A favourite tactic of media critics is to use anecdotal evidence to tar the whole profession. In his Business Day column this week, Xolela Mangcu goes one better. He convicts the media of “cowboy justice” in its coverage of Jacob Zuma’s legal travails, without providing one shred of evidence in support.
Sweeping statements are made, and then applied to the media at large in support of Mangcu’s argument that Zuma isn’t getting a fair deal. For example: “Journalists and cartoonists have continued to describe Zuma as a rapist” even though he has been acquitted on a charge of rape. But which journalist? Which cartoonist? Similarly, “they” – the media – “have convicted Zuma in the court of public opinion of the murder of ANC cadres Ben Langa and Thami Zulu”. But which media specifically? Where is the evidence? Of course there have been ethical lapses in the coverage of Zuma’s political and legal battles. Nobody is perfect. But you can’t condemn an entire profession for the mistakes of a few. For one who accuses the media of “riding roughshod over the rule of law”, Mangcu shows remarkably little respect for due process.
What’s more, Mangcu is plain wrong when he states that the law does not differentiate between politicians and ordinary citizens when it comes to protection of their rights. Our law relating to the protection of privacy does indeed make a distinction between ordinary people and public figures such as politicians, who are deemed to have a diminished right to privacy. Similarly, the law of defamation recognises that a politician has less of a claim to the protection of his reputation than ordinary citizens. The mechanism used to decide under which circumstances a politician’s privacy may be legitimately invaded, or his reputation impaired, is the public interest (not, as Mangcu states, “public opinion”). The public interest is a difficult concept to pin down, but we have a long line of judicial precedents to guide us. It does not mean “what the public is interested in”, and neither is it the same as the “national interest”. It means, more or less, what the public should, or needs, to know about our politicians. By that standard, much of what Mangcu describes as “cowboy justice” is in fact legally justifiable.
It is not, as Mangcu complains, that “some of our most senior journalists” expect Zuma to meet “a higher standard than that in the Bill of Rights”. They expect him to meet a higher standard than ordinary citizens, because he wants to president of our country. There is nothing wrong with that.