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You didn’t get this from me …

Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, the United States’s largest newspaper, once remarked that “anonymous sources are the root of all evil in journalism”. That may have been an overstatement, but not by much.

In many cases, journalists can’t do their jobs without using anonymous sources; often, however, they are simply an excuse for lazy or dishonest reporting. Overuse of anonymous sources seriously undermines the credibility of the news media.

Two recent incidents, one trivial, the other not, illustrate this problem.

In one case, an anonymous source was given a platform to level a petty insult at the governor of the South African Reserve Bank; in the other, a number of anonymous sources are muddying the waters around a very serious political issue, the suspension of National Director of Public Prosecutions Vusi Pikoli.

Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni addressed staff and students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown last week on a fairly arcane topic, the Washington Consensus and its relevance for present-day South Africa. Business Report carried a long, and on the whole thorough and good, report on the speech. But it included this paragraph:

“Some comments of the top state banker, delivered in a relaxed, humorous style, did not go down well with some senior Rhodes academics, especially those concerned with social injustices. One said afterwards that Mboweni had come across as ‘a bit flippant’.”

Now if a journalist gives a platform to someone to insult another, it should not be done under a cloak of anonymity. If this “senior Rhodes academic” really felt strongly about the governor’s speech, and the journalist really thought this added value to the story, then the academic’s name should have been there for all to see, just as Mboweni made his speech in public for all to hear. As it is, the reader doesn’t know who the source is, and may even doubt if there is a source at all.

The New York Times, after running into trouble over the misuse of anonymous sources, adopted a simple policy: nobody is entitled to be quoted anonymously. The newspaper may grant a source anonymity, but then it should explain to its readers why. Now imagine the Mboweni story if that policy applied at Business Report: “A senior Rhodes academic, who was granted anonymity by Business Report because he (or she) didn’t have the courage of his convictions…”? I think not.

The second case, the reporting on the suspension of Pikoli, is more serious. A number of reports, based on anonymous sources, have been speculating about the reasons for the president’s decision to get rid of the National Prosecuting Authority boss. This, unfortunately, is partly a consequence of President Mbeki’s utter disdain for the media and public opinion, and would have been prevented had the president from the start given clear reasons for his decision. Be that as it may, isn’t it the job of the media to sift the wheat from the chaff? Or is it, as Elbert Hubbard once sarcastically remarked, to print the chaff?

Soon after Pikoli got the boot, one major newspaper told us categorically, on the basis of impeccable anonymous sources, that it was because he wouldn’t prosecute Jacob Zuma. A week later, that same newspaper, again on the basis of impeccable anonymous sources and without repudiating its previous story, said it was because he wanted to arrest police chief Jackie Selebi.

In between, other newspapers pointed to his rather rude behaviour toward Justice Minister Bridgette Mabandla (according to anonymous sources, he threatened to arrest her). So within the space of week the media reported that Pikoli was suspended because (a) he wouldn’t prosecute Zuma; (b) he wanted to arrest Selebi; or (c) he was rude to Mabandla. They can’t all be true (although some newspapers hedged their bets and chose “All of the above”), so which one is it? We are now more than a week into the crisis and still none the wiser. I have my suspicions and so do all of us, but surely the news media shouldn’t trade on suspicions and office gossip.

Author

  • Robert Brand

    Robert Brand teaches media law, ethics and economics journalism at Rhodes University. Before joining academia, he worked as a journalist for the Pretoria News, the Star and Bloomberg News.