Peter Bruce Columnist
Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In a perfect world, it would not have been necessary for Bongani Siqoko, the editor of the Sunday Times, to write a personal commentary on page two of his newspaper. But it isn’t perfect. For a range of reasons the Sunday Times has become a target of rival media groups for something it did five years ago and for which it has already profusely and appropriately and, in my view, adequately apologised.

In particular, and curiously, Daily Maverick writers suddenly have the Sunday Times in their sights. The great Jacques Pauw has penned two articles into which he drags the newspaper. Pauli van Wyk of Daily Maverick’s Scorpio investigations unit has weighed in. So has Marianne Thamm in the same publication. What is going on?

There are about eleventy-twelve versions of the Sunday Times and SA Revenue Service (Sars) story and it is basically so complex that it is beyond ordinary telling.

Journalism is something that should happen in public. What you know you should write and put your name on it. That doesn’t happen often enough. Journalists know and keep too many secrets. I always ask people not to tell me anything I can’t print. Otherwise, what’s the point?

But a lot of this story was left on the cutting table and can never be put together again. Rifts between old friends. Rows over sources. Accusation, jealousy and rage. Basically the Sunday Times, in mid-2014, began to write a series of stories about the creation of an “illegal rogue unit” at Sars. There were 34 in all. You all know the story about the brothel and stuff.

The “rogue unit” stories have been exposed to have been false and were used by the Zuma administration to fire senior and brilliant officers of the revenue service and to legitimise in the public mind the capture of Sars for the benefit of the Gupta family and the wider state capture conspiracy. This successful assault on Sars has set our prosperity back a decade.

One of the core accusations in the Daily Maverick articles is that Phylicia Oppelt, the Sunday Times editor at the time, was getting her information from a guy call Rudolf Mastenbroek, a lawyer and former Sars official. He also happened to be her former husband. He had a beef, the stories now say, with people in Sars and he in fact admits as much in an article in the current Mail & Guardian.

I’m as sure as I can be he wasn’t the source. Mastenbroek denies it and Oppelt, whom I know, has always denied it. Pearlie Joubert, a former Sunday Times investigative journalist who was close to Mastenbroek and who quit honourably because of what the newspaper was publishing, also denies Mastenbroek was the source of the stories they actually published.

Joubert paid a terrible price for going against the grain. Mastenbroek had tried to feed her dirt on Sars when he left. She made no secret when talking to her colleagues that she thought he was talking rubbish.

But other members of the paper’s investigative team began to bring in stories. Some struck Joubert as familiar, but these reporters, she knew, weren’t only talking to Mastenbroek.

The chief receiver of documents the paper built their stories on was Piet Rampedi, who would take offence when asked about his sources, colleagues say today. Rampedi had credentials, though. At City Press, he had exposed Julius Malema’s dodgy business dealings in Limpopo. And Rampedi only joined the paper after the first big Sars story had “broken”.

For an editor, it boils down to the same thing every time your news editors tell you one of the reporters has a scoop that’ll shake the world. Do you believe them or not? The standard during my 17 years of editing newspapers and magazines was this: I could ask for the name of a source and the reporters could refuse to tell me. I would then decide what we printed and what not.

At The Washington Post during Watergate, editor Ben Bradlee had the same problem. His reporters had a source called “Deep Throat” and he had to live with that or the story would go elsewhere. Oppelt would have had the same conundrum, though she would have known more about their sources than Bradlee. Still, Bradlee chose wisely. She didn’t. But don’t underestimate the competitive pressures involved. The bulk of her investigative team were in Johannesburg. Joubert, watching the “rogue unit” story expand, was freaking out down the phone from Cape Town, where she lived.

Basically, the Sunday Times reporters and its editor were played by clever people, well-resourced and playing a long game and with high and respected office. It cost Oppelt easily the best editorship in South African journalism. Why, I often ask myself, would she have given it away so cheaply had she really known what was going on?

The answer, I genuinely believe, is that she did not appreciate what was being done to her or the people around her. Or the wider effect her stories would have. Somebody in the newspaper’s investigative team had been either corrupted or, equally easily, duped. And it had worked. By the time Joubert blew the whistle and spectacularly resigned in February 2015, it was too late. Worse, by that stage Mastenbroek had been appointed, by the National Treasury, onto the commission headed by judge Frank Kroon. It was Mastenbroek who wrote up the now-discredited Kroon report, which confirmed that the “rogue unit” was both real and illegal. Of course it did.

It’s doesn’t help that there are still some reports on Sars capture — a KPMG report and one from advocate Muzi Sikhakhane — whose authors “stand by” them. The credibility of those reports is long dead.

Nonetheless, the Kroon report made the Mastenbroek/Oppelt conspiracy look even more compelling. Except for the lack of any actual evidence that it was true.

Kroon last week disgraced himself at the Nugent inquiry into the capture of Sars by admitting that he should have found that the “rogue” unit was in fact legal and that his finding should be reversed.

On May 28 2017, the story went into another gear. The Sunday Times and City Press published the first of a torrent of stories emanating from a cache of e-mails taken from the servers at the Guptas’ IT company, Sahara. Daily Maverick was quick to follow and the peerless amaBhungane investigative unit followed suit.

But something bad had happened. The e-mails had been in the hands of Daily Maverick and amaBhungane for weeks, perhaps months. Somehow they had entrusted them to someone who leaked them to the two big Sunday newspapers.

Life has never been the same since. First the e-mails: the reading public was soaked with them. They were incredible and everyone had a bite at them. They ended Jacob Zuma’s formal political career and forced the Guptas and all their money into exile. Heads have rolled, or are rolling, all through the state; commissions of inquiry are turning over more stones. The consequences will last for my lifetime.

And the Sunday Times is in good hands. So why the attacks? This is where it gets difficult. Many of the people involved in the saga are my friends. Peter Richer, who was ejected from Sars because of the Sunday Times reporting, I have known and admired for his activism and integrity for more than 40 years. I should have done more to help him. Pauw is a friend and a national hero. Oppelt is still a great and vibrant lunch partner. Branko Brkic, the guy who started Daily Maverick, is a hyperactive genius who squeezed an entirely ridiculous anonymous column out of me for more than two years while he still had a print magazine called Maverick.

Watching Brkic’s writers attack the Sunday Times now leaves a nasty taste. He had a story, a huge one, and he dropped it. Brkic is prone to over-elaboration. He held on to the ball too long.

That’s because he’s ambitious. Years ago he began whipping up public sympathy, also through a regular Maverick contributor, Michelle Solomon, pretending that she was trying to access a report done by Anton Harber on newsroom management at the Sunday Times.

It went on and on. The big and nasty Sunday Times was keeping vital information from the innocent SA public and plucky little Maverick was trying to get it published in their interest. Then I discovered Maverick had had a copy of the report the whole time and was itself denying the public access to it. I called Mondli Makhanya one day (he was Sunday Times editor at the time and now edits City Press) and asked him to give me a copy so we at Business Day could put it on our website. He did and we did.

The howls from the other side you could have heard in Argentina. And I can’t help thinking the constant prodding at the Sunday Times now is sour grapes. What is the paper supposed to do about getting the Gupta e-mails first? Should it have held on to them the way Daily Maverick had been doing? Or about its Sars reporting? It has already apologised. The editor responsible is gone. Many of the staff are too. Siqoko was well within his rights to write this appeal to readers. Had it been my call I would have run it on the front page.

For people who have chuckled on social media at someone saying “Trust me, I’m a journalist”, they haven’t met this guy.

Journalism is a marginal trade at the best of times. We live, especially in this digital age, by the seats of our pants, many of our best by acts of actual charity, and it is deeply unpleasant watching colleagues turn on each other. No-one I know at Tiso Blackstar Group, which owns the Sunday Times, wishes the Daily Maverick ill. Brkic has done brilliantly but he or someone he trusts will get played too one day and it won’t feel so good.

This story, Sars and state capture, is really about the powerful people who deliberately and secretly connived and plotted and acted to weaken our republic by stealing from it and weakening its institutions. None of them was a journalist.

There will, I know, be other “Sars” moments for Siqoko. There’s the rendition story, the Cato Manor death squad stories and Johan Booysen. Oppelt wasn’t editor for either of those. I am not privy to any discussion at the paper but I would expect the Sunday Times editor to stand up in the face of them and act as honourably for his newspaper as he did with the Sars saga if or when its reporting is discredited.

Newsrooms are complex beasts. Everyone has their own best interests at heart. They’re only as good as their last piece of work. Some leaders work well in this maze. Others don’t.

To pretend that there’s perfection in news is absurd, and a bad call, or a torrent of them, is always just around the corner. But take a bit of time to appreciate the people who put their names to the stories we happily talk about, criticise, praise or ignore anonymously.

Yesterday the private investigator Paul O’Sullivan sent a wildly threatening letter to Siqoko, for not responding with sufficient speed and gravity to an earlier, equally wildly threatening letter from the same O’Sullivan.

Not long after, the O’Sullivan letter appeared on Alec Hogg’s digital publication, BizNews. Only after he had published it did BizNews contact Tiso Blackstar for comment.

Seriously? And this in the middle of a lesson in media ethics? C’mon guys. At all costs, get the accusation out? That’s not journalism.

Of course, the public will lap it up. The media at each other’s throats while the country burns, each one signalling more outraged virtue than the other — now that’s spectacle.

The thing is, obviously, that not only the Sunday Times, but also other Tiso Blackstar titles are, irritatingly, still not only standing but making money as well. No one in SA English-language publishing, whether from inside the country like Daily Maverick or outside it like Hogg, is going to make any real headway in their own businesses unless they take these publications down.

That’s what the attacks are about, however comforting they may be to the victims of some of their stories. It’s not about them or their suffering. Or even poor journalism. It’s about Brkic. And Hogg. And, frankly, others too.

Don’t be fooled, dear reader. It’s all about the money.