Many of us associate the practice of “embedded journalism” with the most recent Iraq war. Back then, when the Americans, the British and the assortment of allies arrived apparently to search out Iraq’s nuclear arsenal, correspondents, particularly those attached to the world’s largest media outlets, were assigned to military handlers.
They endowed reporters with the protection of the foreign force, allowing them movement among their ranks but controlling what they saw or heard.
As a result, reporters reflected a prejudiced version of events to millions of people around the world. What the reporters showed the world was so far removed from reality it could as well have been the rants of “Comical Ali” (Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf), the Iraqi information minister who was regularly mocked for his optimistic pronouncements on the way the war was progressing.
The practice of embedded journalism does not happen in the context of the American industrial-military complex alone. Journalists in South Africa are also prone to becoming embedded with elites. And this embedding is done at the expense of journalism itself, at the expense of the dissemination of information that is rigorously checked and is free from the agenda of its sources or producers.
We’ve seen this happen in South Africa over and over again. Events at the Sunday Times with the “rogue unit” series of stories are one such example.
The Nugent Commission of Inquiry into the South African Revenue Service (Sars) has begun the important work of unravelling what exactly precipitated the breakdown of tax administration in South Africa. It has inevitably dug up the controversies surrounding the so-called rogue unit. It is a series of stories that has tarnished the reputations of many people and had a negative effect on the efficacy of Sars.
Such was the effect of those stories that writer and journalist Jacques Pauw recently called on the Sunday Times investigative unit to testify before the Zondo and Nugent commissions of inquiry. Journalists are not meant to be thrust into the centre of the story, but people like Pauw argue that the ramifications of those stories were so great that those journalists must also be called to account.
There are many lessons to be learned here.
But we must first refuse a halo of self-congratulation for being located on the right side of history. So many of us could so easily have found ourselves on the other side, especially if we forgo our journalistic practice based on the say-so of our sources.
The lesson for every journalist is consistently to introspect on how we deal with sources and manage our own political leanings while interacting with narratives, especially hegemonic ones.
Our only defence is journalism itself.
We accept that we have prejudices and personal histories. But journalism requires us to speak to people, to test their facts, to speak to more people, to test their facts, while also questioning ourselves, our editors and the news agenda to ensure that we report news whose only alliance is to the truth.
What we must resist is becoming embedded in political elites who will always seek to use journalists to tell the world how they see it.