HE matter between City Press and the ANC Youth League wouldn't have become a flea in the ear if the newspaper had nipped it in the bud by promptly calling the bluff of league spokesperson Floyd Shivambu.

It was simple and straightforward: when Shivambu claimed he had a dossier detailing tax evasion and money laundering by City Press investigations reporter Dumisani Lubisi, he should have dared Shivambu to be a whistleblower!

Before Shivambu's bombshell, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee and Lubisi had dared ANCYL president Julius Malema to sue the newspaper. This was after Malema had claimed that a City Press reporter had forged his signature and linked him to a company that had benefited from government tenders.

That was commendable: enough of people threatening litigation but never carrying it through.

It was strange that Haffajee suddenly developed cold feet by not telling Shivambu to take them to some trusty court - for defamation.

In my view, Shivambu's claims were more damaging than the ANCYL's charge that Malema's signature had been forged: it's more damning to employ a reporter involved in tax evasion and money laundering than having a once-off signature crook.

Yet Haffajee approved when Lubisi and four other colleagues joined 14 other journalists in a chicken run to the ruling party leaders to "call on the ANC to distance itself from Shivambu's shameful actions".

Two unsettling impressions were set: firstly, that newspapers should always run to the ANC when they have a gripe or story about the ANC and its members; secondly, if the press does not run to the ANC for succour, it implies the press is on to some story that may not embarrass them if followed up independently and so, professionally - and that would be so inconsistent, so unprincipled and dishonourable as to trample over professed ethics.

Otherwise, the ANC and anybody can ask: what determines which stories/tip-offs should not be taken up by our journalists and which should be run past the ANC to intervene?

It insults the ANC, readers and society if the press picks and chooses which cases they submit to the ANC, or any entity, for intervention and resolution. Then it raises suspicions of how unprincipled, or worse, our press might be with stories and cases that may compromise their professional standing.

How so? Once more it's simple and straightforward: given that the media have proclaimed their constitutional independence, how can the Shivambu vs Lubisi referral to the ANC be cited as independence by our media? Ditto the 19 journalists' complaint.

In the light of Shivambu's later threats to "expose" allegedly corrupt journalists who didn't want to publicise the league's dossier on Lubisi's criminal activities, with editorials condemning the threats as violating press freedom, I'm compelled to challenge "conventional" assumptions about the Fourth Estate, wondering if - unlike ordinary people who don't pester politicians - journalists' private lives aren't out of reach as is the case with politicians, whose private lives the journalists sometimes transgress?

Should journalists be beyond ethical scrutiny, accountability and carrot-stick treatment - in principle, in fact and in context?

How far should society allow them the "privacy" privilege, when they deny that to politicians, "public" figures and other people who may not even be public servants? Are journalists, by virtue of their work, not public servants too?

When scribes deny those "targeted and newsworthy" personalities their natural privacy, don't the journos thereby hoist themselves by the same petard: of the public (and other journalists who don't close ranks) expecting incorruptibility and virtuousness from them?

Given that our print media especially has become sensational, Shivambu's allegations would have been - were they, say, about the ruling political party members - irresistible tip-off for a banner scoop.

The newspapers should have, out of respect for their readers and profession, pledged to investigate the allegations and take appropriate action. If the league's threats were discovered to be false, the Fourth Estate would have ammunition to shame the ANCYL, showing up that Shivambu and his gang were desperate to "intimidate" journalists against doing their job.

The reluctance to respond directly to these claims is so weird it raises suspicion that there is something fishy; that journalists may be tainted - which is why they want the ANC for a cover-up.

l The writer is a former journalist now reading for an MA at the University of Johannesburg