For any journalist to have their reputation sullied by another news medium is a horrific experience. The Mail&Guardian’s Sam Sole explains what it was like for him in a story first published in The Media magazine.
It’s a salutary experience for journalists to find themselves at the wrong end of bad journalism. It’s a reminder of the responsibility that goes with the peculiar exercise of public power that makes up reporting.
I am referring to my 2.23 minutes of infamy, courtesy of Robert Gumede and SABC 3.
There it was on the 7pm news: Sam Sole takes bribes to write nasty stories about black people. He is not only corrupt, but a racist.
Or, to quote from the transcript of the 3 November 2010 broadcast:
Reporter: Gumede has been in and out of the Press Ombudsman’s office for the past nine years with little joy. He’s waged a bitter battle with the Mail & Guardian newspaper over its reports that he is a dubious and corrupt businessman.
This emanates from his failed business deal with a British partner John Sterenborg, which cost him his R25 million investment. Now he says he knows why. He alleges the Mail & Guardian newsman, Sam Sole, was paid by Sterenborg to write the damaging stories about him.
Gumede (holding up copy of cheque blown up to banner size): Here’s a payment, one of the first payments that Sterenborg made out to a journalist who is an award-winning journalist, so called investigative journalist who goes out to attack black people, to say that they are corrupt, they bribe people and here it is.
He must explain, why did Sterenborg pay him this money and the others? This cheque alone which you can see is R900, again there’s an amount where John Sterenborg is paying for air tickets for Sam Sole.
Sam Sole, when he wrote all the negative articles, he never disclosed that he had the relationship with Sterenborg and the company that was liquidated. Interestingly enough, the money that was paid to him, is the money that I invested. Yet he could stand up and shout to say that I am corrupt.
Guess who’s corrupt now?
It was not a fun moment, I must say.
What was breathtaking about the SABC’s report was just how cavalier they were about bothering with professional standards of reporting.
It is not that they took a standpoint – the presentation suggested Gumede was absolutely right – after all, I do that nearly every week.
It’s that they made no effort to establish and check evidence to back up their position.
To add insult to injury, they never even tried to contact me for comment – and then garbled their one-line reporting of the fairly detailed denial from my editor, Nic Dawes.
A lot of the facts were freely available:
* The cheque was made out in 2001 when I worked for Noseweek, not the M&G, but no story ensued.
* The only stories I wrote about Gumede and Sterenborg were in 2003 after I had joined the M&G. None of them were taken to the Press Ombudman.
* The stories Gumede did complain about were written by Adriaan Basson and did not involve me at all.
* Gumede was in possession of the cheque since at least 2004 and Sterenborg had, the same year, provided an explanation for it under oath – the transcript having been included in the material Gumede supplied to the SABC.
* Gumede provided no evidence of the whole series of payments he alluded to.
* Gumede was making the allegations at a time when, according to Gumede himself, the M&G was preparing to publish a story damaging to him.
So, even without talking to Dawes or me, the facts should have given the SABC pause.
The fact that they didn’t, suggests the piece was actually what it appeared to be: not bad journalism, but slick propaganda, with an intentional bias.
The later allegation that a senior manager had taken a personal interest in the piece added to the impression the public broadcaster had been wilfully misused.
So we took the SABC to the Broadcast Complaints Commission (BCCSA) to try to force the SABC both to rectify an unfair report and explain how it came about.
It was a profoundly depressing experience.
The SABC did not bother with an explanation. Its only defence was that it had reported Dawes’s denial. That fact, the national broadcaster unblushingly argued, discharged all its ethical and professional requirements.
What’s more, the panel seemed to take this argument half seriously, appearing at least to ponder the SABC’s right to adopt this kind of banality as somehow flowing from its right to protect its ‘editorial independence’.
There was no interrogation of the reporting process – indeed, the SABC journalist was conveniently absent from the hearing – and the six or seven middle managers who represented the broadcaster seemed stolidly indifferent to the outcome.
Self-regulation of the media – which I support – does depend on all the participants taking the process seriously. I must say that I have found the Press Ombudsman’s process, flawed as it may be sometimes, to be far more robust than what I experienced at the BCCSA.
However, the BCCSA did rule in my favour and later also turned down the SABC’s appeal, though the company may still petition an appeal tribunal.
But, by the time any ‘correction’ is ever broadcast, the world will have moved on and the SABC will, by all appearances, have learned nothing.
In the end, we all move on. One’s reputation – as a journalist or, for that matter, as a businessman – is not built or lost on one story alone.
News Update: The SABC has been ordered to broadcast a summary of the judgment by the BCCSA Tribunal that was made in favour of the M&G. The Corporation tried to legally delay the broadcast until after its appeal to ICASA’s Complaints and Compliance Committee was heard. The SABC has until June 28 to air the judgment on SABC 3, which has to be flighted in the first 12 minutes of the prime time news bulletin at 7pm.