The Mail & Guardian recently ran a “matter of fact” that apologised to Frank Chikane, Director General of the Presidency, for a report dealing with hoax emails targeting him.

The report, published in late October, cited emails that purported to show Chikane and others plotting against ANC general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe.  The report prominently quoted Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils as rubbishing the emails, saying they smacked of apartheid-era disinformation.
Despite this, Chikane complained that the report treated the contents of the emails as fact. 

It took five months for the paper and Chikane to reach an agreement about the form of the correction.  In that time, much water has flowed under the bridge.

When the report first appeared, the nature of these exchanges was not nearly as clear as it is now.  It was just days after Kasrils first placed the issue in the public domain by issuing a statement warning against “sinister emails” doing the rounds. Motlanthe had not yet taken the dramatic step of distributing them at an ANC national executive meeting. 

Since then, the inspector general of intelligence, Zolile Ngcakani, has investigated and ruled they are fake – a finding endorsed by the country’s security chiefs in a rare joint media conference.

Journalists are used to dealing with rumours and wild claims.  They flood into the newsroom in the shape of tip-offs, whispers, leaks and sometimes press statements. 

Normally, the test is simple: they have to “stand up” before they can be published.  The newspaper needs to feel confident about the truthfulness of a story before it will stick its neck out and run it. 

If there is not enough corroborating evidence, the story is held or dumped, sometimes regretfully.  If the claims turn out to be deliberate falsehood, the paper should not normally waste any time on them. 

But there are occasions where lies become newsworthy – not their content, but the fact that they are being made.

That is clearly the case with the emails.  The fact that factions within the ANC are smearing each other in this way is of enormous public interest.

Handling these stories is fraught with pitfalls. The newspaper has to be clear that the claims are not being treated as valid ones.  Publishing a slur can easily give it a life it might not otherwise have.  The belief that “there is no smoke without fire” is a powerful one – just including a denial may not be enough.

In his complaint, Chikane took the view that the Kasrils denial in the report about him was not enough to indicate the emails were being treated as fraudulent.

When the M&G published the content of the hoax emails just before Christmas, it took a step further.  It stamped them with a large, red label: “read with caution”.

Elsewhere, it noted: “Handle with care: it is impossible to give a real sense of the import of the ‘emails’ without describing in detail their contents.  These documents, however, show clear signs of being faked, including dubious email addresses and demonstrably false content.

“No reference to what a particular person says in any of the emails or online chats should be taken as an assertion of the authenticity of the communication in question.”

You can’t get any clearer than that. 

Ironically, reports on the matter now do not need to bend over quite so far backwards.  The “hoax emails” have become so clearly established in the public mind as false that the danger of their content being taken seriously is now slight.

The paper deserves credit for publishing details of the emails’ content.  There are cases where the fact of a rumour can be reported without providing the detail.  The Poynter Institute’s Joann Byrd describes how some newspapers in Seattle handled a rumour that the mayor had been shot by his wife when she caught him having sex with his male deputy.

When the mayor called a news conference to deny the story, one newspaper simply referred to “bizarre rumours about the mayor’s personal life”. Others did give details.

Using vague terms like these is sometimes an option, even though it inevitably sparks far more curiosity than giving at least an outline of the claims being dismissed.

In the case of the hoax emails, their detail clearly mattered.  The public needed to see their content, style and tone. 

What matters even more is their context: a vicious succession battle in the ANC in which disinformation and smears have become the weapons of choice.

This is enormously murky territory. All sides are extremely secretive, and there are not even reliable labels to use – the notion of a Zuma and an Mbeki camp are certainly oversimplifications.

But there’s no question that it needs reporting. It’s the political story of the year.

* This column first appeared as The ombud in the Mail & Guardian on 21 April 2006.