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

Business Day - - OPINION -

Hans Pien­aar

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

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