Defend Truth


Sunday Times, Business Day, the report and me

Michelle Solomon is doing her Masters in journalism and media studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where she also works as a freelance researcher and journalist. When she's not out sniffing for stories, she takes a particular interest in research about media ethics and self-regulation.

While my objective was to eventually publish the full 2008 Sunday Times report, my goal was always to re-start a much broader debate about the lack of trust between the SA public and SA media. On Wednesday, Business Day, also half-owned by Avusa, claimed a “scoop” in publishing the report online, effectively putting the brakes on that debate.

On Wednesday afternoon Business Day published the full 2008 Sunday Times report on its website, along with an analysis of the report. While that was a scoop, of sorts, the same questions I raised months ago remain unanswered.

Later in the day, Business Day story was accompanied by a Q&A with Mondli Makhanya, and an editorial by Business Day editor, Peter Bruce. I was notified that Business Day had published the report after reading tweets by fellow Daily Maverick “opinionista”, Ivo Vegter. Business Day’s scoop was then followed by a heated discussion on Twitter.

But before I start, I would first like to apologise to Mondli Makhanya, Avusa editor-in-chief, for an incorrect tweet I sent out yesterday afternoon. At around 18:00 yesterday, I tweeted the following: “Please note: Makhanya’s comment in the Business Day Q&A about offering me the chance to read the ST report is a complete fabrication. Pls RT”. I also sent this tweet to Bruce and posted it in the comments section of Business Day’s Q&A. I have since deleted this tweet.

I would like to apologise to Mondli Makhanya for calling his statement in the BD Q&A a “complete” fabrication. It was, in fact, only a partial fabrication.

In the Q&A, Makhanya was asked whether he felt my approach “to getting to the truth has been exemplary”. In response to the question, Makhanya is quoted as: “We [Avusa] did in fact, offer Michelle Solomon the opportunity to come into the office and read the report”. This is not strictly true. In his refusal on 3 May, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, Makhanya states the following: “If you wish to discuss any contents of the report any further, you are welcome to join me for a cup of coffee”.

While I would hate to discuss semantics with the editor-in-chief of Avusa, an invitation to discuss a document (to which I am denied access) is not the same as an invitation to read the document. When Makhanya, who is also the chairman of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), refused to give me access to the 2008 report, I assumed he meant exactly that, especially when the Act describes forms of access to information as: “lf the record is in written or printed form, by supplying a copy of the record or by making arrangements for the inspection of the record”. When Makhanya refused to release the 2008 Sunday Times report to me in May I had no reason to believe he would let me read it, and he never explicitly make such an offer. I do feel, however, that I must apologise for calling his words a “complete” fabrication, as it is not an accurate description of Makhanya’s statement.

The frustration which led to the hasty and partially erroneous tweet was caused by the publication of 2008 Sunday Times report and the subsequent Twitter fracas around it. At 14:00 yesterday Business Day, 50% owned by Avusa, published the 2008 Sunday Times report and claimed to have an “exclusive” report on it.

The 2008 Sunday Times report is hardly exclusive – I have had a copy since February this year, when it was leaked to me by a source. This source gave the report to me on condition I did not distribute it and having undertaken an agreement not to do so, it would have been unethical for me to disseminate it. After having read the report, however, I knew it had to be published, but I would not and could not betray my source to do so. That is when I decided to ask Avusa informally to provide me with a copy of the report. When that was refused, I made a formal PAIA request. This request was refused on 3 May, and since then I have been in consultation with various media professionals as to what the best course of action would be to get the document into the public space. I informed all the media professionals with whom I consulted that I have a copy of the report. One of the media professionals I asked for advice was Business Day editor, Peter Bruce, and I shared with him some of my ethical concerns about the story.

While some media professionals urged me to go to court to get the document legally, and so support the use of PAIA to acquire access to information, this was a very daunting prospect. I am a full-time student and freelance journalist, and I am well aware that even if an NGO represented me in court, it would not be able to carry the costs of the case were I to lose. Another seasoned access to information colleague cautioned me against going to court to get this document since, in his view, Avusa would likely push the costs of court well into the hundreds of thousands of rands, if not R1 million. I could never afford to pay such exorbitant legal fees, and so decided not to pursue access to the document in court.

My objective was never about “exposing” or embarrassing the Sunday Times or Avusa. It was never about scooping anyone, or publishing the document for the sake of publishing it. It was about media transparency and accountability. Therefore, after consultations with Daily Maverick editor Branko Brkic and other newspaper editors, I decided that while the report must be released into the public domain, I must also consult first with Avusa about the release of the report. This was not simply to get comment from the company – this was to give them a last opportunity to demonstrate accountability.

It was their chance to be accountable for what went wrong in the Sunday Times newsroom in 2007 and 2008, and it was their chance to be transparent with readers. I believe that, even if Makhanya had released the document at the last possible moment, at least he (and Avusa) would have demonstrated that they honestly value a culture of openness. They would have proved they truly were trustees of the public interest, and that they do protect the right to access to information. It would have been a feather in South African media’s cap. (A broken and bent feather, but a feather nonetheless.)

On Monday I sent an email to current Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley, Avusa managing director Mike Robertson, and Avusa editor-in-chief Makhanya. In this email, I wrote the following:

“I am sure you are aware that the Daily Maverick and myself have a copy of the full 2008 Sunday Times report. Having read the report, I am of the view that this document should still be released into the public domain for the sake of transparency and accountability of the South African media. I do also feel however, that any publishing of this report should be accompanied by the fullest response possible from Avusa Limited. In line with this view, I would like to invite the three of you (Mr Makhanya, Mr Hartley and Mr Robertson) to a meeting with myself and the Daily Maverick staff to discuss this.”

I have not received a response to this email.

In a brief conversation on Sunday, Bruce urged me to publish the report “before someone else does”. He also told me that “other people have the report, and they won’t wait much longer”. At the time, I had no reason to believe Bruce would publish the story, since I was aware that there were several newspaper editors who had copies of the 2008 Sunday Times report. I told Bruce I was concerned about the story, but was flying to Johannesburg this week to meet with Brkic and (hopefully) Avusa staff. If I recall correctly, I believe I told him I hoped to publish the story within the week, but wanted to give Avusa time to come up with a detailed response.

In light of the ethical and legal obstacles I have struggled with over the last month, I am relieved that Business Day published the report. I also welcome that they have done so, despite the fact that the writers of Business Day’s story felt my own work (to place the 2008 Sunday Times report on the agenda) merited no credit. Many vocal journalists and others on Twitter expressed their disapproval of this. Ivo Vegter tweeted: “I’m actually nauseous. Please, @mishsolomon, do stand up and take a bow. Even if Business Day steals all your credit.”

Bruce acknowledged my work in an editorial published later yesterday afternoon. Herman Wasserman responded to this by saying in a tweet: “@mishsolomon The late recognition of your efforts is ironic in the light of the story being about accountability…” Wasserman is a seasoned media academic and ethicist, as well as a colleague, at the Rhodes University Department of Journalism and Media Studies.

While I am happy the report is finally published, it is most disheartening that the Sunday Times still has not displayed any real accountability. They have not been accountable for covering-up the document, or the mistakes they made in the first place. In his Q&A with Business Day, Makhanya claims: “All the recommendations of the panel have been met in full.”

The 2008 Sunday Times report states: “[We recommend] that at least the executive summary of this report, and a response from the editor, be published in the Sunday Times, and the full report be made available to the public on the Internet”.

Finally. After three years of secrecy, hypocrisy and silence, we know for certain that at least one recommendation has been met in full.

And while Business Day may now claim the scoop, and victory of sorts, the question raised in my previous columns remains: How is the public of South Africa going to trust us, the media, if we don’t hold ourselves to the same lofty standards we expect from the rest of the country?  DM


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