Our biggest newspaper, the Sunday Times, has a problem it cannot seem to get rid of, like a bad rash that is slowly spreading despite an occasional dab of salve.
When the newspaper ran two years ago a full page of apologies and corrections for its now infamous “SARS rogue unit “ stories, they thought they had cured the rash. In those stories, they appear to have allowed themselves to be used by those who were trying to take malevolent control of one of the most important state institutions. Their unusually full and detailed apology was unprecedented in South African journalism.
But some of the reporters involved in the story were never happy with that retraction. There was a change of editor: Phylicia Oppelt was pushed out, Bongani Siqoko was brought in, and he ran the apology. One reporter, the now heroic Pearlie Joubert, had left earlier because she could not stand the “kak” the newspaper was running, as she put it. Another, Piet Rampedi, who had run the stream of leaks from what we now know were the most dubious and malevolent of sources, left because he could not accept the paper’s renunciation of this work. A third, Malcolm Rees, took a quiet sabbatical.
But most of the team responsible for the series of stories stayed on in the TisoBlackstar group, and some of them have continued to challenge the paper’s apologies. Well-known and multiple award winning investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Africa does not hesitate to tell anyone who asks that he stands by his stories, he got nothing wrong and he will still prove such outrageous (and so far unsubstantiated) claims as that this unit ran a brothel in Pretoria.
Others are more equivocal, saying their parts of the long series of stories were valid, or that the core of the story was true even if some details were disproven, or that their reporting was good but sensationalised by headline writers and copy editors.
Some of this is true, and the plot is thickened by multiple conflictual claims and counter-claims. But these ongoing disputes have the effect of undermining the Times’ apologies and irritating the rash.
Now the issues are being canvassed again because of the Nugent Inquiry into SARS and the Zondo Inquiry into state capture, which have highlighted the plight of those whose lives were torn apart by the Sunday Times articles. Some of them disrupted the book launch of one of the journalists, Stefan Hofstatter, last week, asking impassioned questions about why the journalists were not held accountable.
This weekend, Sunday Time’s new and respected editor, Siqoko, wrote an unusual Page 2 editorial pleading plaintively with readers to start trusting them again. They had made internal changes, he said, and the past was behind them.
It did not help that a few pages later in the same newspaper there was an apology for doing much the same again – not giving the right of reply to the target of allegations, this time in the case of a company called Brimstone.
And what irony that the same edition seemed to be baying for the blood of Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, saying that it was not enough for him to apologise for having misled the nation, as we had lost trust in him.
Well, exactly. It was not enough to apologise, Sunday Times, and just move on. You underestimate the pain and long-term damage you have caused. You have to follow through to show that you have ensured you and your staff are held accountable, and that you have acted to ensure it cannot happen again. You have to take your staff along with you, and can’t have them white-anting your apology.
You did half the job, and now the rash is spreading again.
The problem goes further than corrections, because it involved about three dozen stories in a period of 18 months, in which little attempt was made to carry the other side of the story. This has made some of the newspapers’ accusers suspicious that it was not simply a bad blunder, but a calculated, malevolent attempt by at least some people to enable State Capture. There is a case to answer.
Sometimes a salve is not enough, and you have to chop off a limb before the gangrene spreads. You told this to Nene on Sunday.
Journalist Jacques Pauw, who highlighted this and other problematic Sunday Times stories in his best-selling State Capture exposé, The President’s Keepers, has called on the paper to appear before the Nugent and Zondo inquiries.
While the paper and its staff must be held accountable, this proposal will make journalists nervous. For one thing, journalists are never comfortable appearing before judicial commissions, and the commission could get distracted by secondary disputes about the possible bad precedents being set and the fear that journalists might be forced to compromise themselves and their sources.
For the Sunday Times, it would become a festival of blaming, finger-pointing, mutual renunciation, and a show of the toxic culture that existed in their newsroom at that time – undoubtedly entertaining for enemies of the media, but harmful to all involved, including some innocent journalists.
The smart thing for the Sunday Times would be to act pre-emptively by commissioning their own independent, arm’s-length inquiry to ensure full transparency and accountability and recommend steps to ensure this does not happen again.
But, some might argue, wasn’t there a previous such inquiry and what happened to that?
I know that 2007 inquiry well, as I sat on it with my colleagues Franz Kruger and Paula Fray. Brought in by then editor Mondli Makhanya, we interviewed all the staff, looked into a series of “kak” stories the Sunday Times had run, and highlighted the newsroom culture, attitudes and practices in which such poor journalism thrived. Any new inquiry would require a more serious commitment to accountability and action.
Even better, and more effective, would be a news media industry inquiry, in which there was acknowledgement that we have an industry-wide problem of trust and credibility arising out of the period of State Capture.
There are at least three other instances of media implication in state capture which need examination:
The news media industry needs to apply to itself what it is preaching to President Cyril Ramaphosa: identify the rot in your own ranks, clean it up properly and then we can start rebuilding. DM
Anton Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University
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