Juicy scandal can leave a sour taste
So we all now know that there is an allegation that Judy Sexwale consumes pornography. Has your life been enriched by this tit-bit? I’m still waiting for something to come over me, but nothing so far.
But perhaps I am just impatient?
Maybe by the time this column hits the streets, the elusive news value of the full detail about the Sexwale divorce will have hit me.
All of this comes courtesy of the Sunday Times’s story, of course. It raises a pointed question: how, if at all, should the media cover the divorce proceedings of public figures?
Let me get the principled stuff out of the way. I do accept, with some reluctance, that public figures, especially elected officials in positions of public power, should have their lives scrutinised a little more closely than your average Joe.
The public has some legitimate interest in knowing whether, say, a politician who claims to be deeply committed to gender equality actually practises what he or she preaches on a public platform. Exposing hypocrisy on the part of an elected politician can help the electorate to make an assessment about their character, and they can choose, freely, whether to ignore those facts about the politician when the next general election comes along.
I accept this with some reluctance because I do think it is a debate that is subject to reasonable, principled disagreement. Attitudes towards the private lives of politicians differ widely between countries like the US, for example, and western European countries like France. So no one should enter this debate presupposing moral axioms.
Still, I grant, at least for argument’s sake, that politicians should expect some examination of their private lives.
But here’s the thing: does it follow from this general principle that any and all the details of divorce proceedings are in the public interest? Lots of media, especially tabloids, give us information about public figures that are of interest to us (as opposed to, strictly speaking, in the public interest). And there is a place, commercially, for that kind of writing.
But surely there should always be, even in the tabloid form of journalism, a basic regard for a sense of balancing a commercial win – publishing lurid detail – with fairness – reflecting on how the parties to the divorce come out of the coverage?
This brings me to the crux of my beef with the Sexwale coverage on Sunday. In line with the general principle that I sketched above, I think it is perfectly acceptable that the story was covered. Sexwale is a high-profile public figure in government occupying a position of public power.
However, the manner in which we cover divorce proceedings must be fair. And in this case, I don’t think there was a sense of balance.
Five character sketches from folks who know or have interacted with Sexwale paint a picture of a monster. It may well be that the sketches are true. But it is unlikely that someone is wholly and solely a monster. Sexwale, after all, is the man many of us regarded as a charming, thoughtful, capable-of-emoting alternative to both presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. This is not to say he is actually deserving or capable of being our president. Rather, that there are no doubt five people who know him who could provide diametrically opposed character sketches to what we read on Sunday.
Not including alternative perspectives on the character of Sexwale conveys the impression of confirmation bias in the coverage of the divorce proceedings.
This is no doubt an uncomfortable observation in a country with deep levels of misogyny. But we must take care not to assume that when there is a divorce battle between a man and a woman, confirmation bias in favour of a necessarily female victim and against a male villain is acceptable, given the statistical likelihood that more men than women turn out to be nasty, violent bastards in marriages that go awry.
It remains poor journalism to cover a divorce story featuring incompatible claims and counter-claims with this kind of explicit bias.
Doing so in the name of feminism and gender equity can be counterproductive. It robs us of being effective in more legitimate instances when journalists and editors should be activists in defence of women’s rights.
But to uncritically assume that a party to divorce proceedings who is wealthier and more politically connected than his or her spouse can be, in effect, reported on with a presumption of guilt against them is poor journalistic form. We should leave those kinds of deductions for braais and dinner tables.
News construction, however, should be more self-critical. Of course, balance isn’t always sexy or profitable.
* Eusebius McKaiser is author of the bestselling book A Bantu In My Bathroom, a collection of essays on race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics.