Analysis: Reporting Nkandla – anatomy of a scandal, and how the media responded

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Are the media hostile to the ANC? Do they attack the dignity of ANC politicians? Do they operate to the detriment of the public interest? Is responsible and ethical reporting treated as less important than the protection and promotion of media freedom? By JEANNE PRINSLOO.

These are some of the questions that emerge from the ANC’s 2010 document entitled “Media transformation ownership diversity”. What they reflect is a stand-off off between politicians and journalists. ‘The media are hostile to the ANC’ has become a familiar catchphrase. Journalists in turn express concerns about the ANC curtailing freedom of expression and access to information.

Because both sets of stakeholders play important roles in media policy debates, and since the media plays a central role in any democracy, these debates need to be empirically informed.

A case study of the news coverage of the government’s expenditure on Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead is useful to test the criticisms in the ANC document. These concerns informed a recent study I undertook under the auspices of the Media Policy and Democracy Programme. It focuses on the reporting and editorials of the Nkandla saga in City Press and the Mail & Guardian, both of which have provided ongoing coverage and were readily available online.

But first, the ANC document. What did the ANC 2010 document have to say about the news media relative to editorial content (not ownership or newsrooms)? First, it would like the media to communicate the “outlook and values” summarised as a “developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non-sexism, working together”. However, the “current mainstream media's ideological outlook” is described as “neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism, etc”. It views the highly commercial and sensational nature of print media as to the detriment of public interest.

Then, the document describes the media as prejudiced: a “contested terrain and …  not neutral”. They engage in “ideological battles and power relations based on race, class and gender in our society.” Thus the ANC sees the press as ideologically biased against and hostile to it and its public representatives.

The media allegedly privilege the protection and promotion of media freedom over responsible and ethical reporting. Moreover, they tend to “dismiss any criticism of the media as an attack on press freedom”. As the media apparently behave “like a protection racket and leave no space for introspection”, the ANC needs “to assist the media … to shape up”.

The ANC document makes important points relating to transformation in terms of diversity of ownership and voice. It also allows that the media should critique “public policies and their implementation”, but prescribes that it be done so it “adds value to the national endeavour and reflects on the broader questions about how our souls are being poisoned by the spirit of conspicuous consumption in a socio-economic formation that encourages greed”. This nationalistic approach ostensibly distances itself from personal greed, enrichment and conspicuous consumption.

The final point of the document makes their attitude to their relationship with the media explicit. It identifies this relationship as “the battle for ideas”, a battle the ANC chooses to “dominate” and to ensure that their “voice is consistently heard … above the rest”.

So to the battle lines, then. The Nkandla controversy provides a focus where the lines of combat between politicians and newsmakers would be clearly drawn. Certain aspects of this saga are selected here to give a sense of this engagement.

City Press and the M&G newspapers covered the expenditure on the Nkandla homestead (sometimes dubbed Nkandlagate) as a media scandal. The news media had their eye on the political actors who were to benefit and who were responsible for the public spending. The political actors found themselves in a situation where they had to respond to the points raised in the news media and they had to do it through the news media.

The expenditure on the homestead is a big news event and like other media scandals it depended on careful investigative journalism. Like other media scandals, the coverage in City Press and the M&G is a call for moral indignation. It follows the predictable sequencing of news scandals and what follows is a bit of a Cook’s Tour of the early coverage.

An initial breach of conduct becomes the first revelation. The M&Goriginally flagged the enormous expenditure on Zuma’s homestead and filed a PAIA application for the financial and procurement information. When this was refused the newspaper appealed the decision.

City Press broke the ‘R200m splurge on Zuma homestead’ story again on 30 September 2012 and established the themes that would dominate the saga. Their opening strike presents a measured argument. The work of the “revamp” is cloaked in secrecy – it is “very hush-hush”, “extensive”, costly at over R200 million; and to the cost of taxpayers, not Zuma.

A Public Works memorandum to then-Public Works minister, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, on 28 March 2011 confirms the work being undertaken then (a helipad, underground bunkers and fencing). The article is explicitly concerned with duplicity: if Zuma was meant to “foot the majority of the bill”, the memorandum “tells another story”.

It recounts the run-around given to the journalists seeking information about the expenditure by various officials, the start of many refusals to grant access to this information. By recourse to Apartheid legislation, namely the National Key Points Act (NKPA) and the 1982 Protection of Information Act, the public’s right to this information is flouted.

The article plants the seed for moral indignation and a swift response comes from the DA. ‘Nkandla: Zuma, cancel “lavish personal enrichment” – Mazibuko’ (City Press) and ‘DA won’t let Zuma’s R203m homestead revamp “go unanswered”’ (M&G) tell of DA Lindiwe Mazibuko’s criticisms of Zuma and her call for a probe into the alleged spending. Morally outraged, she notes that instead of one homestead, 3692 RDP houses might have been built.

Presidential spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, responds to the report (‘Zuma’s Nkandla upgrade needed – Maharaj’, City Press). His argument deflects attention from Zuma as he insists that the upgrade is necessary for the president’s staff and guests, e.g.“President Obama or another African head of state” and “Prime Minister Cameron’s security staff”. He doesn’t respond with information but with a volley of rhetorical questions that are markedly defensive and dismissive.

Enter Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi. In ‘Nkandla: Minister calls forCity Press probe’ (City Press) and ‘Department to probe Nkandla documents leak’ (M&G), Nxesi evades the issue of excessive expenditure to rage against details of the spending becoming public. City Press’s possession of a “top secret” memo is “unlawful” according to the NKPA and Nxesi threatens an investigation. He sidesteps any accountability on the part of Public Works, disclaiming knowledge of the amounts spent. He simply doesn’t entertain the possibility of granting any access to this information.

‘Nkandla’s costs: Trapping the mole in the bunker’ (M&G) tells of his criticism of the media as devious and conspiratorial. His determination to ferret out the whistleblowers (“moles”) in the department stands in contrast to his reluctance to provide the information requested. The public should wait for the 2011-2012 annual reports.

Significantly, while Nxesi uses the NKPA to justify withholding the information, he insists that the level of spending is allowable according to the Ministerial Handbook. This merely triggers further scrutiny.

‘Nkandla upgrade: Last-minute bid to hide costs’ (M&G) criticises the expedient use of the NKPA to create a “blanket” of secrecy to evade answering questions. They have “ratcheted up attempts … to suppress the information”; Public Works minister Nxesi has “defended the enormous expenditure”, and his director-general, Fatyela-Lindie, “refused to comment”.

However, Nxesi changes his approach: ‘Nkandla controversy based on misperceptions – Nxesi’, City Press). He concedes that the public must be allowed access to “as many details as possible, as long as it doesn’t compromise security. This access is patronisingly expressed as a concession to “certain parties”, rather than as a constitutionally guaranteed right. He is effectively coerced into an investigation into the expenditure which he says he’ll present to the public.

Nxesi’s attempts at damage control do not convince all. Constitutional lawyer, Pierre de Vos, argues that the Ethics Act “prohibits” the president from acting in a manner that is “inconsistent with his office, using his position to enrich himself, or acting in a way that may compromise the credibility or integrity of his office …”. It also “prohibits” him from “making improper use of any allowance or payment properly made to him, or to disregard the administrative rules”. The Nkandla homestead expenditure contradicts these laws and is therefore “unlawful”. He deduces from the administrative rules of the Ministerial Handbook that any amount above R100,000 “must be deemed unlawful”.

This evaluative element is characteristic of investigative journalism. It makes moral claims but measures conduct in relation to whether the public figures have transgressed their own expressed moral order or oath of office. Here the president and public officials are held to the accepted standards of conduct legislated by law and encoded in accepted guidelines.

The scandal continues through a series of further revelations and responses: Zuma has a bond; the bond is on communal land, not private property; the DA attempt an unsuccessful inspection; Zuma’s R800 monthly lease is contested; the tenders and procurement procedures are irregular; people were awarded huge contracts, some incompetently managed; and so on.

The pattern becomes predictable. Information is refused. The journalists and the public are told to be patient and await the results of the report to be shared with the public. The DA attempt variously to acquire the information legally; and Zuma supporters respond to the exposés with accusations of disrespect for the dignity of the president and accusations of racism.

Zuma maintains a defence of ignorance and presents himself as the aggrieved victim. “I have been convicted, painted black, called the first-class corruption man …”; “people are speaking without knowing. It is unfair”; “I have never asked government to build a home for me”. As in other instances Zuma emphasises his family as sharing his humiliation and pain.

The editorials give further insight to the journalists’ attitudes. Two editorials in City Press are quite explicit. ‘How to use your moral suasion’ and ‘Echoes of DRC’s Mobutu in KZN’ both approach the issue of the Nkandla expenditure with a then and now structure.

‘Moral suasion’ presents a laudatory and respectful account of the birth and rise of the ANC in its struggle for justice. The leaders were “the lead intellectual force” and played a leading role in drafting of the progressive Constitution. This glowing retrospective of the ANC is halted by the imperative: “But look at the party now”. The ANC’s defence of the excessive spending is described as its “final loss of moral authority”, having succumbed to “life lived large”.

‘Echoes of DRC’ details Mobutu’s excessive expenditure on his own home in his rural village of Gbadolite with its “nice-to-haves” including a runway long enough for a Concorde, “three luxurious castles”, a “nuclear bomb-proof bunker”, and a hospital. If Mobutu is the villain of this piece, the victims are the Zairian people. “Fast forward to 2012” and Nkandla with its “colossal” expenditure. The comparison of Zuma with corrupt leaders leaves no doubt about the position of this editorial. It closes with: “Happy birthday, Mobutu, your legacy lives on.” Both editorials are explicitly not hostile to the ANC, but denounce leaders who act corruptly and with scant regard for the public good.

In spite of frequent reassurances that the public would access the report, Nxesi reneges for “security reasons”.

While the saga continues still, this brief account of the controversy must suffice here. The contestation is illustrative of the “battle for ideas” and what the opposing positions reveal. Position one: the amount of money spent is justified in terms of ensuring Zuma’s security; questioning it is impertinent; and the motivation for questioning these authorities is highly dubious. Position two: the amount of money spent on Nkandla is scandalous; access to relevant information in order to hold public figures accountable has been denied; the expenditure is non-procedural; and this money should have been used for the benefit of the public, not one powerful figure.

The first position is reflected in the official and public statements made by ANC spokespersons. Amorally outraged press speak from the dissenting position.

I return, then, to the questions posed at the beginning about media hostility to the ANC, disregard for its dignity, and working to the detriment of the public interest.

During the Nkandla saga the media are considered hostile by the ANC and its followers when they are critical of the conduct of ANC public officials although this conduct was in breach of the moral order the politicians have concurred with when taking up office. My analysis found no clear evidence of undue hostility to the ANC, but rather detailed analysis and calls for access to information to hold officials accountable.

The editorials expurgate Zuma and those who enable this spending through analogies with cruel and selfish dictators. This, however, cannot be conflated with hostility to the ANC, for they are at pains to recognise the heroes of the struggle and leaders concerned with the public good.

Similarly, to argue that in this instance the media has attacked the dignity of certain ANC politicians would presume that the politicians are wrongfully accused. To criticise excessive expenditure and corrupt behaviour is always going to identify those acting improperly. The news media have not caused the disrespect or loss of dignity in the absence of misconduct.

After all, deriding authoritarian behaviour cannot be confused with attacking the dignity of the person if their conduct is authoritarian. Care was generally taken in the coverage to argue the points logically and not to engage in ad hominem attacks.

It would be undemocratic to presume that informing the public of inappropriate spending of public money raised from the taxes of the public is to their detriment. Here the news media acted in the public interest by calling for access to information they are entitled to. The reporting frequently draws attention to the extent of the expenditure on Zuma’s homestead in contrast with the pressing needs of housing, education and health.

Reversing the questions brings a different set of answers. Were the ANC spokespersons hostile to the media; did they respect the dignity of the journalists or the public; and did they act against the public good?

Both Maharaj and Nxesi’s responses to requests for information were impatient and self-righteous. They felt no obligation to provide information. Zuma at no stage saw fit to address the issue or reassure the public of South Africa. He presented himself as aggrieved and lamented his victim status, while his defence remained one of ignorance. Why, it must be asked, did he not address his ignorance in order to make a public statement consistent with the responsibilities of his office? That the ANC were hostile to the media and their democratic intentions is more the case here than the other way round.

When it comes to the issue of dignity and respect, Zuma, Nxesi and Maharaj engage in this battle of ideas with a ‘shoot the messenger’ approach. Nxesi’s limited his first response to the exposé of the expenditure to threatening legal action. Impatience with requests for information, reluctance to provide information and a frequently hectoring tone are indicative of the attitude of these ANC officials to the news media.

The public was guaranteed access to the investigation report by Public Works on several occasions. It was later summarily denied. This conduct constitutes blatant disrespect for both the journalists and South African citizens and their right of access to information and freedom of expression.

On another point of public good, the ANC 2010 document suggested the media encouraged greed. It is deeply ironic that the ANC endorse the Nkandla expenditure, when they require that that the media report “in a manner that adds value to the national endeavour” and reflect on how “our souls are being poisoned by the spirit of conspicuous consumption” (83) while endorsing the excessive expenditure on the “nice to haves” in Zuma’s homestead.

Similarly, the point that the news media do not work to effect nation-building can be reversed. In this case it seeks to hold politicians accountable and expose corruption. Their coverage bolsters due democratic process, arguably a patriotic act.

The ANC also argued that responsible and ethical reporting is not treated as being important as the promotion of media freedom. Nxesi expressed his anger over the City Press’s publication of information that broke the scandal, not the substance of the scandal. His position would be that this is irresponsible and unethical. It is a position that holds with a particular code of practice and deference to authority.

In contrast investigative journalists have historically been bound by a different set of ethics and their concern is with the illicit use of power. They would argue theirs is a quest for truth and accountability. This is a moral position that seeks access to information when public officials are determined to prevent it. Once again, the criticism about ethical behaviour needs redirecting. It is arguably responsible conduct to expose malpractice that exacerbates social injustice. To refuse access to information is irresponsible, for a democracy requires an informed citizenry and media policy needs to nurture this access.

As the ANC made clear in its discussion document, the party desires something they term “developmental media” and they advocate for consensus, consistent with their particular interpretation of nation-building and patriotism. However, the Constitution is enabling of the genre of investigative journalism and it does not presume that all citizens agree or should be deferential to authority. If the ANC government rejects investigative journalism of this kind, then we need ask whether they are committed to the form of government encoded in our Constitution.

Professor Jeanne Prinsloo is a professor affiliated to the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, where she teaches graduate students for part of the year. Based in Durban, she is also an independent teacher and researcher and has published widely on media, gender, texts and identities.

The Media Policy and Democracy Project is a collaborative research project between the Department of Communication Science at UNISA and the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.

Photo: Nkandla (Reuters/Rogan Ward)

Source: Daily Maverick