Uncaptured: Newsroom weaknesses and the trap of false narratives

ANALYSIS

Investigative journalists helped pull South Africa back from a precipice by exposing the depth of state capture. But they are now staring into an abyss of their own: populist hostility, a funding crisis and waning public trust. On balance, our press remains one of the freest in the world – but for how long? By Carlos Amato


Newspapers everywhere make mistakes all the time.
Most of these “lies” are minor inaccuracies in truthful reports. Such errors are theoretically avoidable, but they cannot be eliminated from the real world of cash-strapped newsrooms.

And human fallibility (often in the shape of confirmation bias — our tendency to interpret new information as confirming our pre-existing beliefs) plus an ever-dwindling supply of time, experienced reporters, editors, sub-editors and proofreaders adds up to the impossibility of the dream of flawlessly accurate reportage.

But it’s an entirely different matter when a body of reporting is premised on a lie. The Sunday Times’ narrative about the South African Revenue Service (Sars) in 2013 and 2014 dealt a body blow to the credibility of investigative journalism. A trio of reporters — Piet Rampedi, Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter, under the editorship of Phylicia Oppelt — wrote a series of articles alleging the existence of an illegal Sars rogue unit, which they said was also running a brothel.

The coverage relied in part on flawed official documents, mainly the Sikhakhane report and the KPMG report commissioned by Sars, but also on tip-offs from unnamed sources.

As the dirty war in Sars unfolded in the intervening years, it became clear that the Sunday Times had been spectacularly played by shadowy intelligence figures seeking to boost Sars commissioner Tom Moyane’s campaign. Retired judge Robert Nugent, who headed the inquiry into tax governance and administration at Sars said: “He [Moyane] arrived without integrity and then dismantled the elements of governance one by one. This was more than mere mismanagement. It was seizing control of Sars as if it was his to have.”

Current Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko this year apologised and accounted for the newspaper’s Sars narrative, in two editorials that also addressed its flawed reporting on the Cato Manor police death squad stories in 2011 and 2012, under then-editor Ray Hartley.

Rampedi left the Sunday Times before the newspaper was taken to task about its coverage of the so-called rogue unit. Wa Afrika and Hofstatter are unable to comment on the episode because of nondisclosure agreements they entered into when they left the newspaper this year.

But it’s worth asking what structural and cultural weaknesses in South African newsrooms made this kind of calamity possible, and how those weaknesses can be fixed. How does it happen that excellent journalists such as Wa Afrika and Hofstatter — who have both stopped several very bad guys in their tracks with blockbusting exposés — get it all so spectacularly wrong?

Veteran investigative journalist Jacques Pauw has been justifiably savage in his criticism of the Sunday Times reporters. But this type of failure has happened across the South African media, including at this newspaper, even if the scale of the Sars narrative was unprecedented.

For amaBhungane’s Sole, newsrooms are generally vulnerable to the partisan planting of leaks and weaponised internal reports commissioned by public entities. This is partly a function of the ANC’s political culture of feigned consensus.

Sam Sole: “Bringing in the forensic auditor to get the outcome that you want also became a tool against rival factions.”

“Factions within the dominant party can’t be seen to openly contest and disagree with each other — at least, not until recently,” he said. “So they have often done so via targeted leaks and investigations. And for a long time journalists were not careful enough about interrogating that process ... Stories based on little more than those leaks have been part of the factual arsenal, and have been too big a part of our journalism.”

Forensic auditors’ reports have fulfilled a similar political function, he said. “Bringing in the forensic auditor to get the outcome that you want also became a tool against rival factions. And at least some audit firms would give you whatever outcome you set out to get.”

Sole and his colleagues at amaBhungane have long been wary of forensic reports, which often amount to investigative journalism minus the right of reply. “Audit firms will charge an arm and a leg for what we do at much reduced cost,” he said. “And so we became aware of the limitations of auditors: they wouldn’t interview anybody. If it wasn’t on paper, it sort of didn’t exist. And if the audit firm doesn’t give the required outcome, then the report is often just hidden and binned. If it does give the right outcome, then it’s leaked.”

I was editor of the Lifestyle magazine at the Sunday Times at the time of the Sars rogue unit story and attended the weekly news diary meetings. When I asked a few sceptical questions about the supposed rogue unit, I was told: “Look, it’s all in a KPMG report,” as though that were proof of its truthfulness.

One of the many casualties of state capture has been the credibility enjoyed by professional legal, auditing and consulting firms operating in South Africa. KPMG, Bain & Company, McKinsey & Company and several other smaller firms have been exposed as corruptible.

The Financial Mail’s Mantshantsha says it’s about time such mercenary authorities fell from grace. “If trust in institutions and professions like the auditing, law and consulting firms has been dented, that is healthy for society,” Mantshantsha said. “No one should just take anyone’s word like that.”

Sikonathi Mantshantsha: “Media is a social good that needs to rely on the profit-making parts of society.”

AmaBhungane has been notably successful in avoiding entrapment by factional players. Reading their long, complicated reports, you may not be too sure what actually happened, but you can be pretty confident that it did happen.

That rigour is built on a sustained focus on their core beat. Sole said the amaBhungane team periodically draw a Venn diagram on a whiteboard, with three overlapping circles marked “business”, “politics” and “crime”. “And where they all intersect in the middle, that’s our key priority. The Guptas were always right there in the middle,” said Sole.

“So we’re constantly scanning what’s going on in that area, and building up a database of information — mostly just public-source information, but also tip-offs and source interviews. When things come along, we usually have quite a reasonable context for asking: ‘What’s going on here? Is what we’re being sold the real story, or is the real story more complicated?’”

The fact that the Sunday Times team on Sars stuck to their story despite contradictory evidence was a textbook failure of introspection, said Sole. For every human being, confirmation bias is ever-present, so it must be constantly and coldly tested. “For narrative purposes, we want angels and devils, heroes and villains. And, very often, reality is more complicated than that,” he said.

Part of the problem is that many of the people drawn to investigative journalism are stubborn, obsessive types, who back themselves unless those around them enforce some circumspection and reflection.

The M&G’s Jika said his job is one long turmoil of doubt. “It’s emotionally draining, I can tell you that. You are constantly thinking and overthinking, ‘Fuck, what is behind what this person is telling us?’ And whatever you write, the subjects of your story are going to come at you — try and make you look like a lumpen who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said Jika. “People deny stuff that they obviously did, and then you start doubting what you’ve written. [You ask yourself] Damn it, did I miss something? Then you look at the evidence again and you reassure yourself that the story is accurate.”

And if it isn’t? You stop writing and reassess.

It should have been possible, said Sole, to shift the Sunday Times position on the Sars battle to a neutral one as soon as the story’s messiness became clear. “You can start off with a view, but if you follow the story over a while, and your picture changes, you can amend your view. You can add nuance. But they really doubled down.”

It takes considerable storytelling skill to turn a messy story into a sexy story when you don’t have a clean story — as amaBhungane can attest. “You talk about a puzzle, or a riddle, or whatever,” said Sole. “ ‘Mystery surrounds …’ I mean, people are quite rude about ‘mystery surrounds’ in a story, but quite often mystery does surround a story.”

And, on deadline day, the pressure is on to produce a good story. In the absence of cool heads on the news desk and in the editor’s office panic, adrenaline and bravado can kick in. For example, the rogue unit brothel story — the most flagrant lie in the narrative — was first pitched at the Sunday Times’s Saturday editorial meeting. They had only a few hours to interrogate it before going to press on Saturday night. The pressure was particularly intense; there was no rival “splash contender” (a strong enough story to publish as the page one lead).

The obvious way to prevent such a scenario is to keep aside a selection of durable splash stories for a rainy Saturday. But Sole and most senior journalists will tell you that’s impossible in real life, because understaffed newsrooms are having to extract more from their reporters, particularly their top reporters, than they should be.

News prioritisation is an urgent debate across the world of journalism, said Sole. He cited a recent comment published by The New Yorker magazine on Twitter, claiming that if all the papers boycotted the White House press briefings, it would amount to a collective abdication of journalistic responsibility. Said Sole: “And somebody else countered, saying that’s bullshit. Those conferences are basically live press releases. You don’t have to be there. That’s not really your job, and holding those people to account doesn’t really depend on that process.”

It’s an established American model, Sole said, to make your access to powerful figures the engine of your reportage. “But when the balance of power shifts between you and the source, then you’re in dangerous territory — because sources always want to determine what the story looks like, or sounds like. And that’s not their role.”

One journalist who got the Sars/state capture story right was Songezo Zibi, now the head of communications at Absa. He was editor of Business Day at the time and avoided the traps that caught the Sunday Times in part because he isn’t, he says, really a journalist. He studied corporate communication at the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University) before becoming a spokesperson for energy and mining companies such as Xstrata.

After a year-long stint as Senior Associate Editor at the Financial Mail, he was asked to apply for the Business Day editorship by Peter Bruce, who was bowing out.

Zibi’s chief asset was his deep knowledge of business and legislation and how they interact. “I had worked extensively in policy matters, and energy policy in particular. So when I took on the Eskom story, for example, I was absolutely confident of my position. But, because I hadn’t worked or been trained as a journalist, I was particularly worried about making a big mistake.”

Zibi immediately saw how and why mistakes were being made. (It was a bit galling to hear our collective failings being itemised by a communications person, someone who represents, in newsroom cosmology, a caste of evil and semiliterate sorcerers.)

“I had developed an understanding of how public and private institutions work,” said Zibi. “So I could pick up bullshit really quickly. And I picked up that most journalists really don’t know how those institutions work. Sometimes they stumble over definitions between a bailout and a guarantee, between unauthorised expenditure and corruption.”

It gets worse.

“People didn’t read much,” said Zibi. “They read other journalists, they read their own colleagues’ previous pieces on a story, but generally they didn’t read the source documents. And so somebody could offer an interpretation of a public document that is totally out of kilter with reality and the journalist would be none the wiser.

“And these two factors had a lot to do with how journalists became hoodwinked into supporting narratives that aided state capture. They simply did not have the skill and knowledge to work out what was bullshit and what wasn’t.”

Zibi’s first intervention was to insist that reporters read the primary texts.

“I always insisted on printing out the relevant legislation at the outset, before we started looking at the facts of the matter. That was frustrating for many of our staffers — though some of them, like Franny Rabkin [now news editor at the M&G], loved it. But sometimes people don’t see why they should do this. There was a lack of enthusiasm and patience for inquiry and developing a story until it was ready.”

To prevent rushed front-page news stories, he set a routine of developing cover stories well in advance for Monday editions. “After two days without announcements of any kind, the Sunday shift is torture. But we decided we would put that to an end. We would develop a story that we would then hold back and run on Monday. Sometimes we would work on one of those for three weeks to a month — it doesn’t matter.”

Zibi makes another damning observation about South African newsrooms.

He says the skills deficit is not about a shortage of business or law degrees. “I ascribe it to something more fundamental than that — a desire to inquire in the right way. And that’s something you can teach. The techniques do not require a degree. We brought Jenny Luesby, who used to work for the FT [Financial Times], and she spent three days taking about 10 guys in our newsroom on a course on how to analyse the financial statements of public sector entities. That’s why we were then able to take the lead on SAA, on Eskom.

“The newsroom battled for a bit for those three days, but we said: ‘It’s okay, we will be better off afterwards’. Carol Paton became the standout writer on SOEs.”

When the Sars rogue unit story began to burble with the Sikhakhane report, Zibi sent his team straight to the law.

“I assigned Franny Rabkin to look at an obscure legislative issue involved in the Strategic Intelligence Act, which most people didn’t deal with. Franny developed a very succinct understanding of how this law applies, before we did anything else. The core accusation was spying, so we first had to establish the legal definition of spying, and then move from there.

“In addition, we had to ask stupid questions — find customs investigators and tax investigators and ask them: ‘How do you do your job? How do you work out that somebody is a crook? How do you deal with organised crime? Do you guys carry guns?’ ”

That groundwork proved crucial to keeping the journalists out of the trap of false narratives.

“By the time we came to the KPMG report we had done all of that, so we could tell it was bullshit in many respects.”

Read part IV hereUncaptured — The money problem and the journalists who have ‘stopped looking’
This article has been amended to reflect an update from the writer.

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