[OPINION] Over the past few weeks there have been calls for the Sunday Times to publicly account, apologise and testify before judicial commissions about its role and involvement in state capture.
While some of these calls are genuine and come from people who care deeply about this newspaper, the most vocal has been from a group of people who want you, our loyal reader, to doubt whether this newspaper can still be trusted.
So let’s deal with that question. Can the Sunday Times be trusted after everything it did just three years ago? The answer is a resounding yes. You can trust the Sunday Times. You can trust me, its editor, and you can trust the team that is entrusted with the most difficult task in South African media, that of putting together this great newspaper every week.
Today I want to thank you for your continued support – especially through what has been the most difficult time in the life of this newspaper. The Sunday Times has always derived its authority and mandate from the public trust. It subscribes to the principles and values of transparency, accountability and honesty. Getting to the truth is integral to our mission and values. Our credibility and integrity depend on these values.
It is for this reason that I took a decision in 2016 to re-examine our reporting on the South African Revenue Service (Sars), to apologise for errors made and reach out to the people affected. This work continues. I am willing to provide clarity and explain this decision in any forum.
On discovering weaknesses in our internal verification systems that might have led to our failure to interrogate the motive of our sources, I not only apologised but wrote to you to promise a complete overhaul of the newspaper’s systems and structures.
Now it is time to report back to you about what we have been doing. The past two-and-a-half years have been a most difficult but fulfilling period for this newspaper. We have spent a lot of time focusing on strengthening our systems, editorial processes and newsdesk structures to ensure that every piece of information is authenticated and verified, and that sources’ motives are interrogated, in accordance with the press code and our own editorial policy.
We have completely transformed our work flows. Two years ago we were a newsroom that worked the whole week generating content for one product. Now we are a fully integrated newsroom that creates and publishes content across five platforms – TimesLIVE, Times Select, Business Times, Lifestyle and the Sunday Times. We are now a seven-day publishing operation with rolling shifts and multiple deadlines. We have strengthened our news-gathering and editing processes across our three newsdesks, in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
We have shut down the investigations unit. We recruited competent senior journalists and copy editors, and all reporters now report directly to one of nine news editors. We have also created an environment in which news stories, sources and their motives are robustly interrogated. Content is discussed openly and there are no secret meetings where stories are discussed by a select few.
Lastly, we have opened up our editors’ conferences to any member of staff who wants to make input on stories, as we believe that this enhances our news-gathering and editing process.
We have the right processes and systems, and we have the right people in the right places. These changes have already yielded results for us. In the past two years, we have broken many stories without any comeback. It was this newspaper that first told you about former minister Des van Rooyen’s 24-hour mystery visit to Dubai – long before it was confirmed in the leaked Gupta e-mails.
Our reporters told you about how defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula used your tax rands to fly to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect her son’s 28-year-old Burundian girlfriend. Last year we saved the public purse millions of rands when we exposed plans by Eskom to give its former CEO, Brian Molefe, an irregular and illegal R30m pension payout.
When former president Jacob Zuma wanted to surprise all of us by appointing Molefe as his finance minister, it was the Sunday Times that exposed it.
I could go on.
To us this comes naturally. This is what we do. This is our role as the biggest newspaper in the country. We break stories that matter to South Africans. We set the agenda and drive the national conversation about the direction this country is taking. We hold the powerful to account. Today we have the state capture commission partly because of the role the Sunday Times has played.
There are growing calls for us to expose the sources in our Sars stories. The press code and our editorial policy place a fundamental duty on us to protect our sources. Doing otherwise is a negation of the ethical practice of journalism.
The only time I am willing to discard this protection is when we can show that sources intentionally provided false information to us, or subsequently, without justifiable cause, distanced themselves from the information they provided.
In the majority of cases in the Sars stories, we failed to conduct our own verification. Therefore, passing the buck would be a dereliction of our ethical duty. Sources will always have their own motives, and it falls to us as journalists and editors to question and uncover the motive before publication.
As editor of the Sunday Times, I have and will continue to account to you, the reader, to the general public and to regulatory and other public bodies for my and the newspaper’s actions and decisions.
Bongani Siqoko is editor of the Sunday Times. He is the former editor of the award-winning Daily Dispatch, Saturday Dispatch and DispatchLive. Siqoko holds an MA in International Journalism from City University London, United Kingdom.