Business Maverick, Media, Politics

Fertilising SA’s rotting ecosystem: M&G’s new investigative journalism centre

Fertilising SA’s rotting ecosystem: M&G’s new investigative journalism centre

The Mail & Guardian recently launched an initiative under the brand “amaBhungane,” which means dung beetle, and refers to creatures that dig around in the crap and fertilise the whole system – just like investigative journalists. The Daily Maverick spoke to M&G editor Nic Dawes about what this non-profit centre could mean for South Africa.

Since it won a Pulitzer Prize last week for investigative journalism, the online not-for-profit newsroom ProPublica has been operating at a new level of respect amongst the United States media fraternity. Not that the work it’s been doing over the last few days has necessarily been any better than the work it did from inception in October 2007, it’s just that there’s something about a Pulitzer that makes people notice. It’s rare for a US newsroom to operate independent of the profit-margin expectations and short-term stock-market concerns of a listed company owner, and ProPublica, with its latest accolade, has now shown the media world that a non-profit structure can work just as well – if not better – than the traditional commercial model.

In an obvious yet meaningful way, the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism draws on the example set by ProPublica. As South Africa’s first “non-profit centre to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest,” its founding statement mirrors almost to the letter that of its American counterpart. There are some important differences, however, as outlined by Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes.

“ProPublica is a model that’s influenced us a lot,” Dawes told The Daily Maverick recently. “They do amazing work, but they don’t have a clear publishing channel. Editors [at newspapers where they pitch their work] don’t feel attached to their stories. The idea with us is attached to the initiative’s title – the M&G is a clear channel out into the world.”

In other words, where ProPublica publishes on its own Website and syndicates simultaneously to select mainstream news outlets – their Pulitzer-winning story was co-published by the New York Times Magazine, for example – the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism will publish in the main through the properties that the M&G owns and runs: the weekly newspaper, the M&G Website, and the new Website that directly represents the centre under the brand “amaBhungane”.

It means dung beetle, and it’s come in for some flak from local media commentators who find it too cute, but Dawes is attached to the idea that it represents. “I like the kind of metaphor about dung beetles digging around in the crap and making fertiliser for the whole ecosystem, just like investigative journalists,” he said.

The centre is funded by the Open Society Foundation of South Africa (OSF-SA) to the formidable tune of R1-million for year one, and the M&G are supplementing that from their existing investigations budget. “[The OSF] were enormously helpful,” Dawes explained. “They got the concept immediately. Of course we had to go through a rigorous budgeting process with them, this is not something you figure out on the back of an envelope. But it fits in perfectly with the OSF’s clear mandate of protecting an open society.”

One thing the budget will do, said Dawes, is allow the M&G to spread out into the region: to focus, for instance, on stories out of Zambia or Swaziland. More importantly, perhaps, it will also let the newspaper intensify the advocacy work that’s become synonymous with its name.

An example here is the Protection of Information Bill, which former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils introduced in 2008 to, first, classify state information and, second, penalise its unauthorised disclosure. Under the Bill, if a journalist got forwarded a tender document that looked a bit suspicious, he or she could end up in prison for five years. So the M&G, on its own dime and represented by Dawes and senior investigative journalists Sam Sole and Stefaans Brummer, made a submission to the parliamentary portfolio committee to get the Bill withdrawn. By showing how the Bill might impede the free flow of information, which is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy, they were successful.

“The intention with the centre is really advocacy around access to information and open democracy, particularly as it affects our work as journalists,” Dawes explained.

Another key aspect of the project is the internship programme. Significantly, this will be open to journalists from competing organisations. “We want to create competition for ourselves,” said Dawes. “We have an SABC intern right now, and we would take one from News24 or Avusa. The whole point with this is to establish an investigative journalism culture in South Africa.”

Dawes has no doubt that the M&G investigative team, lead by Sole and Brummer, is the best in the country – and under their guidance the centre will teach core technical skills, such as where to access court documents and how to unpack the shareholding structure of a company. According to Dawes, the centre will also teach interns how to think with an “investigative mindset” – meaning, when a standard press release comes along, they’ll apply a forensic sensibility to it and try to discern the cross-directorships and potential conflicts. “It’s about looking at ripples on the surface of the news, and seeing what hidden reefs are causing them.”

Which is a fantastic objective however you cut it, and one that South Africa desperately needs. The problem is, do the subjects of investigation journalism in this country – the people who are actually caught out by the sterling work of journalists like Dawes, Sole, Brummer and Adriaan Basson – ever really face the legal consequences of their actions? Don’t these stories often get forgotten in the wake of the next big expose that comes along? A few weeks after the event, does anyone even remember that bribery story involving Zwelinzima Vavi’s wife?

“There are two concerns being raised here,” said Dawes. “One is the hysterical kind of news cycle that we’re in; it’s very difficult to maintain a focus on things. The Vavi story was big for three days, and then the ET murder came along. But the police are investigating charges against the guy who offered the bribe.

“More broadly, yes, we do have an issue with accountability. I would counter, however, that things do happen. If the M&G had not exposed Selebi, he wouldn’t be in court today. Mbeki would’ve suppressed the matter.”

And that, clearly, is the crux: it’s simply better to live in a world where investigative journalism thrives than one where it does not. So, from The Daily Maverick, viva amaBhungane.

By Kevin Bloom

Read more: The amaBhungane website

Main photo: Nic Dawes, M&G Editor


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