On Sunday August 24, the Sunday Times ran a headline story titled “Transnet sold our sea to foreigners”, which reported as fact that Transnet had sold “our sea to foreigners”, referring to the 90 square kilometres of sea and the 22km of coastline stretching from Table bay to Robben Island.
Transnet refuted these claims as absolute bollocks and reported the Sunday Times to the press ombudsman. This only one of a series of cases of reckless and irresponsible journalism by the Sunday Times. I am puzzled at the fact that its editor-in-chief, Mondli Makhanya, still has his job.
On September 7, the Sunday Timesretracted its sensational story and failed to apologise to Transnet and its readers. The statement read: “In reporting and editing the Transnet story, some of our established practices were not followed. We would like to reassure our readers that we are committed to improving our systems to validate the information we publish.”
Makhanya wrote in his column: “Cynics will snigger at this and say that we are just a tribe that rummages through closets and hangs around smoke-filled bars in search of the next sensational headline. They would say that ‘morality’ and ‘media’ cannot be used in the same sentence. We would obviously argue otherwise.”
Who are these “cynics” to whom Makhanya refers? Those who are cynical are the readers who have been loyal to the paper for a number of years; rather than “sniggling” at these unfortunate developments, they are in fact fuming at the constant and deliberate undermining of their intelligence and regard by the Sunday Times. Readers of the Sunday Times chose the newspaper expecting responsible journalism and a high degree of professionalism. The Sunday Times has failed its readers.
Makhaya went on to say: “In conducting our reporting, we journalists rely on public documents, secret documents, live sources and the public platforms where issues are discussed. Where the documentation is inadequate and the live sourcing is stronger, we do our utmost to verify and cross-verify our facts.”
If indeed the “facts” as reported on August 24 had been cross-verified, the Sunday Times would not have reported that it “has established that the meeting was convened after Transnet and Lexshell told parliament’s portfolio committee on environmental affairs and tourism that they have an agreement for the transfer of vast amounts of South Africa’s coast to foreign interests”.
The paper went on to claim: “In a letter to provincial legislatures, Transnet pleaded that it be granted exemption from the law to avoid ‘substantial financial prejudice’ that it would suffer if it failed to transfer the land to the Waterfront’s buyers.”
The paper quoted numerous sources, from the chairman of the NCOP’s committee on environmental affairs and tourism to faceless senior government officials, in an attempt to validate its reckless and sensational claims. Readers believe what the Sunday Times reports, informed by the knowledge that research is conducted and its reports are a reflection of the truth as it exists. It is a fair expectation by readers of investigative journalism.
If the Sunday Times had done as it claims with regard to verification of its sources, the story should not have been published. Often when the media have come under fire purely for reasons of their own recklessness, they have sought to blackmail critics by accusing them of encroaching on their press freedom. That all freedoms are not divorced from associated responsibilities is not a secret.
Journalism shapes public opinion; gutter journalism certainly distorts public opinion. Not only are the media influential to society, but they also can be used to churn propaganda to serve particular political or economic interests. Manufactured stories and fabricated news reported as fact are problematic in the current political climate, as they feed and reinforce particular political conspiracies and misconceptions.
The media served as cheerleaders during the two world wars, and recently during the invasion of Iraq. Certainly none of us desire of the media to become a political tool that serves one interest against another without unbiased presentation of the truth demanded by readers. The Sunday Times has failed hopelessly to find the middle ground and betrayed its obligation to tell the truth. The paper under Makhanya has lost its credibility, and it is time that readers become activists against gutter journalism and be vociferous in their disgust at the Sunday Times.