mce_keep=”true”It worries George Mazarakis (47) that people might think he is boring, cantankerous and serious.
“I do have a sense of humour,” he says. And it’s evident in the content of the programme he has edited for the past 14 years.
Aside from the serious journalism for which “Carte Blanche” is known, it has covered a “plethora of bizarre subjects”, including penis piercing, the story of a woman who believed she could talk to the Virgin Mary, and a Brazilian healer who pulled “all sorts of things” out of people’s noses and claimed to have healed them. The programme is, after all, broadcast on an entertainment channel (M-Net).
It’s understandably not easy for Mazarakis to pick the most memorable stories from the close to 3,000 he has supervised. “On the more serious side, I suppose it would be the milestone stories that everybody remembers and that defines the programme in its maturity: things like the Tuli elephants; canned lion hunting; elder abuse. The undercover work is really the work that I remember most, because it’s the most difficult to achieve and it’s journalistically probably the most valuable work,” he says.
The challenge of “achieving” the story is one of the reasons Mazarakis finds his job “terribly exciting” (Still? “Oh God, yes!”).
“People underestimate how complicated it can be. Hidden cameras are notoriously difficult instruments Ã¢Â€Â“ they don’t always work appropriately. Not only that, you have to convince people to speak to you on camera.”
He adds: “In a sense, in print journalism, you go out, do the research and you write the story. In television you are required to achieve the shot.
“(For this reason) many investigative stories don’t go to air. Whereas if you had the same material in print, you would probably be able to write a lead article with no difficulty.”
“Carte Blanche” aims to have a breaking story in the mix in every Sunday’s programme. The hope is that other media will pick it up, but Mazarakis says it’s surprising how seldom it happens. “Journalists don’t bother to call and say: Ã¢Â€Â˜Can we share the source?’ ”
A degree of rivalry between print media and television might be a contributing factor. Says Mazarakis: “It’s not necessarily good for journalism.
“As a profession we need to be more open to synergy.” He admits there have been “one or two occasions when I felt on a Monday morning Ã¢Â€Â“ oh gosh, that wasn’t our best moment. One doesn’t always get it right. But, generally, we don’t put mistakes on air. This is after all national television. It’s not as if this is something that you can just !_LT_EMsommer gooi!_LT_/EM (throw) together and hope for the best.
“You do not become credible by being careless. Credible journalism comes from very direct, pointed, clarified research that is backed up and triple-checked. If we’d had major mistakes, we would have lost legal cases, and we have never lost a case in court.”
“Carte Blanche” is currently being sued for approximately R42-million by Gold Reef Casino Resorts. The case relates to a story on the safety of Gold Reef City’s theme park rides.
They once settled out of court (for approximately R20,000) with a “serial embezzler of men” who was investigated by the police, but never convicted. “One of the reasons was that the policeman dealing with the case had been shifted to another department and had moved four or five times and lost the file. And we couldn’t find him and we couldn’t find the original police documents we had relied upon (for the story).
“This is so annoying,” says Mazarakis Ã¢Â€Â“ they found the documents in a storeroom when the “Carte Blanche” team recently moved offices.
The programme took flack last year for a story claiming that the bodies of the victims of paedophile Gert van Rooyen may have been found. Their two-year investigation into the 20-year-old case, amongst other things, relied on help from psychic Marietta Theunissen and Danie Krugel, the inventor of a so-called “people finder”.
Human remains were found in the location to which the investigation led them, but it is not known if these bones belong to Van Rooyen’s victims.
George Claassen, director of Sceptic South Africa and a former head of the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, wrote at the time: ” Ã¢Â€Â˜Carte Blanche’ has sunk to a new low with this pseudo-scientific baloney Ã¢Â€Â“ and that (in) the name of serious investigative journalism… The abracadabra Theunissen speaks at the scene is so funny one would have thought (former presenter Ruda) Landman and Mazarakis (had) ventured into a new field of comedy writing. That any serious journalist could make her viewers believe that Theunissen has any credibility, is astonishing.”
Mazarakis says about the story: “I’d say the jury is still out on that one. In hindsight, one could think of all sorts of better ways to have done something.
“But there was a very systematic approach to it. We did involve the opinions of experts. We didn’t make it up. We went to great lengths to verify it as far as we could. Perhaps some of the flack is justified, but not all of it.”
He is not keen to discuss the matter further. “I’d rather leave it at that.”
The programme recently entered a “new phase” with a project to celebrate its 20 years on air. “There comes a time when you cannot just observe; when you have to do something.
“We have to find ways of generating positive stories,” Mazarakis says about the Make a Difference Campaign, which aims to raise funds to buy equipment for paediatric surgery units in five state hospitals.
“I went on air to say we want to reach R20-million. The moment I said it, I thought: Ã¢Â€Â˜You must have lost your bloody marbles.'”
The campaign has since surpassed the R21-million mark.
Mazarakis says he will not be exclusively involved with “Carte Blanche” for the rest of his career. Future plans include the development of brand extensions for “Carte Blanche” (he is not ready to talk about the details) and making movies.
The programme’s longevity
” Ã¢Â€Â˜Carte Blanche’ has provided a quality of journalism that isn’t visible anywhere else on television. (Presenters) Ruda (Landman) and Derek (Watts) established and personified trust. And now Derek maintains that with all the other presenters.
“It has become something that is part of the way of South African life Ã¢Â€Â“ part of the tradition of what South Africans do (on a Sunday). But it’s also a variety of stories, the integrity of the product, the surprising element: We try to surprise people with something they haven’t expected before. It’s finding the social glue that gives people things to talk about around the coffee machine the next day. Pushing the point until you get the point. Pushing the envelope. Cutting-edge, most of the time. And insightful and entertaining.”
As a child, Mazarakis wanted to read the news on radio. “But providence manoeuvred and I landed on TV.”
While he was a student at Rhodes University (he studied drama and English), Mazarakis freelanced as a newsreader on the SABC’s English radio service during holidays in Bloemfontein, where he was born. At 19 he was a guest presenter of the programme “Your opinion, please”.
By the time he was 24, Mazarakis was an SABC TV newsreader in Johannesburg. He later anchored “Good Morning South Africa” and produced the current affairs show “Agenda”. The move into production came because he “wanted to have a say”. He was a lecturer at Rhodes when M-Net made him an offer he “couldn’t refuse” Ã¢Â€Â“ to produce “Carte Blanche”.
This profile first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine (October 2008).