Journalists should think carefully before they condemn their fellows
‘Sources’ are often an accumulation of tip-offs and veiled pointers weighed against cover-ups, misinformation
Istill vividly remember the day at Vrye Weekblad when we planned the front page of that week’s edition and the subject was going to be ourselves. We were awaiting the verdict in the Lothar Neethling defamation case. He had sued us for reporting that he had supplied police death squads with poison.
What was it going to be, guilty or not guilty, we asked editor Max du Preez and reporter Jacques Pauw. They didn’t know, so we made up two pages, one reporting the verdict, the other just a blacked-out page. Costs awarded against us would mean the paper had to close.
I and other staff members found it odd that Du Preez and Pauw called it a 50-50 situation. Why weren’t they sure? They never shared the finer details of their investigations with the rest of us, but we were united in the fight against apartheid and it was one for all, all for one.
Almost three decades later, Du Preez and Pauw are at the forefront of journalists rounding on the Sunday Times trio blamed for the rogue unit debacle. I find it ironic that they are now calling for them to reveal their sources before the Zondo commission or some other body.
You can’t be called a proper investigative journalist if you haven’t been played by your sources at least once in your career. It means you are not prepared to go after every scrap of information being offered in a world where power is built on secrecy and silence.
At Vrye Weekblad we had our share. Pauw diligently reported on a right-wing hunger strike that wasn’t; Du Preez and I were played when we published a series of environmental articles that turned out to have a racist undercurrent.
I am not out to settle scores here; Pauw and Du Preez are phenomenal journalists, and those really interested can go to Vrye Weekblad’s last issue, which did end up having a black front page.
What interests me is the nearly direct line that could be drawn from what many saw as Vrye Weekblad’s dodgiest reporting to the Sunday Times’ articles on the Cato Manor death squad.
After exposing Dirk Coetzee’s Vlakplaas enterprises, we went after what we called the “third force”, which was supposedly behind mysterious and gratuitous acts of violence across the country. That phrase is a household name today, frequently evoked by victims of plots.
There never was hard evidence of a third force, although it may simply be that it was burnt by Magnus Malan’s military structures. But week after week we published ghoulish front pages with specially commissioned paintings of monstrous visages towering over their victims. And the word does serve today as a portmanteau term for the various criminal structures whose existence was proven in some detail.
But this belief in rogue forces so assiduously cultivated in the alternative media played a huge role in the negotiations between the National Party and the ANC, judging from spy boss Niel Barnard’s memoirs. It led to a vast overestimation of the strength of the right wing and to concessions that might not otherwise have been made.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began, former death squad members and the like became the stars of the show. The commission and the whole death squad investigative industry provided a lightning rod for those who were the real culprits of apartheid: the many whites who voted the Nats back into power year after year. Seen purely in numbers, the death squad victims pale into near irrelevance compared with the greater devastation of colonialism and apartheid.
Death squads and rogue policemen allowed whites to tell themselves that this was the real evil, and now that Eugene de Kock was in jail our society was normal again. The real evil was far greater: the white supremacy ideology that drove colonialism and apartheid. Only now is this mask being ripped off by our disillusioned youth.
Actually, death squads are so normal in modern government the world over that the question was always going to be: will the ANC government, run by the same people who ran the Quatro punitive camps, secretly set up its own versions?
Enter the nefarious forces who played the Sunday Times. At the time, Pravin Gordhan was still a member of the cabinet of Jacob Zuma. He is still a member of the SA Communist Party, a secretive body with well-known Stalinist tendencies. And there were some dodgy cases in Durban. The photographs of undercover policemen laughing at a crime scene with a grieving woman a metre away were sickening.
How was the Sunday Times to know whether staff members had been bribed? Or whether KPMG and the Kroon report, from two hitherto pillars of SA society, the auditing profession and the judiciary, had been manipulated? So the messenger had the wrong message … do we shoot him or do we just send him back?
And have we heard the end of it? One Sunday Times mistake could simply be that it called the Cato Manor killings death squad activities, instead of suspected extrajudicial killings. To put it in other words: it wanted to emulate Vrye Weekblad and the Weekly Mail.
We journalists should always remember Ernest Hemingway’s words: journalism is a mug’s game. We scramble after crumbs of information and when somebody spills his dinner on the floor we start giving ourselves prizes and calling ourselves heroes. The real heroes are always the silent ones, the whistle-blowers. Journalists who make careers and money out of them are just the (often exploitative) middlemen.
We have invented the mythical figure of the brave investigative journalist because we need him. Normal investigations into crimes, the ordinary work of police detectives who seldom get honoured, is dull and boring — just look at the Daily Maverick’s Scorpio site. The bells and whistles of media sensation are needed to get people interested in those that really matter.
Pauw, for instance, is a living legend. His book on Zuma contains little new and was based on the work of someone else, Paul O’Sullivan. His publisher says it thought it was taking a big chance by ordering a first print of 20,000. But a fabulous cover and Pauw’s reputation ensured that his book was the one that went viral, and not the several, better books on the subject at the time.
SA is all the better for it. But Pauw and
Du Preez should think carefully before they condemn too vociferously. They know very well that a “source” is often an accumulation of tip-offs, veiled pointers, subtextual interpretations always weighed against deliberate distortions, cover-ups and misinformation.
What if a reporter is summoned before a court and refuses to divulge his sources? Will they recommend that he be sent to jail?
In the end, the credibility of the media is not at stake here. Journalists, along with estate agents, never had much credibility to begin with, and should not have. What is at stake is the infrastructure for whistle-blowing that has so carefully been built up since 1994. The question to ask is: were the Sunday Times staff to divulge their sources, how would it affect future whistleblowing? Even if the answer is only a little, I believe we should err on the safe side, and recommit to not divulging our sources. Ever.
And nor should we appoint ourselves as grandstanding priests bringing down fire and brimstone on our fellow journalists for being sinners, just as we are.
● Pienaar is a journalist and author