As a general rule, the judicious newspaper editor tends to avoid publishing a story that says Mr X intends to sue Mr Y.
And why is that? Because until Mr X has coughed up R40 000 or R50 000 to lodge papers at the High Court, it’s far easier to put the fear of God into your opponent by getting a newspaper to carry a story threatening that you’re going to sue. If Mr Y capitulates to your wishes or backs off, then so much the better and you’ve saved yourself a lengthy and expensive court battle. And so the newspaper gets used as a pawn in a bitter battle — never a wise or attractive place to be.
But when it comes to politics, it gets a lot trickier to make the call as an editor and so I wasn’t too surprised to see a prominent story by the Sunday Times last weekend saying that cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale intends to sue Richard Mdluli, the crime intelligence boss now on trial for murder.
“Sexwale intends suing Mdluli in a bid to identify those behind a controversial report alleging he is leading a “plot” to unseat President Jacob Zuma,” said the paper — and, of course, anything to do with Sexwale’s presidential ambitions is an interesting story — with huge public interest to boot.
Let’s see if Sexwale does sue — if he doesn’t, it will speak volumes for what he may wish to hide from public view. Once you enter court proceedings, all sorts of tantalising truths and gossip have a habit of making it to press because what goes on in court (and court papers) is covered by privilege, i.e., the press can go to town on reporting it without the risk of being sued.
However, the point is that we’re going to see a lot more of this as we move towards the ANC’s elective conference next year — and this certainly seems to be the context of the astonishing Sunday Independent story earlier this month that broke this whole alleged Sexwale plot wide open. I did a story for Wits University’s journalism.co.za on the Indy story. (Two other weekend papers — the Mail & Guardian and the Sunday Times — had the same dossier on which the Indy story was based and elected not to go with it as they wanted further corroboration.)
Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes’s take on the political context was most interesting: that, in trying to save his own neck, it serves Mdluli’s interest to play the vicitm in a split within the ANC — which has accelerated the political games in the run-up to the ANC 2012 conference. The big picture here, says Dawes, is that ANC politcis has been penetrated by intelligence organs and people and at the same time, the intelligence organs have become politcised.
Of course,we heard the story of Sexwale out to oust the ANC president before — ten years ago, when Mbeki was president. Dawes has pulled together all of this in a really good piece here while the M&G’s Mandy Rossouw wrote this very interesting piece saying that Sexwale is spreading his bets for the presidency. She paints the various scenarios that Sexwale appears to be considering but, importantly, points out that:
“Sexwale has learnt from his abortive presidential bid in Polokwane that it is almost impossible for a leader who is not in the ANC’s top six to aim for the top spot… but he could be setting himself up to challenge for the presidency in 2017, when he will be 64. (Zuma is currently 68).”
One news hack I know says he hates these kinds of stories because they’re essentially about crap — and that they are — but this is the kind of crap, subterfuge and mirrors of which politics is made. It calls for speculative writing and the M&G do a very good job at this while rooting it in as many credible (though un-named) sources as possible.