Former newspaper editor Thabo Leshilo goes behind the scenes with many of South Africa’s leading editors to discuss the the dangers of ‘brown envelopes’ and freebies.
Just as the print media is doing what it can to improve on its self regulation and the ANC is hot on its tail to somehow take away that power, the purist ethic of journalism is being challenged by spin doctor Chris Vick.
Vick – a former journalist who writes a column in Business Day – has riled editors with his accusations of widespread unethical behaviour by journalists. These include that some reporters have their stories written for them by public relations practitioners like him.
Vick also told how some journalists did clandestine work for public relations companies, government and business, contrary to their employment contracts, which expressly prohibit such practices. He has even claimed to have written editorial comments for some editors.
This accusation was all the more devastating to editors in light of certain exposés over the last few years. There was the scandal about the two journalists at the Cape Argus, Ashley Smith and Joe Aranes, having been paid to write stories favourable to then-ANC Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool, to the detriment of his opponent in the ANC, principally Mcebisi Skwatsha.
This exposé fuelled criticism of the press, with the likes of SACP boss Blade Nzimande and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe alleging the unseemly actions of Smith and Aranes were more widespread than media were willing to admit.
Oryx Media, the company that originally blew the whistle on this newspaper corruption, maintains that the problem is far bigger than the actions of Smith and Aranes. Its owners, former journalists Roger Friedman and Benny Gool, recently spoke out, saying that there were other journalists who are guilty of the same crime in the Cape and are still practising.
Since then, a recent story by City Press included the allegation that R100 000 was paid to a journalist to write a positive story on police intelligence officer and alleged murder suspect, Richard Mduli, and R50 000 to another not to publish a story about a senior police officer.
Earlier, City Press had run a startling story in which Mpumalanga News reporter Mbekezeli Mbuli admitted to having been induced to write negative stories about health MEC Clifford Mkasi, a challenger to ANC Premier David Mabuza in return for beer, a promised municipal job and a BMW.
In my experience, the problem of ‘payola’ in newsrooms definitely did not start and end with Smith and Aranes. However, proving such corruption is damn hard. Witnesses are unwilling to come forward, mostly fearing it might negatively affect their businesses.
But, damaging as these revelations and claims are, they’re not what keep newspaper editors awake at night. Most of them believe that such instances of outright bribery are too few to constitute a crisis and are promptly nipped in the bud whenever they are proven.
Nevertheless, they still view them seriously because of their potential to harm the industry’s credibility – which is its currency. They also take pride in the fact that it is newspapers themselves that expose such miscreants and take steps to root them out.
The editors say that what really worries them is the perversion of journalism by the well-established, age-old culture of accepting gifts and other freebies from people the industry writes about.
This unseemly practice is so entrenched it has become a normal feature of journalism in South Africa. Small wonder, then, that entertainment journalists, especially, have come to expect to be pampered by their hosts so much that they even openly attack them in their stories for giving them less than lavish accommodation and other sweeteners.
Bizarrely, some forms of journalism – mainly travel and motoring – would not be possible without the companies involved footing the bill. All editors canvassed for this article lamented the under-funding of news gathering across the industry, especially for lifestyle stories such as motoring and travel, and blamed that for the practice of accepting freebies.
Tim Du Plessis, editor-in-chief of Media24’s Afrikaans titles, says local media would have to close down their travel and motoring sections without such freebies, to the detriment of readers. Readers, he says, understand this, as long as there’s disclosure that the host paid.
“We are an under-resourced country. We can’t do motoring like some overseas publications that can afford to buy the cars they review.” Another problem was that even if he were to say no to such offers, the readers would simply buy the competition to find such stories, with dire consequences for circulation.
“The solution is to remain principled. Editors would have to interrogate such copy more vigorously to rid it of sunshine journalism,” says Du Plessis.
Moegsien Williams, editor-in-chief and editorial director of Independent Newspapers, is dead set against freebies. “We can uncover outright bribery and root it out; the more insidious problem is freebies and paid trips,” he says.
He says although they enable the media to cover stories they otherwise could not afford to, “in the long run, it will harm our profession because it amounts to a bribe, although it seems innocent. We as editors need to set an example. Under no circumstance do I take freebies”.
Du Plessis is concerned about the blurring of the line between acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour caused by such lavish freebies. He equates the local acceptance of paid-for travel and motoring trips to raising the American and British practice of embedding journalists with the military to cover war zones. “Even if you declare, it’s still a problem,” he says.
Williams likens the freebies culture to drug addiction. “Is it worth starting to take cocaine? We must decide. Have you ever seen a bad review from someone who’s been on a freebie? There’s no negative reporting where things are paid for by the host,” declares Williams.
Michael Coetzee, the news editor at The Citizen, does not believe the problem of ‘payola’ is as widespread as the ANC claim. “No evidence has come to light that would suggest that at all,” he says. “Should such a situation arise it would of course be dealt with appropriately.”
Like all editors canvassed for this story, Coetzee disagrees with Wits Journalism professor Anton Harber’s assertion that journalism is having a crisis of credibility. Said Harber: “In the wake of relentless criticism of our journalism, some of it justified and much of it unjustified, and following the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal, we need to confront a basic reality: public trust in our work is at a low point. Even the best of our work – and there been some very fine journalism in this country in recent years – is often treated with disdain.”
Coetzee disagrees: “Journalism may have a crisis of credibility in some countries due to the scandals they have had there. I do not believe that South African journalism faces such a crisis. Where’s the evidence? In fact, the evidence we have proves the contrary: South Africans trust the media more than any other democratic institution in the country, including Parliament and the police. We will continue to strive to keep and build on this trust.”
All editors agreed with Harber’s call for transparency regarding journalists’ interests in order to raise the bar when it comes to their credibility and accountability. This includes more vigorous enforcement of ethical codes. All the major newspapers have good policies that demand declaration of outside interests.
The codes also require that freebies be declared and handed over to a senior editor, usually, the managing editor. They then get auctioned off, with the proceeds going to charity.
“Our credibility is our currency and we need to guard it jealously,” says Du Plessis. He doubts the effectiveness of public declarations: “Will publishing all interests somehow create public trust? It certainly has not done so as far as public officials are concerned.”
Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press, says the perversion of journalism comes in forms that are not always about money in brown envelopes. “It can be through expensive drinks, entertainment and closeness, movie tickets – a whole range of freebies. Then there are political affiliations. That’s the big elephant in the room.”
She says a new and worrying trend that is prevalent among young female journalists entails them being clothed by designers they write about. This phenomenon of celebrity journalism is ripe ground for corruption. The journalists start mimicking the opulent lifestyles of the people they write about, which they can’t afford, thus opening the door to temptation and corruption.
Another problem, she says, is posed by journalists owning businesses on the side – a major problem at City Press. “How do you know there is no abuse?” she says.
Gasant Abarder, executive editor at the Cape Argus, which was rocked by the bribery scandal, says they have no way of testing the claim that journalists other than Smith and Aranes were involved. The Nel Report, commissioned by the ANC into the allegations and released in February following a court challenge by the newspaper, dimmed their hopes of getting to the bottom of the problem.
“Some listed attachments were not provided with the report. Now the ANC has appealed the decision, putting the brakes on the process. Our investigation is on-going,” says Abarder.
He says the Smith, Aranes and Rasool scandal has been “a hard road”.
The Argus is tough on the issue of freebies. “No gifts are not allowed; we have to declare everything and auction the stuff for charity. Even a cheap pen has to be declared. If we feel it’s of sufficient value to cause a problem, we auction it for charity. If ridiculously expensive, like cellphones, we send them back.”
Williams says the impact of politics and current events on journalism should not be underestimated. “South Africa is in an interesting but dangerous phase of development. The fractious nature of our politics, corruption in state and business affect our work.
“Generally, the get-rich-quick syndrome has taken root and is pervasive. Practising journalism in this milieu requires increased vigilance. We have tightened our codes to even include hacking of phones to be an offence.
“Our training at Independent places much more emphasis on ethics. Besides it being about morality, it is also a business imperative. If it is found to be lacking and were are caught out, it can harm business and even end a newspaper’s life, as happened to News of the World in the UK.
“We therefore need to take a hard look at ethics in the general industry. We are in the process of making ethics part of ongoing performance evaluation; being ethical will count towards favourable assessment. We’re trying to institutionalise it in our system.”
Echoing his view, Haffajee says that this era has thrown up conflicts that the press never had before. “Editors can set best practice but it’s up to individuals to be ethical.”
Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail&Guardian, says newsrooms are increasingly vigilant about the ways journalists can get conflicted. “Grey areas come in the case of access journalism, with journalists being implicitly rewarded with work and access to difficult-to-reach people and scoops in return for favourable coverage.
“Editors need to be more vigilant to detect and prevent distortions of coverage. We need to always keep the interests of readers in mind. Taking the public into our confidence is not a matter of choice anymore. There are many ways for the public to talk about us, challenge us.”
Dawes says there has always been a history of mistrust and scepticism about journalism and concern has greatly increased. Journalists and editors must be more awake to the question of public trust.
Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief of Avusa Media, says the main problem for him comes when journalists get too close to the people they cover and do their bidding for them. “No money is exchanged but there’s access to power. People feel important. That happens a lot in the run-ups to provincial conference of the ANC and other important meetings. We also need to raise the flag on entertainment journalism, which has been historically plagued by payola,” he says.
He disagrees “fundamentally and absolutely” that the press needs to rebuild trust. He says the ANC wants to perpetuate the view that the media have a credibility problem for its own nefarious political ends.
“South African people trust their media. They come to us when they suspect wrongdoing by government, business and powerful people. They also come to us when they have problems with service delivery. Some of our biggest defenders against media curbs have been the public,” Makhanya says.
“However, it remains important for us to be above everybody else in how we apply and adhere to ethics codes. We probably need to increase transparency and enhance the credibility of what we already have to avoid perceptions of conflict. The guiding principle is to make our journalism fair and accurate.” n
Thabo Leshilo was editor of the Pretoria News, Business Times, Sowetan and Sunday World and, most recently, Avusa’s public editor (ombudsman to their newspaper titles).
This story was first published in the May 2012 issue of The Media magazine.