It’s in our interest to foster a culture of honest reporting

President Jacob Zuma should be grateful to Stephen Robinson. The British columnist’s now infamous diatribe against him as a “sex-obsessed bigot” and a “vile buffoon” served to remind him that the tone of some media commentary in the outside world can be less than civilised.

Most reporting in the United Kingdom was more measured and focused on the more important matters of state and business that were the focus of the visit. But it was Robinson’s piece, representing a definite strand in the commentary, that came to stand for “the British media” in South Africa.

Zapiro’s showerhead notwithstanding, the tone of local criticism tends to be more restrained. But the British tabloids, particularly the right-of-centre Daily Mail, live on vitriol.

Among the by-products of the row were the unaccustomed expressions of support from the South African media for Zuma. Business Day’s Peter Bruce summed up the attitude by pointing out that British public life is hardly free of sexual and other scandal. Zuma might be a poor leader, said Bruce, “but he’s our lousy leader. We’ll deal with him. When UK politicians visit here, we’ll be sure to treat them with respect.”

As they unpacked their souvenirs from the London visit, Zuma’s communication team didn’t have much time to reflect on this domestic bonus. They were straight into the presidency’s next PR crisis, as it emerged that he had not made the usual disclosure of financial interests.

There’s a lesson in all of this for South Africa and its media. As the World Cup comes closer, the country will come under increasing scrutiny. Some of it will be as hostile as the Daily Mail — and there’s no point in bleating that the coverage is unfair.

There’s also no point in offering responses unless they are credible. The presidency’s attempt to explain away Zuma’s failure to disclose his interests by saying that there was a lack of clarity about the legal requirements persuaded nobody and caused more harm.

Of course, it would help to have a defensible case. For South African journalists, the temptation to take refuge in a fuzzy “feel-good” patriotism that stays away from the tough topics can be powerful. After all, we’re all expected to cheer Team South Africa and it’s easy to believe that “negative” reporting may harm the World Cup by detracting from the country’s attractiveness to the world’s football fraternity.

It’s false logic. The media should continue reporting construction problems, corruption and crime and ask questions about the event’s actual economic benefits.

We don’t have to adopt the vicious glee the Daily Mail favours ­- and which it will undoubtedly deploy in reporting problems around the World Cup. But we should report them where they arise.

The country’s long-term interests lie in fostering a culture of honest reporting.

# The communications studies scholar, Professor Arrie de Beer, wrote to me to challenge the use of the expression “love child” in the context of Zuma’s admission that he fathered a child outside any of his various wedlocks.

“Who says the child was not conceived in ‘lust’ rather than ‘love’? And what kind of children do ­married couples have?” De Beer wanted to know.

It’s a good point; the term does have a rather archaic ring. A bit of research revealed that it first surfaced in the early 19th century, replacing the earlier “love brat”.

At the time the term “love” had more to do with illicit sex than anything else, at least in this context.

Marriage, on the other hand, was largely a commonsense arrangement. For everybody from royals to peasants, it offered a solution to economic challenges. The overwhelmingly romantic connotation of love seems to have developed later, in a sense leaving the term “love child” behind.

So the short answer to De Beer is that the term suggests exactly that the child was conceived in lust.

So what other options are there? There’s “bastard”, whose ugly tone is derived straight from the sense that a child needed to be ashamed of being born to unmarried parents. The term, which “casts doubt on somebody’s parentage”, remains a powerful insult, even though I think few people would be able to explain why any child should be blamed for the circumstances of his or her conception.

It’s hardly an option in covering the Zuma story.

Other options listed on vary only in the degree to which they are morally judgmental. They range from “illegitimate child” to “whoreson” — and worse.

The only term that has some currency, and is reasonably polite, is to a child “born out of wedlock”. It’s wordy and a little pompous, though.

For the moment, I’ll stick with “love child”. Unless readers would like to suggest an alternative?

This column was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on March 16, 2010.

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