The media should apply to themselves the same standards they expect of political leadership, writes Xolela Mangcu in Business Day.  They should step down for having peddled lies about the president's sex life.

Xolela Mangcu writes in Business Day:

THE editors and journalists responsible for the peddling of lies about President Kgalema Motlanthe’s sex life should either resign or forever hang their heads in shame. Motlanthe’s suggestion that the matter be taken to the Press Ombudsman is woefully inadequate.

The question is whether the editors and journalists will do what they have been asking of African National Congress president Jacob Zuma — which is to step down. I would not bet my life on it. The media operates by standards different from those it imposes on others. It’s a much lower bar, usually justified under the cover of press freedom, even if that means a flagrant violation of someone’s rights.

How do you think Motlanthe must feel after being lampooned and impugned like that? I suppose he is the president and will have to be diplomatic about it, but what about lesser beings who feel helpless in the face of media voyeurism? Can members of the public be blamed for saying the media operates in bad faith when mainstream institutions run stories like this? What greater indictment of any journalist can there be than the statement of the woman involved : “I told you what you wanted to hear.”

I have been wracking my brain trying to simulate the interview, if only to figure out what it is about the journalist’s behaviour that led the woman to believe the journalist wanted to hear certain things. Was the journalist coaching or coaxing her in any direction? Was the journalist asking leading questions? Was the journalist a gender activist out to get a male chauvinist? Was the journalist too eager to bring down a powerful individual? Was the journalist an eager AIDS activist who believes this is the only way to rid the world of the disease? Or was the journalist a gullible white person being taken for a ride by a street-wise black woman?

Did the journalist offer money or some other inducement? Or was the journalist buying her drinks well into the night? My simulations lead me nowhere. Only the woman can speak for the basis of her perceptions, and the motives are known only to the journalist. Courts and ombudsmen cannot let us in on what lurks in the private hearts and minds of individual journalists.

What is doubly worrying is that this is not the first time such a travesty has occurred. We all went along — including the Supreme Court of Appeal — with words Judge Hilary Squires never uttered about Zuma being in a generally corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik. It is one thing for me to ask individual editors and journalists to do what they ask of others, but what about the phalanx of commentators, talk-show hosts and activists who pronounced on Motlanthe’s morality on the basis of a nonexistent relationship? And these are supposed to be the guardians of our public culture?

I am not a journalist but in the academic world you live or die by something called peer review. The justification that readers love this stuff — as one journalist put it on television the other day — is just not good enough. We have seen what a self-regulating market has done to the world economy and we now see what self-regulating journalists can do to a man’s life. This happens when journalism becomes licence for so-called highbrow newspapers to elevate the pursuit of trivia into a standard of achievement. I am sure the editors and journalist who did the Motlanthe story were the toast of dinner parties for the “scoop” — which turned out to be a scandalous assault on someone’s dignity.

Perhaps the starting point should be that a public man or woman’s private sexual life has nothing to do with their performance of their public duties. It would be a sad day if self-flagellation about personal problems substituted for ideas in our newspapers. But right now I have the sinking feeling that something has gone terribly wrong in the Fourth Estate. To say it is a dumbing down is an understatement. It is simply unethical. Is it not time that someone in the media took responsibility and resigned, as we so often ask of others in politics?

* Mangcu is affiliated to the University of Johannesburg and the Brookings Institution. This column first appeared in Business Day on 12 February 2009.