No editor worth their salt likes to sit on juicy information. The basic (and correct) instinct of a journalist is to publish and be damned, never to hide something from one’s audience and always allow them make their own informed judgements.

But was is right for the Sunday Independent to publish Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s private emails? And did they do it in an appropriate way?

The Press Council and broadcasting codes of conduct enjoin us to “exercise care and consideration in matters involving private lives” but adds that this right to privacy might be overridden by the public interest.

So is it in the public interest to know whether a presidential candidate is faithful to his wife? Does it show hypocrisy or dishonesty? Or does it just cheapen our public debate, and shift our attention from more pressing issues in the leadership contest?

There is conflicting international practice. The French allow for their public figures’ lives to remain largely private, and their media have often known about presidential peccadilloes without feeling an obligation to publish it.

The more prurient Americans, however, have moved from largely ignoring it in the time of President John Kennedy, to rushing to print more recently when they could argue that it shows hypocrisy or dishonesty.

The British tabloids have been driven to publish whatever they can by populism and sales, rather than any ethical principle.

In South Africa, there has been a mixed history. The most un-Calvinist partying of apartheid foreign minister Pik Botha was well known to journalists, but there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” to stay away from it.

On the other hand, the security police taped and leaked explicit recordings of political and religious leader Allan Boesak having an affair with a colleague. Many newspapers stayed away from a story tainted by its source, but The Star published it while making clear that it was part of a police dirty tricks campaign. They argued that the public should know when a religious leader was breaking the rules, and when the police were getting up to dirty tricks.

At the time, police had Stratcom, a unit dedicated to creating and spreading information – true and false – to undermine government opponents and critics. One has to wonder if there are elements doing this again.

In other ways, times have changed. Now information often spreads first on social media without the filter of editorial decision-making, and the traditional media is playing catch-up. Many editors would argue that they would be foolish to ignore what is already out in the open.

In the Ramaphosa case, editor Steve Motale says he had the information for some months before putting questions about it to Ramaphosa. These questions were leaked on social media and he came under “enormous pressure” to show that he could back his allegations.

Interestingly, in his defensive piece explaining his actions, “Here is the truth”, Motale does not argue the ethical case for publishing, but implies that he was forced to act because of the social media leak, dodging responsibility for his own decisions.

Since he has acknowledged working closely with the shady characters Kenny Kunene and Gayton McKenzie, it is likely that they, or others they were working with, leaked it to force Motale’s hand at a critical time in the presidential campaign.

Kunene is responsible for Weekly Xposé, one of the most notorious of the fake news sites which have emerged in recent months. It features headlines such as “My ten years of hell with Ramaphosa” and “How Ramaphosa Turned a Young Mother into a Personal Porn Star”.

This points to another factor at play here. Motale is closely identified with the camp of President Jacob Zuma and seems content to ally himself with that campaign and some of the shadiest figures around it. Motale was ousted from his previous post as editor of the Citizen after publishing an apology for criticising Zuma and a series of dubious stories that were being peddled by the Zuma camp.

It is not unusual for newspapers to adopt a viewpoint and for this to shape their coverage, but there is an increasing tendency to bend the rules of fair and accurate journalism in the interests of a political campaign.

South African media are increasingly in the hands of those who use it for such political ends, and the space is shrinking for independent, critical journalism which would place a higher premium on principles such as accuracy and balance.

Motale wrote his report with a heavy hand, with little attempt to disguise his views. “Ramaphosa, whose presidential campaign is modeled on moral and ethical leadership, appears not to practise what he preaches,” was his introduction, more opinion than fact.

From “documents linking him to at least eight women, many of whom he maintains financially”, he deduced that Ramaphosa “is allegedly using his wealth to prey on multiple women”.

Ramaphosa says he and his wife support these women’s university studies. Motale accuses him of being a “sugar daddy” or “blesser”. Hostile interpretation is layered upon the facts.

Motale does not deal with how he acquired these emails. He may be obliged to protect individuals, but if they are elements of state security who have been abusing their office to influence the leadership battles – as Ramaphosa suggests – then Motale is not telling the whole story, and leaving out what may be the most important parts.

Sources for stories such as these are almost always tainted, but this does not necessarily invalidate the story that arises out of them. But if Motale knows that they come from the president’s office or from state security quarters, then he should feel obliged to tackle this – much bigger – story as well.

This is where the real significance of the story may lie: demonstrating how far some are prepared to go in this leadership battle. It does not auger well for the ANC’s December conference, but suggest that it is going to be dirtier and more destructive and divisive than ever.

It could take down the ANC. Let’s hope they don’t take down the media with it.

– Anton Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University.

Anton Harber