Working for the Sunday Times is an immensely rewarding experience in more ways than one. The vast resources it has at its disposal are the envy of many journalists from rival media organisations. But that’s only the beginning: This institution is immensely influential and powerful. When the Sunday Times speaks, everyone listens. With greatness, comes responsibility.
But also with greatness comes, at best, complacency and a sense of self-assuredness; at worst, with greatness comes arrogance. Recent events at the Sunday Times – developments that have had a major impact on public perceptions of the media – should be seen within this context. Some observers have even likened events at the Sunday Times to what happened at The New Republic, the erstwhile authoritative news journal in the US where reporter Stephen Glass was found to have fabricated a series of cover stories – fooling not only members of the public, but his own editors. The scandal was finally immortalised in the 2003 movie “Shattered Glass”. But personally, I think juxtaposing the two is plain silly and unfair.
To go back a bit: On its November 11, 2007 edition, the Sunday Times led with a story headlined “How fat cats looted Land Bank billions”. The Press Ombudsman ruled that the publication of the story was in breach of the Press Code. And then on its August 24, 2008 edition, the paper led with the story headlined “Transnet sold our sea to foreigners”. The story was subsequently retracted as aspects of it were inaccurate.
Subsequent to these retractions, the senior editorial team at the paper took the unprecedented step of appointing a four-person panel of outside experts to help review the paper’s editorial processes. Members of the panel were Professor Anton Harber of the University of the Witwatersrand, communications expert Paula Fray, former journalist Franz Krüger, and lawyer Dario Milo. The panel was asked to make recommendations “to enable the Sunday Times to produce bold, incisive journalism that maintains the utmost credibility with its audience”.
Of course not everyone was happy with this decision. Many thought that by opening the paper’s editorial systems, let alone making all the admissions it has made, would give ammunition to the paper’s enemies. And there are legions of them.
There was a sense of embarrassment and defensiveness on the part of many at the paper. This was unheard of. Many papers finding themselves in the same situation would have been satisfied and comfortable with simply going through the exercise as some kind of PR smokescreen.
But no, the paper set in motion a process to implement the recommendations made by the panel – including some very painful ones regarding the complete overhaul of the paper’s policies, its reporting structures, and the strengthening of its verification and authentication mechanisms. This is virgin territory for South African journalism.
I think at this juncture of our democracy, we need a robust but credible media. That sense of credibility shouldn’t just be an empty pronouncement. It should be a real and measurable underpinning of our daily editorial practices. Opening oneself to outside scrutiny is the best thing there is to show that you lead by example.
This is a milestone in South African journalism in that it will encourage other media organisations – even though they might not have made serious gaffes in recent times – to overhaul their own authentication processes in keeping with our fluid developments in this country’s private and public life.
We are a highly sophisticated country, and we need a media that not only can decipher this sophistication and translate it properly for its readership, listenership and viewership, but we also need a media that will be miles ahead of the public – setting agendas for the public, and foretelling with a measure of credibility the future that lies ahead of us.
We cannot tell the public about the future if we don’t have the wherewithal to read the signs and make appropriate interpretations. And that means being able to authenticate and verify in the best way humanly possible.
In addition to ensuring that the internal editorial systems are proper and sound, the panel has also recommended – and the editorial team has committed to this recommendation – the appointment of a Public Editor. This will be an individual who will be the readers’ champion on the paper. In addition to investigating issues of fairness and accuracy in the paper’s reporting, this person will “develop a programme to make the paper and its staff more accessible to readers and the general public”.
Again, this is a first for South African journalism. It will be interesting to see how it finally works out.
It takes us back to the inevitable link between what we journalists do, and what impact that has on our democracy. The panel that reviewed the Sunday Times put it very succinctly: “The Sunday Times occupies an important place in South African journals and politics. As the largest Sunday newspaper, it has unmatched reach and influence. When the Sunday Times hurts, South African journalism hurts, and so may the country’s democracy.”
As journalists we are like sentinels sitting at the periphery of a beleaguered town, looking far into the distance, monitoring the movements of the approaching enemy. We better be accurate in our assessment of the enemy’s movements; or our town – and all it stands for – is doomed.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (January 2009).