Robert Brand
Robert Brand

What the Guardian’s journalism tells us about the media … and Thabo Mbeki

I am almost hesitant to post this piece, because it may look like I’m defending Thabo Mbeki, something which, these days, evokes almost the same sort of reaction as admitting to incest.

However, it is about the media, not Mbeki (mostly). And the question I have is: does the Guardian, a British newspaper I have long admired, apply double standards when it comes to reporting African countries?

Consider the following:

On Monday August 13, the Guardian publishes a report by Chris McGreal stating 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”. He attributes this to “a South African document circulating among diplomats ahead of (the SADC) summit”. The document, McGreal reports, is “a draft of the report South African president [Mbeki] is expected to present at the meeting”. There is no indication that McGreal attempted to contact the South African government or Presidency to verify that the report was in fact a draft of Mbeki’s report to the SADC, or to obtain comment.

The following day, South Africa’s Business Day publishes a follow-up report by its diplomatic editor, John Kaninda, stating that Mbeki had been criticised by a political analyst for blaming Britain for Zimbabwe’s crisis. It quotes extensively from the “report”, but attributes this information to the Guardian. This is the first mention of the “leaked report” in a South African newspaper.

On Wednesday, the Guardian publishes an opinion piece by Simon Tisdall, referring to “Mbeki’s attempt to blame Britain for Zimbabwe’s problems”. Tisdall attributes his information to “leaks to the South African media”.

On the same day, the South African Presidency issues a statement taking note of “media reports” citing “aspects of what is claimed to arise from a leaked report” which Mbeki will “supposedly present” to the SADC summit. It then states: “The Presidency 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.” Later that day, Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad, in a briefing to reporters in Pretoria, again denies that Mbeki’s report to SADC will blame Britain for Zimbabwe’s crisis.

Both these statements are widely reported by the South African media the next day. The Guardian, however, ignores them. Instead, the Guardian Unlimited runs a report by Fred Attewill that Mbeki “would back Mr Mugabe’s claims that UK-orchestrated sanctions were the principal cause of Zimbabwe’s woes”. Attewill attributes this to “South African media reports”.

Since then, the Guardian has ceased to refer to this so-called report, as if it had never mentioned it.

McGreal and Attewill’s reports were 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? Would McGreal, Attewill and Tisdall be allowed to get away with that kind of reporting if they were covering, let’s say, a European Union summit and the purported author of the leaked report was Gordon Brown? I think not.

This is the kind of thing that drives Mbeki and the ANC to distraction, resulting in the long, loony, tirades against the media almost every Friday in the ANC Today newsletter. And I have to agree that they sometimes have a point.

But Mbeki has a problem. Because what this episode tells us is that respected foreign correspondents such as McGreal are willing to believe almost anything about our president. If someone said tomorrow, Mbeki has blamed green Martians for South Africa’s maize shortage, they’d believe it. And for that, Mbeki has only himself to blame. His high-handed, aloof and often arrogant treatment of the media over the years is coming back to haunt him.