’s conference in Mangaung.  His enemies are everywhere.   They got to City Press.

Chris’s conspiracy theories meandered madly all the way through from an unexplained link to the Gupta family and organised cricket (which Mbalula has hit for a six) to Mbalula’s political ambitions somehow being thwarted by a honey-trap set by agents of his political enemies. The way to avoid ensnarement is to avoid the honey, but that’s a story for another day.

Did we consider this possibility before publishing that the minister had unzipped without due care when he had sex with someone who wasn’t his wife? Yes. We asked about motive in detailed interviews with the sources; we inspected for gaps and for agendas.   We consulted an ethics expert and worked with our lawyers to keep within the law all the time.  We have signed affidavits, eyewitness accounts, corroboration of venues.  And we gave the minister 48 hours to respond when the interpretation of the code provides for a shorter response time and says that where there is a reasonable expectation that a spoiler story will be put out or publication stopped,  you don’t have to ask for comment before publication. 

Mbalula attempted to stop publication and the range of dirty tricks by his agents can fill a tome. Intimidation. Bribery. The use of embedded journalists. 

All the other newspapers did, as far as I could read, was act as the minister’s stenographer last Sunday putting out his spin.

They did not ask for proof of the alleged extortion, did not ask presidential spokesman Zizi Kodwa for proof that the woman had also attempted to shake him out of some cash and most importantly for me, they wielded privileged power over a young woman who may be misguided, but who still deserves the right to reply, fairness and accuracy in the treatment of her story. 

Yes, we granted the woman anonymity while naming the minister, a fact which has incensed the elite.  But the press code again says public figures carry a higher burden of public responsibility and the bar for infringements of their privacy is lower. This is enshrined in legal precedent too. We may not like it, but it’s the law and it’s the practice through which I chose to read the code’s new and important clause on dignity and reputation.

Highlighted in pink in my copy, is this clause: “The press shall exercise exceptional care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, bearing in mind that any right to privacy may be overridden by a legitimate public interest.”

We believe that the private lives of politicians are of legitimate public interest when it impacts on their reputation and standing and reflects poorly on their commitment to policy. Think of the uproar when it was found that ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma had had unprotected sex with the daughter of a friend and again later when, as president, he fathered a child with soccer boss Ivan Khoza’s daughter, Sonono. 

Why is Mbalula’s case of any lesser public interest? He is a custodian of two key campaigns to keep our next generation safe: the first is the Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomise of national government; the second is the One Partner campaign of the ANC Youth League of which he is a former president. 

Our young minister and his comrades in the Youth League are engaged in lifestyles of such high-bling shine and licentiousness that they compete with Italian leader Sylvio Berlusconi’s infamous bunga-bunga parties.  It is a lifestyle that is the outcome of high capitalism’s last and debauched years – surely a life at odds with the beliefs of a group who are about to foist socialist nationalisation and expropriation on us.

Like Berlusconi’s, this lifestyle includes bevies of gorgeous young women available at the drop of a mobile call.  The sex is edgy and possibly deadly, the promises flow thick and fas, the hopes congeal on the vine as you are dropped for the next weave and set of nails.  One of those young women grew tired and told us her story. 

Chris writes that we found a political hypocrite in Mbalula and what’s new in that?  Nothing if you’re a jaded old hack. 

But some of us still believe in the values of an ANC that exemplified servant leadership where leaders live the values set by the organisation and its members and who should still be able to fit through the eye of the needle. DM



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