Guy Berger
Guy Berger

For the Sunday Times, transparency should be the new credibility

Before the dust settles on the suppressed report on problems at the Sunday Times, it’s worth weighing in about the wider significance of the saga.

Because as the particles do come down to rest, they are covering up some real and possibly endemic problems in this iconic publication’s style of newspapering.

The report at stake was completed in December 2008, with its authors calling for open debate on their recommendations, as well as a structured review of their implementation. In their cover letter, the team also urged that “this document be released to the public in full as quickly as possible”.

You can’t get a more authoritative quartet to assess the Sunday Times than Paula Fray, Anton Harber, Franz Kruger and Dario Milo. Nor would you likely find one that was more sympathetic — even to the extent that their report claims “the newspaper has a rich and proud history, and can be justifiably proud of the contribution it has made to South Africa’s media and public life, and indeed its democracy”.

Excuse us while we conveniently forget that it was the Sunday Express, and certainly not the Sunday Times, that performed honourably under apartheid. Instead, the Sunday Times crowed over the “Guns of Gaborone” massacre of exiles and children in Botswana, and gleefully trumpeted “Our man in Moscow” (with regard to apartheid assassin Craig Williamson).

Nevertheless, because the four reviewers recruited by the Sunday Times wished only the best for the paper, they produced a sincere — and hard-hitting — document that’s well worth reading.

Yet, their efforts were kept under wraps for two and a half years. Clearly, although it’s the Sunday Times leadership’s prerogative to do as they pleased, their choice was to hide the dirty laundry, rather than reveal how they would deal with it.

Only dogged pushing by Daily Maverick contributor Michelle Solomon eventually, though albeit indirectly, led to the document coming into the public domain this month — via Business Day.

The Sunday Times has dismally failed to heed the lessons of the earlier case of the SABC’s foolish suppression of the Sisulu Commission report into news practice under Snuki Zikalala. That particular incident simply reinforced the perception that the broadcaster had something to hide … and inevitably the Sisulu report was leaked by the Mail & Guardian.

Because the Sunday Times remains schtum about the report, it’s hard to know from the outside what they thought of its critiques. One recommendation visibly implemented is that the paper now has a public editor — initially Thabo Leshilo, now Joe Latakgomo (both respected journalists).

But what the report actually fingered was something much more serious, and we don’t know the outcomes here. The indictment in the report was about internal manipulation of stories with “sexing” up content in a cavalier manner. Added to this were: confused responsibilities, top-heavy leadership and a clique character, and a botched workflow.

Also identified in the report was atrocious internal communication at the paper — a common irony in many mass communication businesses. Then there were also major problems that were pinpointed in regard to anonymous sources, as well as a dodgy approach to publishing corrections.

All these assessments of the Sunday Times’ news room were based on interviews with 80 staffers, and four detailed case studies of big-stories-gone-horribly-wrong at the paper. Although the report let the then-editor Mondli Makhanya off the hook, it is evident that it was in his power and responsibility to arrest the rot.

Did he do so before being moved upstairs at parent company, Avusa? The silence means that the public can’t tell one way or the other.

The cause of the rot, according to the report, is self-admitted arrogance and complacency. The report does not elaborate, but the reason is likely to be huge commercial success of the formula. Ethics and good practice took a distant second place, it seems, to the idea that sensationalisation and sales necessarily trumped all else.

This arrogance underpinned how senior staff decided in advance what the stories were about, and how they recklessly re-wrote them to fit the preconception.

Noted the report: “The comment of one junior reporter was typical: ‘We have to write stories to match headlines.’ Another said: ‘Editors often come out of conference with preconceived angles.’ ” The report concluded: “It is hard to dismiss the accumulation of examples, and to disregard their impact on credibility.”

On reading all this, I recalled a recent incident at the Mondi-Shanduka Newspaper Journalism Awards where the judges had to wrestle with the problem of a 2010 Sunday Times’ article about businessman Roux Shabangu’s dealings the police services.

That report said that the paper had seen a lease agreement co-signed by police chief Bheki Cele. But as it turned out, Cele had actually signed a memorandum authorising funding for the lease. When this fact was disclosed by the Public Protector, the Times simply editorialised that Cele’s signature had been on a “critical foundation document”.

The Mondi-Shanduka judges expressed reservations that the paper had not explicitly acknowledged that there had been an error in its initial report. True, this was a mistake that does not change the full gist of the story, but it does give cause to wonder what else could be being glossed over just because the leadership evidently don’t like to publish corrections.

This case is one reason why one might have hoped that the Sunday Times would have responded to Solomon’s quest with belated disclosure of the report, and — much more importantly — with information about the implementation (or not) of the document’s recommendations.

Instead, it was only after Business Day published, that the Sunday Times proffered an editorial comment — feebly asking the public to feel free to complain about any perceived problems. But current Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley provided no reassurance that such complaints would have any effect, and he gave away nothing about what is being done to pre-empt causes for complaint in the first place.

These two cases — the Cele mistake and Hartley’s editorial — don’t prove that the Sunday Times continues to contain corrupted journalism as the report originally highlighted. Nor do they mean that the paper is not to be trusted, let alone be subject to a statutory media tribunal or government advertising boycott.

But they certainly do make for concern.

Taking stock, the Sunday Times could do well to pick up on the academic concept of “paradigm repair”, which helps explain how the press typically attempts to deal with problems that tarnish its image.

One “repair” mechanism is scapegoating an easy culprit (as happened with former City Press editor Vusi Mona when political game-playing by journalists was prominent around the time of the Bulelani Ngcuka spy claims fiasco).

Another technique is to engage in symbolic (but not necessarily substantive) acts that suggest the problems were a temporary aberration — like commissioning a report by independent experts.

Nowadays, however, real repair of the journalistic paradigm requires something extra. It takes ongoing openness about the measures taken to ensure journalism lives up to its claims.

Only by leading in this, by freely disclosing its processes and its problems, and the steps taken to deal with them, can the Sunday Times stop giving ammunition to the enemies of journalism.

In the US, a current slogan is that “transparency is the new objectivity”. In our case, we need the newspaper to practice transparency as “the new credibility”.

*Disclosure: Michelle Solomon is registered at Rhodes University for an MA in the school where I am employed; I am convenor of the judging panel in the Mondi Shanduka awards.