President Jacob Zuma, married to four wives, has an adulterous affair (not his first), out of which a child is born. Is this a “personal matter”, as the the ANC and the presidency insist, or is it a matter of public interest on which the media have a right – indeed, a duty – to report?
Our common law recognises the public interest as a justification for invasion of privacy, but the concept is notoriously difficult to define. A distinction is often made between the public interest and that which merely titillates the interest of the public: the public interest is NOT the same as “that which interests the public”. A public interest implies that the public can derive some meaningful benefit from the information published. As a famous jurist stated in an oft-quoted judgment: “Whenever a matter is such as to affect people at large so that they may be legitimately interested in, or concerned at, what is going on; or what may happen to them and others; then it is a matter of public interest.”
That may depend on whether the person whose privacy is being invaded is a public figure. What Joe Bloggs does in private is nobody’s business; but what the president gets up to may affect us all. Statements about the integrity or efficiency of public officers are undoubtedly in the public interest. So are disclosures of hypocrisy, falsehood or double standards on the part of public figures.
Seen in this light, do the media have a legitimate interest in reporting on Jacob Zuma’s love life? Oh yes. For one thing, it has financial implications for taxpayers. Zuma’s children – even those born out of wedlock – are entitled to support such as medical aid, paid by the state. Secondly, it exposes him as a hypocrite and, one could argue, untrustworthy. Not too long ago, after being acquitted of rape, he assured the nation that he realised the dangers of having unprotected sex with multiple partners and would in future desist. Yet he didn’t alter his conduct. As head of state he should be setting an example in the anti-AIDS effort – but not of the kind he is.
That is why ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu is wrong when he argues that “we have always made a distinction between people’s personal affairs and their public responsibilities”. And that is also why Zuma’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya is faling in his duty when he declines to comment on this issue, labelling it a “personal matter”.