The Sunday Times front page on 11 December 2011. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
The Sunday Times front page on 11 December 2011. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Every doctor knows that prescription before diagnosis is malpractice. You have to understand the sickness before you can find the right remedy, and much the same holds when we want to deal with the failings and shortcomings of our news media. 

Three years ago the Sunday Times retracted and apologised for a series of stories it had been publishing for years: the Cato Manor “death squad” story, the “illegal renditions” story and the SA Revenue Service (Sars) “rogue unit” story. Each of these had started as exposés by the paper’s respected investigative unit and it continued to publish them for years, even as it became clear to almost everyone else that these stories were fundamentally flawed.

These reports ruined the lives and careers of some of the best public servants, such as Johan Booysen, Anwa Dramat and Shadrack Sibiya of the Hawks, and Ivan Pillay, Johann van Loggerenberg and Piet Richter of the SA Revenue Service (Sars). Their evictions were a huge boost to the state capture project, as President Jacob Zuma was able, going by testimony before the Zondo commission, to put his own compliant people into place to deliver these institutions to control by him and his allies.

About five years after the original story, the Sunday Times finally acknowledged that it had allowed itself to be “played”, and it was going to fix things so that it did not happen again. But it never said who had played it, exactly how things had gone wrong and how it was going to fix them. Never mind a remedy, it didn’t even have a diagnosis.

It chose not to do what the New York Times had done, for example, with the Jayson Blair scandal, when it found that a reporter had systematically fabricated information for years. The New York Times undertook and published a major internal inquiry into every aspect of what had gone wrong. The Sunday Times, though, chose to just move on.

Once before it had got into trouble about a series of bad stories, and in 2007 I was one of a panel of four that did such an investigation for the paper. But it did not publish that report, and only partially implemented its recommendations.

That is why I set out in my book, So, for the record: Behind the headlines in the era of state capture, to answer the question: why did the country’s biggest, most powerful newspaper fall for these stories when most of its rivals did not.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

To be fair, the Sunday Times was not the only culprit in furthering state capture, as the New Age/ANN7 group, the Sekunjalo Independent Group and the SABC had become intrinsic parts of the corrupt project. The Sunday Times, though, was more interesting because it had a claim to independent, quality journalism, and I thought this would tell us more about how and why journalism can go wrong.

One has to start with who it was who played the paper, and I was shocked as I discovered how openly elements of the state and private sector used and abused their resources to manipulate the news agenda for corrupt purposes. The State Security Agency (SSA) and police crime intelligence, under the now notorious Richard Mdluli, were the worst culprits, and steps will need to be taken if we are to prevent this happening again. The high-level inquiry into the SSA, initiated by President Cyril Ramaphosa shortly after taking power, said plainly that the SSA had done this, but failed to expose the details, such as whether the SSA actually paid journalists to do its bidding.

The tobacco industry also had dirty hands — not just the fringe elements, but the mainstream companies as well, in that they worked with some of the worst elements of the state to spread disinformation about Sars. They were peddling this misleading material to all the media. Why did the Sunday Times, of all the outlets, fall for it?

The simple route is to blame the financial pressures on the newspaper industry, which have led to the shedding of capacity to verify and check stories, and great pressure to produce blockbuster splashes that sell newspapers. But this is true for all newspapers, not just the Sunday Times.

A deep dive into how this newsroom handled the stories and the conduct of the investigative unit gave me the answer: it lay in a toxic mix of arrogance and impunity that allowed it to break the fundamental rules of fairness and open-mindedness that guide good journalism. To cite one example: though every code of conduct tells journalists to give the subjects of their stories reasonable time to respond, and possibly refute their allegations, the practice at the Sunday Times was to wait until the latest possible moment to approach the subject. It had had earlier experiences of people moving to pre-empt or stop exposés, so it wanted to minimise the time they had to do this.

Sometimes this would be on a Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before the paper went to press. One of its targets recently told me that he still gets a queasy feeling in his stomach when the phone rings on a Saturday, thinking it must be the Sunday Times.

This malpractice meant that whatever response its subjects could cobble together quickly got added on to the Sunday Times story in a paragraph or two. There was no time to consider any counterevidence or counternarrative, as the paper was doing no more than ticking the box of the right of reply.

Allegations often became assertions, assertions sometimes became facts, claims became evidence and evidence became proof.
Anton Harber

This was just one element in what was called “the Sunday Times treatment”. It wanted its stories to be clear, straightforward and readable, with one simple dramatic narrative, and numerous editors would work on a story to ensure this. They were obsessed with the big story they could splash on their front page. It was a proven formula for success, as shown over the years by the newspaper’s sales. But in the process they would take short cuts, cut out nuance and qualifiers, such as “claimed”, or “alleged” or the quotation marks themselves. In this way, allegations often became assertions, assertions sometimes became facts, claims became evidence and evidence became proof.

I was shocked when I learnt how thin the evidence was behind headlines such as “Sars bugs Zuma” and “Sars ran a brothel”. Where were the editors scrutinising the stories, I asked, and found that these seniors — under huge pressure from owners to improve sales — had often been the ones “sexing up” the story.

This was a formula that worked when newspapers were rich, powerful and shaped the national news agenda. They were the gatekeepers, so they could decide what stories and views mattered. But social media has changed that. Now people could go around, through or over the gate, and the Sunday Times team was slow to realise how fundamentally its world had changed.

“It’s not news until we say it is news”, was the frequent — and hubristic — refrain. It might have been true 20 years earlier, but no longer. With this attitude in the newsroom, it meant that the paper didn’t admit errors, and mocked those who questioned its stories. 

One can look at the individual journalists involved, and I am often asked if they were corrupt rather than inept. The answer is different for each one of them: some were inept, some ideologically driven to believe those stories and some appear to have been corrupted. But it was the practice and the editorial culture in their newsroom bubble that not just allowed them to get away with this, but rewarded it.

Lest people think I am negative about all our journalism, my book also goes in depth into some of the brilliant, world-class journalism that helped put the brakes on state capture, not just the GuptaLeaks exposé, but the hard work that came before and after that to make it so impactful.

The Sunday Times front page on November 9 2014. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
The Sunday Times front page on November 9 2014. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

This work comes out of what I call slow journalism, an approach that takes time and care to verify and complete, as opposed to the fast journalism that prioritises big front-page splashes over nuance and detail.

It is also notable that much of the best journalism in recent years has come from stand-alone nonprofit specialist journalism units such as the amaBhungane investigative team, rather than conventional commercial newsrooms. Now philanthropically funded nonprofit journalism seems more effective and sustainable than the conventional news media business model. This does not nullify the conventional newsroom, nor does it ignore the important work it does. The specialist units often need the bigger media as outlets, but they now have to work together to produce and disseminate some of the most important and interesting work. These units fill the gaps that the big newsrooms — all of which have been cut down under financial pressure to half their size of just a few years ago — can no longer get to.

A new piece of research we are doing at Wits University with the Fojo Media Institute in Norway has so far found 25 such stand-alone units in 15 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, indicating a healthy new development in our journalism.

In SA, apart from amaBhungane, we have GroundUp, New Frame, Bhekisisa, Health-e, Oxpeckers and others. Small groups of journalists, frustrated in traditional newsrooms, are striking out independently to free themselves from the political and financial constraints of most newsrooms. Journalists used to fight to get into the big newsrooms, but now they are running to get out.

Some of these units are at the forefront of a new wave of collaborative, cross-border journalism that is producing investigations of international impact. The most recent example is the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ (ICIJ) FinCEN Files, which involved 400 journalists and 108 media partners across the world, about 40 in 18 Africa countries. It exposed dubious money transfers tied to arms companies, ivory, gold and diamond trades and moguls under investigation for corruption, work that could only be done in an international collaboration.

All of this comes at a time when social media is enabling the spread of disinformation on a scale and speed greater than ever before, and often this disinformation is intended to spread hate, violence, conflict, disease and disorder. We are seeing in the US and UK how such disinformation, combined with toxic partisan reporting, has contributed to a poisonous political atmosphere and the decline of democracy. And we are starting to see this in SA. I show in my book how this disinformation creates a fog of uncertainty that creates “alternative facts” and undermines society’s capacity to make informed decisions.

The apology published by the Sunday Times on October 14 2018. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
The apology published by the Sunday Times on October 14 2018. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

One of our problems is that some newspapers have opted out of the Press Council system that is intended to maintain standards. In the Sunday Times’s three cases, the Council and its Ombud played an important role in challenging those stories and eventually forcing the newspaper’s climbdown. But now newspapers such as those in the Independent group have broken away from the Press Council system and shirked accountability. They claim to have set up their own internal ombud system, but it is a farce without substance. And, as if to sneer at the world of journalism and the attempts to enforce accountability, they have hired some of the journalists who had been at the centre of the Sunday Times debacle, some of whom still deny any wrongdoing. These newspapers have gone rogue.

What do we have to do to fix our news media and protect our democracy? In this space I can give just a few pointers, based on what we are seeing being done in other open, democratic societies such as Australia, the Nordic countries and in some European countries. We must:

  • Rebuild journalism as a public service, with an overriding commitment to in-depth, independent, nonpartisan, trustworthy work rather than quick-hit, sensational and tendentious reporting;
  • Support the new stand-alone nonprofit journalism units;
  • Tackle the power of the social media platforms, make them share their monopoly on advertising revenues with news media and force them to take responsibility for their content; and
  • Isolate rogue journalists and outlets. Those who advertise in publications that shirk accountability and responsibility should know that they are undermining our democracy.

These measures cannot be done by the media industry alone. What started as a crisis in the industry, has rapidly become a national, social and political issue. And we have to deal with it on that level.

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