Journalists enjoy the power to make or break lives with extraordinary ease. A simple assertion in a story – whether true or not – has the potential to ruin a career, reputation or business. On the other hand, a lazy journalist who relies on one source for can build up that person's status without ever intending too, writes Anton Harber.

Sometimes there is an extreme version of the impact of writing in the mass media, such as when a Nigerian columnist last year wrote a throwaway line about the Prophet and Miss World contestants which sparked a riot and left 200 people dead.

More often it is a small thing, such as when the presence of a television camera and the short-term celebrity status it can bestow on ordinary people raises their hopes that it will lift them out of their sad lives.

Very occasionally, it does. Usually it leaves the subjects disappointed that, having exposed themselves to the world, they got little in return.

Every journalist has had the experience of winning the confidence of someone who is in some way a victim and who believes – despite every assurance to the contrary – that the attention of a news reporter will help them. And every journalist knows the situation where they have had to leave that person behind and move on to the next story, where they will set out to win the confidence of someone else with a story to tell.

Even a reporter with the best of intentions can leave a wake of hurt in their path. But we bestow on journalists such power, and protect them against those who would limit it, because they can use it to scrutinize the rich and powerful, expose the plight of the weak and poor, and serve the public good.

On balance, journalism does this. But not always, especially when newspapers are under pressure to reverse a decline in their audience or they throw out the window the self-imposed ethical rules which are meant to limit the damage they may do.

These were the thoughts which came to mind when I spotted the City Press headline on Sunday which asked whether the National Director of Public Prosecution, Bulelani Ngcuka, had perhaps been an apartheid spy.

It was an astounding story. They published little evidence to justify the allegation, except the word of some of Ngcuka's bitter political enemies. It was self-evidently someone's crude attempt to discredit Ngcuka in his battle with Deputy-President Jacob Zuma and former minister Mac Maharaj.

City Press ran an editorial alongside the story, which seemed to do little more than show that they knew that they were sticking their necks out – legally and ethically – in doing what other newspapers had declined to do. The information had been around in most newsrooms for weeks, but others had been constrained to report only that there were attempts afoot to discredit Ngcuka through leaks and innuendo.

There is a history of such stories in South Africa. The security police often used such leaks to cast doubt on apartheid activists, just as they would detain their real spies to give them credibility in the resistance movement.

One of the lowest points in South African journalism was when, in the 1980s, The Star ran an accusation that the killer of anti-apartheid activist and intellectual Ruth First was her own husband, Communist Party leader Joe Slovo. Their sole source, it turned out later, was the security policeman who sent the bomb that killed her, Craig Williamson.

Many years later, The Star ran a front page retraction and apology.

In the Ngcuka case, the ironies are huge. The very people who have been attacking the media for making unsubstantiated allegations and using dubious sources, are using the same tactics when it suits them – and are showing great skill in it.

It seemed to me that City Press missed the real story: ANC intelligence, of which Zuma is a former head, hold all sorts of dirt on ANC leaders and are prepared to use it when it suits them.
One recalls that ANC intelligence, after finding out that the late Peter Mokaba had been compromised by the security  police during a spell in detention, then chose to take no action against the Youth League leader. I suspect that they rather liked having a senior ANC person beholden to them.

This kind of behaviour casts doubt on everyone's motive. One recalls how eagerly Mokaba embraced Thabo Mbeki in the race for president. And how silent Mbeki is now on the Zuma issue.

The ANC has resisted the release of names of former apartheid spies, even when they are verifiable. It is, I suspect, more useful to keep and use such information.

The usual newspaper defence for running such stories is that they are telling the truth, and the truth is always in the public interest. In this case, now that Ngcuka has promised to sue, we will see if the truth emerges and this defence holds up.

Either way, one felt on reading City Press on Sunday that politicians and editors alike face a critical moment when they have to decide whether they will allow our politics and our journalism – in fact, our national public debate – to sink to such levels.

*Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day, September 12 2003