The last place any journalist wants to be is in the news. His/her job is to report the news — fairly, accurately and truthfully.
I hated being in the news. And there were several such occasions. Being “bribed” with a prawn curry meal was one accusation levelled at me very early in my career.
Accused of being a brown envelope journalist was another after writing a series of articles on high-profile South Africans including former President Jacob Zuma (for which I volunteered to take a lie detector test and undergo a lifestyle audit).
Being called mentally retarded in an official ANC Youth League statement after exposing its then president Julius Malema’s questionable business dealings in Limpopo was another.
Notwithstanding it all, one has to have a thick skin. You have to take the punches and believe that what you are doing is for the greater good and holding those in power and positions of authority to account.
This is why the profession is often referred to as the Fourth Estate — after the executive, legislative and judicial arms of a functioning democracy.
Which brings me to the latest furore surrounding my former employer, the Sunday Times. More specifically, its apology over two stories that it got horrendously wrong. One accusing an elite police unit in KwaZulu-Natal of being guns for hire and another involving the illegal renditions of Zimbabwean nationals.
The two journalists responsible, Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter, were also behind the now discredited series of stories on the alleged SARS rogue unit. The paper had two years earlier also apologised for its questionable reporting and loose use of the facts in drawing some stupendous conclusions.
I worked at the Sunday Times for 14 years, serving in many capacities as a general news reporter as well as on the business and politics desk. I also worked in a stuffy room known as the investigations unit with Wa Africa and Hofstatter and eventually served as the newspaper’s national news editor before leaving in 2013. More on my exit later and the questionable circumstances surrounding it.
I was on the news desk when the Cato Manor and Zimbabwe renditions stories were published. However, I knew little of them, nor of the news-gathering operation that was in place for weeks on end.
Serving at a 112-year-old paper of such distinction was the pinnacle of my career. I travelled the world and won awards. It was there that I learnt what it meant to actually be a journalist.
To be sensitive and fair to subjects, to be humble, to have the drive to go beyond the obvious, to muster the attention to detail and the accuracy checks that forced us to interrogate our sources and stories line by painstaking line in the interests of quality journalism.
This was more so following September 2008 when, in an unprecedented move, the paper was forced to apologise on its front page on two separate occasions for getting it wrong. One story related to Transnet and the other the Land Bank. Ironically, one of these was published in the very same week the apology for the other appeared alongside it.
This led to a team being appointed and led by Anton Harber to investigate systems and processes to avoid such lapses. A full report was submitted to the paper but, alas, a decade later we learn that nothing was actually learnt from this episode.
Wa Afrika and Hofstatter were cut from the same cloth. They were true newshounds and, at one stage, meticulous in their reporting.
However, and to their detriment, their early successes resulted in them being held to very different standards compared with their colleagues in the newsroom. And this is what led them to becoming victims of their own success.
This is not a piece calling on them to come clean or to reveal their questionable sources, or even apologise for their mistakes and misdeeds.
Nor is it an attempt to insinuate myself into this very sordid and career-killing narrative.
It is a factual record of what, in my view, led to the three Sunday Times mea culpas. It also goes some way in explaining the reputational damage to a once-great publication as well as two fine journalists who lost their way and found themselves being used and manipulated by very powerful forces. Other journalists were involved but it is a widely held — and largely accurate — view that the two were the main protagonists in all three stories.
The latest apology was, to put it bluntly, a culmination of both ego and arrogance on their part. This is so because the age-old tradition of checks and balances were non-existent when it came to their work. And the two were intrinsically responsible for this. Let me explain.
They traditionally worked in secret and their stories, I repeat, were not held to the same standard as their peers. All stories at the paper are interrogated line by line during each of six news conferences attended by between 10 and 20 managers each week. They were held on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Three conferences alone are held on Saturday when, by and large, lead or splash contenders are discussed. Their stories never made it to any news conferences. Nor was I, as news editor, privy to what they were working on. Neither, I am told, was the SARS story ever pitched or discussed at news conference.
In fact, both the Cato Manor and rendition stories (not forgetting the rogue unit story) arrived late Saturday afternoon on both occasions, despite them spending weeks working on them. They were also overwritten by a few thousand words. This led to one former colleague opining this week, and not for the first time, that they had “scant respect for the systems and protocols” at the paper.
They had a reputation of being “precious” about their stories and copy.
As such, when they did not appreciate the deputy editor, Marvin Meintjies, managing them, giving them direction or changing their copy or angles, they successfully complained to then editor, Ray Hartley, and Meintjies was told to no longer manage them.
Then they had a problem with yours truly, as national news editor, questioning details on their sometimes less than credible stories, angles and editing their overwritten work. Again, they successfully complained.
Hartley actually commiserated with me and agreed that they were indeed “precious” and indicated that he would, from thereon in, “babysit” them and manage and edit their stories.
These key decisions emboldened them and only served to enrage their peers, who felt they enjoyed special privileges that they themselves did not enjoy. Most were also unhappy that they were not given the same amount of time, resources and budget to work on big, investigative stories.
Most importantly, questions were continuously raised as to how they carried out their accuracy checks — a vital cog in the system — and who had oversight over these checks. Random checks as to these forms and whether they were even completed were routinely carried out by our legal editor.
On many occasions I found myself having to defend them and justify their special treatment.
The final nail in the coffin came in the form of a job offer they received from News24, which desperately wanted to form its very own investigations unit and sought to poach them.
A massive salary hike negotiated by the then CEO of the owner of the Sunday Times, Mike Robertson, further emboldened them to the extent that they had the power to choose what they worked on and were given the necessary resources with which to do so.
Any credible and functioning newsroom is founded on checks and balances and an interrogation of the facts. This is even more so when it comes to high-profile investigative pieces.
In the case of Wa Afrika and Hofstatter, there was none of this. And — to their detriment and that of a once-fine institution as well as the country — they were never managed properly nor reined in.
In 2013, Phylicia Oppelt replaced Hartley. Today, years down the line, it has become abundantly clear that she waltzed into the corner office with a very specific agenda.
Prior to her arrival, she effected a Tom Moyane-esque move in one fell swoop. With no hint of a backbone she got Robertson to sideline or remove nine senior managers – including yours truly – and replace us with junior, more pliable personnel, it could be argued.
Without any attention paid to existing labour laws – and which we sanctimoniously wrote about every so often – Robertson offered me my old job back in the newsroom.
I politely declined and, seeing as I had nothing more to prove to anyone, left with no hard feelings. Several others did so, too. In hindsight, it was the best decision I ever made, given what was to come. The disheartening thing is that the institutional knowledge was gone as were the critical voices required in those often heated news conferences.
Months later the SARS rogue unit series began and it was later claimed that her ex-husband, a senior SARS employee, was the primary source.
Fast forward to two years ago. Oppelt was shafted, the Sunday Times issued a grovelling apology and Wa Afrika and Hofstatter still worked there.
Now a large dollop of insider knowledge has prompted former Business Day editor and current Sunday Times columnist Peter Bruce to question why media entities (including the Daily Maverick) are going after the Sunday Times with such glee.
He says it is all much ado about nothing and that every journalist has been manipulated in some form or another.
He also totally dismisses Oppelt’s former partner as the source and doth protect her and her alleged naïveté ad nauseum. He says the criticisms levelled at the paper is “all about the money”.
This from the same guy who published quack allegations about Sunday Times journalists accepting brown envelopes with such glee. He might as well say the current situation is all a racist conspiracy perpetrated by the purveyors of white monopoly capital.
Everyone and their lover will have their say on this issue, that some argue is the biggest media scandal post-1994.
The bottom line is that Wa Afrika and Hofstatter were used. I do not believe they were on anyone’s payroll, as some suggest. In addition, no critical filter was used to interrogate their work and they were failed by the system. They may not admit this just yet. If you listen to their public and private comments they still believe in the veracity of all three stories.
But the untold damage has had a lasting effect on a grand scale. Forget the newsroom upheavals. Reputations and lives were destroyed. Key institutions were decimated and the State Capture project continued unabated.
This is what happens when we forget the basic tenets of our profession.
It is a harsh lesson for all editors and journalists.
May the truth set us free. DM