South Africa’s largest newspaper, The Sunday Times, has taken an extraordinary step of declaring a fleet of ‘investigative stories’ it published about eight years ago as misleading and inappropriate.
In an editorial published on Sunday, the Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko declared that a probe had revealed that the concerned stories were largely shaped by “a parallel political project aimed at undermining our democratic values and destroying state institutions and removing individuals who were seen as obstacles to this project.”
The concerned stories had to do with “allegations of police killings in Cato Manor in KwaZulu-Natal and the illegal deportation of Zimbabweans to face execution in their country – known as renditions.” The lapse in judgement also affected stories around the South African Revenue Services (SARS).
Siqoko wrote: “We admit that our stories may have been used for this (political project) purpose.”
“We got it wrong, and for that we apologise,” declared Siqoko.
Separate news reports have suggested that the Sunday Times has parted ways with prominent members of the investigative team who had a hand in the stories.
This is an extraordinary development in the world of journalism. Its a brave and rare acknowledgement that journalists are vulnerable to manipulation.
It throws out of the window the insistence that journalism is an objective affair. And this point cant be dismissed with a counter that the concerned lapses were a result of a few bad apples because this was an institutional failure. An attempt to want to pin it down to a couple of journalists doesn’t hold against full comprehension of how newsrooms work. A story is meant to be interrogated by an editorial collective from inception to angle positioning, sourcing, writing, and polishing. It goes through multilayered process of editorial checks and balances. A failure of the scale indicated in the latest Sunday Times mea culpa reflects deeply embedded weaknesses in the system.
And there is the fact that such a mea culpa almost collapses on itself, that is in its subjective righteousness. But then you can judge for yourself.
Here follows the Sunday Times “We got it wrong” editorial:
We got it wrong, and for that we apologise
By Bongani Siqoko
We have spent the past few weeks reflecting on our reporting of allegations of police killings in Cato Manor in KwaZulu-Natal and the illegal deportation of Zimbabweans to face execution in their country – known as renditions. These stories were written by a team of senior journalists and published in this newspaper in 2011.
As reporters and editors we have an ethical and journalistic duty to interrogate suspicions of abuse of power, accusations of wrongdoing, and any other incidents that are in the public interest. We did just that in these stories, basing our decision on news value, professional judgment and the public’s right to know.
We were in pursuit of nothing but the truth and we were not motivated by political, commercial or personal interests. We stood to gain nothing from reporting on these issues but merely fulfilled our constitutional obligation to inform you.
But we admit here today that something went wrong in the process of gathering the information and reporting the Cato Manor, Sars and Zimbabwean renditions stories. This is after we engaged constructively with all key parties involved in the stories.
What is clear is that we committed mistakes and allowed ourselves to be manipulated by those with ulterior motives.
I will first deal with our mistakes.
Take our headline on the first story about the Cato Manor unit as an example. It labelled the unit a death squad. We were not qualified to label it as such, and in our body of work we certainly presented the stories as allegations. Our headlines overstated the contents of the reports.
We had grounds to believe that the concerns raised by human rights activists and other sources that there were suspicious police killings in the area warranted investigation. Of the 45 deaths that occurred as a result of the actions of the Cato Manor unit, we considered 18 suspicious and we based our reporting on these.
But at the time of gathering the facts and reporting on these cases we were made aware that the courts had already ruled on at least six of the killings and found them to be justified. Even though we had this information, we failed to present it in a prominent way that would have resulted in a balanced and fair piece of journalism that reflected both sides. We have reported on the outcome of some of the killings, but the decisions regarding the rest are still pending.
We also created the impression that Gen Johan Booysen was operationally in charge of the unit and by association was directly and personally responsible for the killings. The unit was indeed under the ultimate command of Booysen, and we made this clear in our reports. However, the tenor of our reports suggested that there were no other commanders between him and the unit. We also never vigorously questioned the role and responsibility of the section and unit commanders who were operationally responsible for the unit.
Booysen has told us he was not directly involved in the operations of the Cato Manor unit. We have no reason not to accept his version. We should have made it clearer that he accepted responsibility for the unit in the capacity of provincial head.
While we were interrogating, investigating and reporting these stories, there was clearly a parallel political project aimed at undermining our democratic values and destroying state institutions, and removing individuals who were seen as obstacles to this project. We admit that our stories may have been used for this purpose. It is this project that also tarnished our reports on Sars.
There was ferocious infighting within state institutions, and warring factions were prepared to use state organs to settle scores. In the process, villains became heroes, and heroes fell as the tectonic loyalty plates shifted violently, as we have seen in the case of former Hawks head Anwa Dramat and Gen Shadrack Sibiya of the Gauteng Hawks, and Sars officials who became targets of this political project.
That we allowed our stories to be abused for this purpose, we apologise.
Were we aware of this parallel political project? The answer is no. But we should have joined the dots. We should have paused and asked more questions. This is our duty as journalists. Were we manipulated by our sources and some of those who were part of this parallel political project? Perhaps. Were we complicit in ensuring the achievement of their goal? No. But as a consequence, our stories might have given them grounds, reason and motive to achieve their objectives.
For that, we failed you. We failed SA. We deeply regret it.
This does not necessarily mean these forces could have been stopped had we not written these stories. Should we have ignored these stories upon uncovering a parallel political project? No. There was, and is, a middle path that we should have taken. We should have reported on these incidents but with caution and care, aware of the hidden hand, the manipulation and political machinations at play. We should have been more balanced in our reporting. We should have been fair and reflected all sides. We should have interrogated our sources more intensely.
As journalists we have our own verification tools and we should have used them better – after all, journalism is nothing more than the discipline of verification.
Had we been more rigorous in our approach, this could have at least changed the tenor of our articles, added a new dimension, provided us with a better perspective and helped us uncover this parallel political project. In that regard, again we failed you.
We failed you by inadvertently allowing sinister forces, who were hellbent on destroying our institutions, to abuse our trust and use some of our stories to carry out their objectives. We unintentionally tainted our stories by narrowly focusing our reportage on incidents without reflecting a broader picture of the factional battles and political wrangling behind the scenes, within the ANC, in the government, state institutions and law enforcement agencies.
That could have allowed us to report on these incidents while reflecting on the implications and political consequences of our reports. That could have allowed us to understand that the truth was a casualty between warring factions battling for political power.
As we said two years ago, our systems, structure and processes led to our failure and we have no excuse but to acknowledge that and apologise.
Having apologised for such failures, this does not necessarily mean we will in future not report any stories that are tainted by a parallel political project. We will continue to carry out our duty to investigate, report the abuse of power and hold the powerful to account. But we promise extra vigilance, honesty, caution and exercise of care.
If this means that we must bring in external expertise to look at how, in the face of such powerful manipulators and peddlers of fake news, to navigate such a terrain in pursuit of the truth, we will.
Our journalists worked very hard on these stories despite their shortcomings. They won awards in professional competitions that were adjudicated by leaders in the industry. However, on reflection and given the circumstances and the manner in which our reports became entangled in the parallel political project, I believe it is only just and fitting for us to humbly reconsider our decision to accept such prestigious awards.
We felt a sense of pride when accepting recognition from our peers, but accepting such accolades will be a negation of a higher journalistic ideal. It is for this reason that we will be returning all the awards and the prize money.