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The life-changing power of investigative journalism is...

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The life-changing power of investigative journalism is why media really matters

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Fran Beighton is the Maverick Insider General Manager at Daily Maverick.

Living in South Africa, with the challenges we face daily, it’s easy to fall into despondency. What’s the point of doing anything when so many of those who are in positions of power have turned their backs on their citizens?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

After the #GuptaLeaks we knew there would be more corruption to uncover, but perhaps not on the scale of the Covid-19 looting, the VBS bank heist, the contamination of SA Police Service… At some point it must end, right?

Our journalists are not immune to feeling totally helpless. On 14 June, Maverick Citizen’s Estelle Ellis reported how “the infant death rate at Dora Nginza Hospital in Zwide, Gqeberha has skyrocketed since 2020 as crippling staff and equipment shortages are left unattended and mostly ignored”.

Her investigation was harrowing. What she uncovered included not just neglect but accidental deaths that could have been prevented had there been a functioning health system and had these frontline workers been given the resources they needed to save lives. This is the kind of journalism you cannot do from an armchair, waiting for something to “pop” on your Twitter feed. This journalism requires asking hard questions of many unwilling and uncaring respondents, in difficult and risky environments.

While other publications were distracting themselves this past week with the story of the (potentially fictitious) birth of 10 babies, Ellis was investigating the deaths of very real babies who did not need to die.

The doctors and nurses have been repeatedly pleading for more help, more staff and supplies. The Department of Health has done nothing.

The trauma and loss that the families and the staff at Dora Nginza Hospital have had to endure were preventable. They are preventable. That’s why Ellis conducted her investigation.

As a result of Ellis’s work, the Eastern Cape Department of Health announced that 48 posts for the neonatal unit have been created. Whether these posts materialise into real positions is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that Ellis is going to keep the pressure on until they do.

This is the power of investigative journalism. The difficult, messy, mental-health-eroding and gut-wrenching kind that has the power to change lives. And just like vaccines, these investigations are in short supply in this country.

The rot of corruption goes deeper than any of us could have imagined back in those heady days of the #GuptaLeaks. It’s not always going to look like a multimillion-rand pay-back-the-money payoff; sometimes it will look like jobs being created to help save the lives of our smallest, most vulnerable citizens. Other times we won’t be able to calculate its effect of preventing malfeasance of some sort by removing a corrupt official or preventing the illegal mining exploration of a game reserve.

South African media capabilities have been eroded off the back of the combined effects of political hijacking, economic disruption and poor leadership.

And the result is less hard-nosed terrier types like Ellis fighting for those who can’t or won’t be heard.

It is no coincidence that the impact of State Capture ran parallel to the demise of the country’s media, where large independent newspaper groups are now previously large and formerly independent.

As a result, an entire generation of Estelle Ellises has been lost and we must somehow grow new timber and hang on to the remaining journalists still willing to write the good fight.

But to do that we need the support of the public, business and a series of government incentives to fix the broken system in which independent media must operate.

How much more unnecessary loss will result if we don’t? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • Thank you Fran, you are very right in your assessment. But despite our incredible investigative journalists, some of the best in the world, most stories simply go amiss. And the media only has themselves to blame. Any story in DM is at most only read by between 5 and 10,000 people. The viewership figures on TV News channels are relatively small. As they struggle to attract viewership, they often deviate from there real mandate, carrying more stories that have an entertainment feel, as that is what most people are interested in. A very good news story, like the one mentioned by Estelle Ellis, simply disappear in the mist, and she had many similar stories. Social media like YouTube has become much more powerful that official media outlets. And these media outlets struggle to survive, due to them all fighting for relatively small audience numbers. When a real good story comes along, it is vital that all the major players work together to carry that story to its fullest. The Watergate Scandal was exposed by two journalists from the Washington Post. But their story succeeded because, knowing it was big, took it to the entire news media in the US. Every person in the US became aware of it, and reacted. Nixon’s days as a president was finished in dramatic style. Our country is too small, our news media individually too small, to expose the real big ones (like the Gupta Leaks). Unless the media in totality work together, the cries of despair will continue. ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL!

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