On Friday, 12 February, Daily Maverick published a gonzo column written by one of South Africa’s most celebrated journalists. We’re speaking here about Jacques Pauw, co-founder of the anti-apartheid crusading Vrye Weekblad; exposer of atrocities in Rwanda and Darfur; author of the mega-selling Zuma takedown The President’s Keepers. Pauw is one of the last remnants of the “new journalism” fraternity, an almost entirely male group of voicey, ballsy writers that came up in the 1980s, battling forces of authoritarianism that are now, thankfully, rotting in history’s landfill.
On Monday, 8 February, Pauw called Daily Maverick’s editor Branko Brkic with a story. He claimed to have endured a nightmarish experience that was of clear public interest: following a meal at a restaurant at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront on Saturday, 6 February, he was wrongfully and violently arrested based on a simple misunderstanding – a waiter assumed that he was unwilling to pay his bill, the cops overreacted and turfed him in jail.
“Three policemen pounced on me, cuffed me, and dragged me to a backlit office somewhere in the innards of the Waterfront,” he would later write. “They accused me of having stolen R1,600 from the waiter.”
“Pounce”, “drag”, “innards” – Pauw’s memory of the event seemed lucid, specific, and visceral, exactly what you’d expect from a hack who’d been doing this job since Verwoerd was in short pants. He took us inside “a mosquito-infested holding cell with three cement bunk beds, a broken shower, a dirty and stinking toilet and a wash basin”, which was “to become my home for the next two days”. On Sunday at noon, after someone within the system realised that Jacques Pauw was indeed Jacques Pauw, he was released. A case was opened against him and a court date set for the following day. But he was missing R1,000 in cash, which he said must have been stolen by the arresting officers.
Despite the early release that his celebrity status afforded him, the treatment Pauw claimed to have faced at the hands of the cops flouted the constitutional arrangement managing the relationship between citizens and law enforcement. As Pauw’s piece pointed out, “The SAPS has, over the past five years, paid an estimated R1.5-billion in civil claims for wrongful arrest. In 2019 alone, the cops coughed up R535-million.”
Those statistics are horrific, but the truth is that white men in their later years make up a fraction of a fraction of that number. Somehow, one of South Africa’s most famous journalists had been caught in the cogs of this cruel and unusual carceral calculus, and wanted to write about it.
Public interest? Most certainly. Big-name writer? You betcha. Solid story? Hmm.
On Tuesday, February 9, Pauw submitted his first draft. Due to the nature of the allegations, some further legwork was requested by Brkic. Daily Maverick made contact with the restaurant’s management on two occasions. They forcefully disagreed with Pauw’s version of events, but did not want to go on record. (The restaurant was not named in the original piece, but can now be identified as Den Anker.) Nor would the restaurant release the CCTV footage that would confirm or deny Pauw’s version of events. Instead, management requested to speak to Pauw, so that they could help massage his recollection. Pauw was sticking by his story. At the time, spokespeople for the V&A Waterfront were unwilling to discuss the incident, stating, “The matter is being dealt with by SAPS at Table Bay Police Station [copied in on email] as it’s sub judice and we would request all further requests to be directed to them [sic].” The police gave a perfunctory statement confirming Pauw’s arrest, and the fact that a charge of theft had been laid against him.
When all was said and done, this was Jacques Pauw – a media star who had more than earned his place in the South African journalistic firmament. It was his word against the word of the restaurant, the V&A and the SAPS, which is hardly an institution renowned for its transparency. In short, his reputation and decades of experience gave him the privilege of believability.
Pauw’s piece ran on the afternoon of Friday, February 12, and was titled “I was stunned and dazed when pounced on by police, arrested, jailed overnight and charged with theft”. It fell into a potentially dangerous grey area between personal reflection, journalism and opinion, and was published under the latter category. Studies have shown that even sophisticated news consumers, especially when reading online, have difficulty discerning taxonomic distinctions between “report”, “investigation”, “op-ed” and “opinion”, which has major implications for how information in the public interest is digested. In order to further orient Pauw’s piece as an “opinion” in the loose sense of the term, it ran under the Opinionista banner, with a long caveat, ending in:
Editor’s note: Daily Maverick made additional independent enquiries to add other voices to Pauw’s story. Nobody was willing to go on record at the time of publication.
In the wake of a busy news week, the piece gained a decent but hardly stellar readership. It did, however, earn the interest of a number of high-profile personalities on social media. There were outraged calls for a “ban” of the V&A by right-wing trolls who are, in the normal course of affairs, robust critics of Cancel Culture. Suddenly, a venue which houses over 80 restaurants and maintains thousands of livelihoods, and which had already been devastated by successive Covid-19 lockdowns, had become the focus of an ad hoc consumer rights campaign, fuelled by Pauw’s vivid description of mistreatment.
Then, on Tuesday, February 16, a bombshell.
Almost 76 hours after the piece was published, at 12.31pm, Pauw uploaded to his Twitter account what appeared to be a retraction. Written in archaic if ominous typewriter font, the missive offered apologies to the unnamed restaurant, the V&A Waterfront, the police, along with Daily Maverick’s editor and readers. Jacques, said Jacques, had drank too much alcohol and his memory was impaired. “The ordeal of the experience of the arrest and having to spend the night in jail [further] compounded my emotional state.”
“I feel embarrassed about my conduct,” continued Pauw. “In this era of fake news, propaganda and lack of accountability, I must publicly accept responsibility for my own actions and apologise for them. It is the right thing to do.”
The apology may indeed have been the right thing to do, but it soon became clear that the retraction’s contents included further elisions and evasions. For one thing, the text was written in consultation with the management of the V&A, and without the input of Daily Maverick’s editorial staff – an ethical breach that only added to the messy fallout. Pauw then uploaded the missive on to Twitter as a standalone statement, failing to include the important qualifications made by Daily Maverick in its formal apology and retraction. Worse, as Daily Maverick continued to investigate, it appeared that Pauw had lied about almost the entire lead-up to the arrest — a fact he did not appropriately address in his retraction, but one that would result in the piece being unpublished the following day.
It seems obscene to report the following events in light of the very real problems currently unfolding in South Africa, but this is where we find ourselves. After reviewing the CCTV footage from the restaurant, and after consulting with sources at the Waterfront (who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals), we can now reveal how the afternoon played out.
After midday on Saturday, Pauw arrived at the restaurant with a young female companion. Pauw described her to one source as a journalism student writing a piece on his work, and to Daily Maverick as an aspiring Angolan writer asking for help on a book project. (We will not expose the identity of the woman by publishing excerpts or images of the CCTV footage.) His descriptions of his companion are obviously inconsistent and appear to change every time he tells the story. He did not make her number available so that we could confirm his account. Regardless, for the following six hours, they consumed what can only be described as a staggering amount of alcohol — one draught of beer, three bottles of sauvignon blanc, two gin and tonics, and 20 shots of tequila. Pauw claims that there were two additional people drinking on his tab. Daily Maverick has been unable to confirm this detail.
Shortly before 6.30pm, Pauw was seen in CCTV footage without his companion. He counted out six or seven bills, and attempted to pay the R1,630 cheque with a combo of cash and bank card. The card was declined, and the waiter returned it. In his original column, Pauw claimed that he left his keys and cellphone with the woman at the table and went to draw money from an ATM, using this as “proof” that he would never have considered absconding. This account is untrue.
Instead, the footage now depicts his female companion returning to the table. She apparently urged the waiter to try the card again. Sitting, she gesticulated at Pauw, who appeared passive and unresponsive. She stood up, took the cash off the table and pocketed it. This would appear to explain the missing R1,000 Pauw accused the police of stealing from him. (To be clear: we do not know why she took the cash.) The woman is also believed to have taken his keys and cellphone, which Pauw now confirms, and he told us that he picked it up from her in Cape Town when he got out of jail.
The pair then left the restaurant, and the woman apparently went on her way. Pauw claimed that at some point later in the evening his face mask was stripped by the cops. But CCTV footage clearly shows that neither he nor the woman was wearing one at the table. Another boo-boo.
Two waiters then gave chase. They returned to the restaurant with a compliant Pauw in tow. After a few minutes, Pauw left again without successfully settling his tab, and the waiter followed for a second time. About 12 minutes later, Pauw left for a third time. The manager followed, and Pauw trailed back into the restaurant behind him once again, where he stood front-of-house for more than 15 minutes, trying unsuccessfully to pay with his card. According to a source, he had fumbled his PIN number one time too many, and his card had been blocked by the bank. “Yes, that could absolutely be,” Pauw said when we put this to him.
The manager can be seen on the phone, and shortly thereafter a V&A security guard arrived. The guard waited around the entrance, speaking on his radio, but did not intervene.
The deference and patience with which Pauw was treated by the restaurant staff would be touching if it wasn’t so unearned, which brings us to the first sign of the queasy power dynamics this story would eventually elicit. At no point was he manhandled; at no point until his arrest did anyone lay so much as a finger on him. After his third attempt to leave, the security guard eventually asked Pauw to follow him to the control room on the far side of the complex, where he was told that he could provide either a credit card or his ID as collateral, and pay his bill the following day. There, he encountered three SAPS officers, who were, according to a source familiar with the matter, at the venue to investigate the smashing of a car window. According to that same source, Pauw appears to have become paranoid and increasingly belligerent. He allegedly swore at them, and goaded the police to arrest him.
This they did.
These details, confirmed by sources, backed up in some cases by CCTV footage, are simultaneously banal and salacious. What we don’t know yet is why the police charged Pauw with theft. As far as his interactions with the cops are concerned, Pauw maintains that he was unlawfully arrested, and injured in the process.
The details of this miserable little tale are essential to understanding how this story would unravel and implode in the following days. They also lay out the scale of the malpractice. What made Pauw’s piece so compelling was that it concerned the wrongful arrest of a trusted South African truth-teller, who just happened to have a platform and power. But it would soon become a story about the abuse of platforms by those with power.
Indeed, it appears that Pauw was given every opportunity to solve his non-dispute – privileges that are not afforded to every South African. Pauw acknowledges as much in his piece, which admittedly contains far more incidental self-awareness than his critics have given him credit for.
“I am privileged and have a public persona,” he wrote, “which others do not have. They are vulnerable and have little recourse.” He then quoted constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos: “The richer and the whiter you are, the less likely that you will be wrongfully arrested.”
On this, it appears, De Vos was dead-on.
In its aftermath, the story lurched its way into the minefield of postmodern journalism’s weak spots, and blew itself to smithereens.
Following Pauw’s retraction, Twitter went – how shall we put this? – apeshit. And while normal, balanced South Africans don’t spend their days obsessively scrolling through their Twitter feeds, this is where the mediated elite lives, breathes, and prosecutes its grievances. It has entirely supplanted reality for those who craft South Africa’s reality, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
That said, the column kicked up some very worthy debates. First, it exposed what many described as the “centering” of white male voices in a media-scape that hasn’t transformed nearly as much as it should have over the course of the past quarter-century. White man gets pissed, gets arrested, and then re-crafts the narrative online to make himself look like the aggrieved party. This is an astonishing abuse of power, but it’s also an astonishing display of power. Was this lack of perspective due to an internal bias that naturally listens to powerful men without questioning their authority?
Second, commentators said the piece proved that there were different rules for whites, blacks and everyone in between – pundits were convinced, despite the storm breaking over his head, that Pauw would walk away without censure because he was a white male with a long and impressive CV.
That said, the fallout for Pauw has been swift and brutal: Daily Maverick has publicly parted ways with him. (He took two opportunities to explain himself to the publication: neither was credible or worthy of quotation. He also spoke with us on several further occasions by phone. No dice.) It remains to be seen whether any other publication or imprint will publish him again.
Distressingly, if obviously, the fallout has led to questions around media credibility. Both Pauw and Daily Maverick have published controversial, deeply disturbing investigations into the conduct of the South African superstructure over the years. The majority of the people who feature in our stories have faced no real censure themselves, and remain free to discredit the news media. Every single time we get something wrong, they’re handed another piece of ammunition to attack us with. Pauw’s deliberate lies, and our failure to catch them, critics insisted, didn’t just sully himself and Daily Maverick. It damaged the entire institution of journalism at a time when we can least afford it.
Then there’s the more human level. It’s worth asking: Who is allowed to screw up in public South African life? Who is granted a second, third, fourth chance? Was Pauw suffering a meltdown, like so many journalists dragged through the Hell of Covid, corruption and crime? The same Twitter mob that denounced the evil V&A now turned on Pauw’s cavalcade of social media critics, who were in turn demanding a proper drawing and quartering. It was a cage match of self-righteous indignation. As the British journalist Jon Ronson noted in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed:
“With social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”
South Africans are emotional and damaged, and in the cold light of day it would seem that the answers to above questions are more nuanced than they might originally have appeared.
But there are systemic issues that the Pauw scandal has exposed, and they pose a clear and present danger to the health of journalism – not just here in South Africa, but everywhere.
The news media remains a reputation-based, hierarchical business, which is where we encounter a dangerous weakness in how information is industrially processed: a determined writer can obfuscate his or her way through fact-checking and editorial oversight. This is especially true if the writer is a powerful white male with a reputation, but bias can swing the other way, and it often does: every perspective needs to be interrogated, no matter how progressive or en vogue. More importantly, facts matter. If there aren’t enough of them, there is no story.
A second, equally uncomfortable, point: misinformation, distinct in intention from deliberate disinformation, does get published by reputable media brands more often than we’d like. Modern newsrooms, in South Africa and abroad, are maniacally busy, understaffed and subject to the brute cravings of an endless news cycle and an industry in distress. Disinformation – lies – can also slip through the net, especially if it fits the biases of the editorial staff. Every. Single. Publication has biases, but how do we guard against them and incorporate new voices without replacing one orthodoxy for another? How do we institute models that relentlessly question power without enjoying (and exploiting) the power of calling power to account?
It comes down to an obsession with facts.
Facts. The only way a media brand earns the trust of its public is to get the facts right far more often than it gets them wrong. This trust is earned painstakingly, piece by piece, report by report, year after year. Every publication will screw up. But it is the nature of those screw-ups that counts. What does the mistake concern? Why was it made? And how is it addressed?
In this case, there is a clear-cut case of abuse of trust between journalist and editor, and even more so between journalist and reader. Pauw contravened a cardinal principle of investigative journalism when he wrote a personal account, making himself the story while knowing he had gaps in his knowledge and could not remember all of what happened. He used his trust capital and standing as a senior, celebrated journalist to write in vengeance against the police, the restaurant and the Waterfront. He intended to hurt. He was not drunk when writing and later editing, making his fabrications and his ill intentions all the more egregious.
Publications, Daily Maverick included, have to focus on what an MBA graduate would call our “core business”. Opinion cannot be simply opinion — it has to be relentlessly fact-based. This assertion of basic journalistic principles needs to apply to every sentence of every published piece, regardless of where it sits in the taxonomy.
When journalists and publications get it wrong, we have to do four things, and do them very quickly. First, correct. Then, if necessary, retract. Then, apologise. Then, analyse. In the course of a single week, Daily Maverick has done all of these things. Every publication has to own its mistakes, just as Daily Maverick has had to own this one – whatever a given writer’s intentions, the contract with readers is the publication’s responsibility alone. We have to be better – much, much better – than the institutions we hold to account.
Only readers can judge whether this, in the long term, will prove adequate.
There are many entities that are banking on journalism failing as an institution. As another journalism veteran, Anton Harber, wrote in So, for the Record, his forensic analysis of the South African media, “the crisis in news media is not one the markets alone can solve. It’s not merely a business-model problem, but a political and community problem, a crack in the functioning of democracy. An open democracy will not remain open for long without institutions that will fight to keep it open.”
Harber’s worthy book was blurbed by a journalistic lodestar and the head boy of the South African media-scape – Jacques Pauw. DM.