/ 5 November 2010

Attack a defence in disguise

If you were watching the 7pm news on SABC television this Wednesday, you would have seen something very surprising: a lead story that purported to be a piece of investigative journalism — a rare event indeed at the public broadcaster these days.

More unusual still was the subject matter, not corruption uncovered by the Mail & Guardian but allegations of corruption at the Mail & Guardian.

Here was IT tycoon Robert Gumede holding up a copy of a cheque for R900 made out to Sam Sole, one of South Africa’s most admired and tenacious investigative reporters.

It was “one of the first” payments, he claimed, implying that there were more. He wouldn’t do that unless he was confident, would he?

Sole, Gumede insisted, was being paid by Gumede’s former business partner, John Sterenborg, now a sworn enemy, to write negative stories about him. He added some comments about racism to spice up the brew and the SABC tacked on a brief, garbled version of a comment provided by the M&G right at the end.

Gumede lashes out
Gumede also put out a press statement lashing out at Adriaan Basson — who has been at the centre of our efforts to understand how Gumede became so very rich so very quickly — and at the editor of the newspaper, Nic Dawes, who recently apologised for his handling of a ruling by the press ombudsman in Gumede’s favour.

The cheque, it must have seemed to viewers, was really damaging evidence against a man seen by many as an anticorruption paladin.

Sole, after all, broke the story that the Scorpions were investigating Jacob Zuma and, with his M&G colleagues, introduced the world to issues such as Oilgate, Jackie Selebi’s corrupt relationships with crooks and the hidden truth about the arms deal.

In other words, a problematic character for many powerful people, who will no doubt have been cracking open the Champagne.

As a special bonus prize, Gumede cited the affair as proof of the need for a media appeals tribunal, a statutory press control body promoted by some leaders of the party that he so lavishly funds.

Of course Gumede’s allegations are defamatory, but they are also untrue.

The facts
There is a cheque made out to Sole dating from 2001, but it is a slender piece of evidence indeed from which to weave a conspiracy. At the time Sole worked for the small and cash-strapped investigative magazine, Noseweek.

Sterenborg told the editor, Martin Welz, he had a story to tell, but wanted to discuss it in person. Short of funds and uncertain the outlay for air tickets would produce a story, Welz struck deal with Sterenborg — he would pay for the flights and the magazine would hear him out.

Sole made the trip from Durban to Johannesburg on Welz’s instructions and was reimbursed by Sterenborg. No story ever appeared, because the businessman did not provide the kind of hard evidence for his claims that good investigative journalists insist on.

With hindsight it is easy to say that letting Sterenborg pay for the flight was a mistake on Welz’s part. It is a decision he must defend. But there is ­certainly no evidence that Noseweek traded a story for a ticket and Sole received absolutely no personal benefit.

None of this was seriously considered by the SABC in its report and the direct involvement of controversial news chief Phil Molefe in shepherding the story through the hush-hush process that led up to its airing tells a tale of its own.

If you’ve read this far you would perhaps be justified in concluding that Gumede’s strategy has worked.

We’ve spent the past 575 words discussing the allegations he has made against us and said nothing about what our lead story may reveal about his business practices.

You may, after reading the story, conclude that it reveals nothing much, except perhaps his generosity in donating R100 000 to a charity linked to a Telkom official who earlier played a role in awarding him a tender. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. Or you may feel that his answers don’t quite add up.

Indeed, it is to ensure that you have a chance to form your own view that we have given Gumede’s side of the story a substantial airing. But we have to ask why, if the questions we asked about this transaction had such an innocent answer, Gumede chose to launch a campaign of defamation against us before he provided it?

Why did he make a pre-emptive complaint to the press ombudsman and copy the chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum?

Why did he send a lengthy tract to other media organisations after first ensuring that the SABC got its “scoop”?

We don’t know, but we can take an educated guess.

First, and most straightforwardly, he wanted to stop the story and, if that failed, to discredit it.

Second, he wanted to put the system of press self-regulation under strain by asking it to do what it cannot — engage in pre-publication censorship.

When it failed to do so, supporters of a media appeals tribunal would be handed a fresh argument, albeit a spurious one.

It is a perfect convergence of interests between a politically connected dealmaker and those in the governing party who want a more compliant media.
We aren’t falling for it — and we know you aren’t either.