Little over a year ago the Sunday Times found itself in an “uncomfortable space”: Following some “agenda-setting journalism”, particularly around (former) Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, some began to see it as more than a newspaper. “We had people saying: Ã¢Â€Â˜You are doing great things for this country, for democracy.’ We were being treated almost as heroes; almost as a barometer for free speech, for open democracy, for standing up to authority,” says Makhanya.
Fast-forward to August 2008 Ã¢Â€Â“ and the tables have turned.
“We’re in the unfortunate space that we had some serious slip-ups in our reporting. Two front-page apologies within two weeks were very, very, very unfortunate. That was terrible for us.”
What made the paper’s “hero” status an unenviable position to be in, was the burden of expectation Ã¢Â€Â“ “beyond your role and place in broader society”, says Makhanya. “You don’t want to be that (more than a newspaper). We are journalists. We do what we do.”
The position in which the paper finds itself now, is equally unenviable Ã¢Â€Â“ partly owing to the media attention it has received as a result.
“Can I speak Ukrainian a bit?… Fuck Mondli Makhanya. I can take the pain. I’m a public figure. People can throw rocks and eggs and tomatoes at me. I’m the editor of Sunday Times and no-one forced me to be.
“But there’s 150 people (the staff) out there. What hurt me and pained me the most about this whole period, was the fact that their newspaper was being discussed and questioned at dinner tables and on radio stations.”
Makhanya doesn’t like the fact that what the paper does, makes the news. “I don’t know how it happened. I get situations where we will run a story; someone will refute it and people phone Mondli Makhanya for comment. I’m battling to deal with it.”
He says this trend started in November 2005, with the story of the rape charge against (the then deputy president) Jacob Zuma. “We ran a story… Michael Hulley (Zuma’s attorney) went on to deny the story. So people were phoning for several days: Hulley vs Makhanya, Hulley vs Makhanya, Hulley vs Makhanya. It took two to three days (before other reports confirmed the case).”
Makhanya says the recent “slip-ups” Ã¢Â€Â“ related to stories on the Land Bank (“How fat cats looted Land Bank billions” and “Heads roll for loans to fat-cat buddies”) and Transnet (“Transnet sold our sea to foreigners”) Ã¢Â€Â“ happened despite the paper’s “obsession” with accuracy. “We have this thing called Ã¢Â€Â˜accuracy check’. Before a story goes into the paper, you are supposed to sit with a colleague and the colleague interviews you about the story (based on a guide containing pre-determined questions).
“(You ask) questions like: Why am I doing the story? (About) how far you’ve gone to get hold of a person Ã¢Â€Â“ have you tried every single means?”
He adds: “It’s not supposed to be a tick box. You’re supposed to internalise it.”
Makhanya admits that the compliance levels vary. “Sometimes deadlines get in the way.”
In the case of the Land Bank stories, for which the paper had to apologise in accordance with a ruling of the Press Ombudsman, the accuracy check was not implemented as strictly as it should have been, he says.
In explaining what went wrong in the case of the Transnet story, Makhanya chooses his words more carefully: “We underreported it.
“I don’t blame the reporter. I blame the editor of the Sunday Times; us as an editorial management. There are questions we should have asked harder during the development of the story; during the editing of story. We could have handled it differently, without having gone on the angle we went.”
He says the story was based on a parliamentary process.
“Transnet was trying to block certain legislation from going through because it was going to compromise a deal that they had with a Dubai company… So, without us even saying that Transnet sold the sea, there would have been a story.
“It may not have been as spectacular as the way we reported it. We could have gone without the diagram, without saying that they sold the sea. The parameters would have been different. The headline went way too far. I admit that.”
A “group of outsiders” have since been asked to advise them on how to tighten the paper’s systems. They are: Anton Harber, Wits Professor of Journalism; Dario Milo, partner at Webber Wentzel attorneys; Franz KrÃƒÂ¼ger, senior Journalism lecturer at Wits; and Paula Fray, regional director for Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa.
They were expected to complete their audit (“it’s not an inquiry”) by the end of October (after this edition of The Media had gone to print).
Says Makhanya: “I want to be able to go out there and do bold journalism. I want to be able to take risks. I want the reader of the !_LT_EMSunday Times!_LT_/EM to know that every word on the front page is true.
“Even if on Monday somebody issues a denial, the reader (should know) that what the Sunday Times has published, is beyond reproach. Obviously to the best of our ability Ã¢Â€Â“ we are human beings. I’m not saying we’re not ever going to get it wrong.”
He believes recent events have “undone a lot of the trust we have built up with readers” through doing “big things”, such as investigations.
“It also undermines the role you play. I won’t lie to you; it hasn’t been nice.
“All media, all newspapers, but particularly this newspaper Ã¢Â€Â“ we work on trust. I’m not saying this arrogantly. What the Sunday Times writes on Sunday determines the next week’s conversations. That’s why there is a much greater onus (on us) to get it right.”
Makhanya adds: “People are proud to work for this place Ã¢Â€Â“ (it’s) the premier league. They work hard to get it right all the time; they break news; they want to be ahead of the pack. And obviously, it had quite a major demoralising effect.”
He says it’s “physically impossible” for one person to see everything that goes into the paper before it goes to print. “Sunday Times has, in an average week, between 200 and 250 pages. But I’m not going to blame someone else.
“(At the same time) there are accountability levels and people were made to account. Measures were taken internally.”
Another recent front-page story for which the paper was criticised Ã¢Â€Â“ the story was said to be “thin” Ã¢Â€Â“ was one containing allegations that (former) President Thabo Mbeki had received R30-million in the arms deal, of which he gave R28-million to the ANC and the rest to Zuma.
Makhanya has “absolutely no regrets” about this story. “I will defend it to the end of the earth.
“What I know about that story, is that it was worked. Sometimes you will not be able to wave the cheque. But that story, from the work that we did on it, from what I know, from what we know and the evidence we gathered, we were confident.
“History will also prove us correct on that one. Of all the pellets we have taken over the past few months; that one, I have no problem with taking the pain.”
The story will be taken further: “It may not be tomorrow, it may not be next week, it may not be next month…
“I wish people would follow that trail. If there’s more of us (in the media) actually mucking in the mud; digging up…”
Is the arms deal a personal cause for Makhanya?
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s a cause. I believe that the arms deal was the death of our innocence.
“To be graphic: It was a defiling of our virginity as a nation. We are in the mess we’re in because of that arms deal. The arms deal taught us about big corruption Ã¢Â€Â“ it led us down that path. And it’s a path that’s difficult to walk back from.
“I’m not saying if there hadn’t been an arms deal, it would be utopia. (And) I’m not against an arms deal per se, but it’s got to be done properly.”
For a moment, he sounds like the priest Makhanya (38) at some stage wanted to become as a child: “There’s an argument that’s made that it happens all over the world; you must expect it. No, not in my Republic.”
He continues: “Yes, I do have a personal crusade Ã¢Â€Â“ to have a clean Republic to the best of our ability. We cannot allow ourselves to accept corruption as a norm.
“We as an institution have taken a hard line on those things. I, as an editor, do. If we as newspapers don’t provide a voice on the downgrading of this Republic to just another country, who will?
“But the decision (to publish that story) was not necessarily part of that crusade. It was a story. At the end of day we are a newspaper; we publish news.”
He laughs loudly for the first time in the interview when asked why he thinks he is still editor of Sunday Times, despite recent events.
“I’m just the editor. I’m just one of the people who put this thing together.
“The pressure is always there, but not pressure to get out. It’s going to sound very politically correct and kind of like (something) drawn up by a government spin doctor: As long as the management of the company, the staff and the readers are happy with what I’m doing, there’s no reason for me not to be here… I’m loving what I’m doing.”
He adds: “Pressure comes from all quarters. One thing – and I’m not saying this to massage my bosses’ egos Ã¢Â€Â“ I’ve had rock-solid support. There’s a good camaraderie inside here. People believe in the !_LT_EMSunday Times!_LT_/EM.” And so does he. In fact, Makhanya believes in newspapers “religiously” – a statement that should probably be taken seriously, coming from a “practising Catholic”.
“The role that newspapers play in societies is just so immense. Other mediums are powerful; they reach a lot of people, but they are fleeting.
“If South Africa is to be the idyllic utopia we want it to be, newspapers will play a key role. Obviously it will mutate and become other things Ã¢Â€Â“ newspapers may be online. (But) they’ll always be there in one form or another.”
Makhanya says he will always be in newspapers. “I’m a journalist. I’ll always be a journalist. There’s absolutely nothing else I will ever do in my life.”
This might at least in part explain why he has not thought about life after the Sunday Times.
“I’m the editor of the !_LT_EMSunday Times!_LT_/EM. The moment you start thinking about something you’re not doing now, you lose focus.
“Throughout my career, I’ve never thought about the next step. I’m doing what I’m doing now.”
Says Makhanya: “More than at any other time, South Africa needs a strong Sunday Times; a strong media. But we’ve got to get it right.
“It hasn’t been a good time, but I think we’re (out of) the woods now.”
!_LT_EMSunday Times!_LT_/EM published a front-page apology on August 24, after it was found to have breached the Press Code in two stories about alleged fraud at the Land Bank, published in November 2007.
The Press Ombudsman found that the paper “went too far in treating the allegations (in a forensic report on which the articles were based) as fact and in sensationalising its report and presenting allegations as fact, as fraud”.
Furthermore, it found the Sunday Times to be in breach of a section of the Press Code, which “prescribes that a publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication”, and it found it guilty of other breaches “related to fact and clarity”.
On the same day on which the !_LT_EMSunday Times!_LT_/EM published the apology in the Land Bank matter, the paper published a story with the headline, “Transnet sold our sea to foreigners”.
On September 7, it published a front-page apology, retracting the headline of the Transnet story, the accompanying diagram and “our statement about the extent of the area of sea that was sold”, stating the latter “went too far”.
The delay in apologising for the Transnet story
“We were doing further work on it… After two weeks of trying to chase it up, we were prepared to say (we went too far).”
The controversial Zapiro cartoon
“It spoke to the issue. It was the most powerful commentary on what was going on.
“People like us Ã¢Â€Â“ columnists and others analysts Ã¢Â€Â“ we writers can write a million words on a subject. And he puts it in a frame and Ã¢Â€Â˜bah’, it’s there.
“With this sort of thing you know before it goes to print (that there will be reaction) Ã¢Â€Â“ I jumped when I first saw it.”
The run-up to Polokwane
“There were threats against us Ã¢Â€Â“ surveillance and so forth. Essop Pahad (former Minister in the Presidency) ran a campaign to pull government ads (from Sunday Times). There was an attempt to buy us out by politically aligned individuals. There was some hectic pressure in that period.”
This profile first appeared in The Media magazine (November 2008).