Jacob Zuma's likely accession to the presidency of the ANC should give the media some cause for introspection, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.  For one thing, it shows how poor journalists often are at predicting the future, particularly because they do too little hard reporting and too much talking to each other.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

A BASIC rule in journalism is that there is only one prediction one can make with confidence, and that is that one’s predictions will likely be wrong.

Actually, there is another: even knowing this, journalists will not stop speculating about the future. And getting it wrong.

It is not a cardinal sin that so much of our media underestimated Jacob Zuma’s presidential bid. Journalists often call elections inaccurately, even when they have the benefit of more intense opinion polling that we had here.

Nor did we get it totally wrong. Many commentators were telling us how distant and unpopular Thabo Mbeki had become; the blind spot, however, was to believe that Zuma’s colourful record would make him unelectable. The real error was the assumption journalists often make: that their values are those of the wider society.

Mbeki was cocooned in the presidency; and journalists are often cocooned in their own world, listening and talking to each other and their experts much more than to anyone else.

In recent months, election coverage consisted of a great deal of claim and counterclaim, and newspapers were largely the outlets for leaks from one camp about the other. This led to some juicy stories, but what was missing was the hard legwork, the tough stuff of great reporting, which would have told us what was going on in the African National Congress (ANC) branches driving the election process.

That’s easy to say from this lofty perch, harder to correct. Branch meetings are by their nature dispersed and closed and it is not obvious how one can cover them better.

Nevertheless, with the wisdom of hindsight, one can see that there were road signs that were missed. When Mbeki was forced by his comrades to accept Zuma back into the party deputy presidency, it should have been clear that if Zuma was going to be defeated, it was not by Mbeki. When Zwelenzima Vavi of the Congress of South African Trade Unions described Zuma’s campaign as an “unstoppable tsunami” we should have recognised that as the pronouncement of the one person who commanded a membership greater than the ANC and the capacity to send those people into the branches to swing the vote.

But the test in this case is not just whether we got it right or wrong. To assess how well the media did in this campaign, we have to ask ourselves two questions. Firstly, did the media force the campaign into the open, breaking down the ANC’s attempt to pretend that nothing was going on? Secondly, were we successful in getting beyond the petty rivalries to unravel the policy and character differences which really matter?

On the first count, there was partial success. The ANC will never be able to get its internal elections back behind closed doors. It will be forced to rethink its rules and procedures to accept the realities of modern democratic electioneering. On the second count, there was less success, but this may not be the fault of the media, which has frequently pointed out that Zuma would not engage in substantive policy discussion and expressed a frustration that he ducked these issues.

The public broadcaster, the SABC, did not come to the party. They were the one institution that could have forced candidates, on camera, to face tough questions and who could have run a series of profiles and investigations which probed the character and attitudes of contenders. But, when you act as disciplined cadres rather than professional journalists, you are hamstrung by your own conflicted loyalties.

Much of the media has now shifted to scare tactics, and you don’t get much more in-your-face than the Financial Mail’s “Be afraid” headline of last week.

I think this is a moment to celebrate, a time to step back from the question of who is winning and recognise the victory for the processes of democracy. The test we have passed, and countries such as Zimbabwe and Angola have failed, is our capacity to challenge incumbency. We have made it clear in the past few weeks that, however dominant the ANC is as a party, no president can be secure in office if he or she neglects their base. The party leadership failed timeously to challenge Mbeki on such disasters as his AIDS policies, but the party membership rose to the occasion when their time came.

Zuma is reaping the short-term benefits, but the long-term victor is democracy.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 5 December 2007.