This Sunday past (27 January 2013), the Weekend Argus published as its front page lead the following story: "DA ‘took money from Guptas'".
The story appeared as follows:
[Note the single, inverted commas around the phrase: ‘took money from Guptas', I shall return to that later.]
In it, the following linchpin statement is presented as ‘news' by the journalist Warda Meyer, and forms the basis of the story:
"A well-placed source confirmed that Zille had gone to the Gupta's sprawling compound in Saxonwold, Johannesburg in 2011 to personally ask for a donation and had emerged with a "substantial" cheque. It is believed the Gupta's donation ran to several hundred thousand rands."
On the basis of that piece of ‘news' - presented as a Weekend Argus exclusive - the newspaper decided to run the story as a front-page lead.
It used Zille's principled objection to the New Age Business Briefing breakfasts (the New Age also being funded by the Guptas) as well as a response from Zille in which she refuses to reveal who the party's donors are, as context. But that statement constitutes the key piece of ‘new' information around which the article is constructed and, one presumes, on which basis it was deemed important enough to justify running the story as a banner headline.
The front page of a newspaper is dedicated to reporting the latest and most important news, and the front page lead epitomises that objective. Here then was the Weekend Argus's most important ‘news': the revelation that the DA received a donation directly from the Guptas.
As a consequence of that story, a significant public debate unfolded around the question of whether or not the DA had, in fact, received a donation from the Gupta family, online, in print and in other media.
Rehashing old news as new
You will be forgiven, however, if on reading the article you were struck by a sense ofdéjà vu. Was this really the sensational revelation the Weekend Argus was making it out to be? Had you not heard something similar before?
You would be right.
Now, compare that story, published by the Weekend Argus this past weekend, with these two stories, run by the Sunday Times on 5 March 2011 and Rapport, on 12 March 2011:
Sunday Times March 6 2011:
Rapport 13 March 2011:
The Sunday Times story, which is readily available online, was titled "Guptas gave to opposition too" and was also published on the front page, although not as the lead. It stated, among other things:
"Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement has confirmed it received donations from the Guptas, while there are suggestions that Helen Zille's Democratic Alliance might also have received donations from the wealthy family. The Sunday Times this week learnt that the Gupta brothers often bragged about their funding of both parties, saying it made it difficult for the opposition to publicly criticise them."
The Rapport story, published a week later and titled "Helen Zille kuier ook by die skatryk Guptas" - also featured on the front page and readily available online - reported the following:
"Zille het in Oktober saam met 'n motorbestuurder by die Guptas se luukse woning in die buurt Saxonwold in Johannesburg aangekom, maar alleen die huis binnegegaan, verneem Rapport se susterkoerant City Press uit die binnekringe."
[Translation: In October Zille travelled with a driver to the Guptas luxury home in the suburb of Saxonwold, in Johannesburg, but entered the house alone, Rapport's sister newspaper City Press has established from insiders.]
Both articles contain in them comment from the DA, which, in both instances, is the party's standard line on this issue: the DA does not reveal the names of its donors, for fear of reprisal, which would be to the detriment of opposition politics.
Separately and jointly, and whatever the integrity of their sources, those two stories made claim to establish the following news: The DA received a significant donation from the Gupta family; Helen Zille personally collected the donation; and she did so by visiting the Gupta's Saxonwold home.
That was the ‘news', as it was presented very prominently by two leading Sunday newspapers some 23 months ago (I believe City Press also carried the story).
As with the Weekend Argus report, the DA's position in response to those two stories generated a debate about political party funding at the time. All the relevant stakeholders made their points and defended their positions, the debate concluded and the media moved onto other things.
The problem with this kind of shoddy journalism
Now, it is not my intention to interrogate the ethics of the issue at hand here, as it so happens I am in complete agreement with the DA's position on party funding, rather the nature of Weekend Argus report and its consequences. And so my focus is exclusively on the nature of the journalism responsible for the Weekend Argus report.
Here we have a leading weekend newspaper in the Western Cape, reconstituting old stories as new and sensational, under the pretense that it is has recently discovered exclusive information from ‘a source'. It took a two-year-old issue and presented it to the South African public as if its contents were a ‘first-time reveal' and with the implicit suggestion the DA's position of non-disclosure (or Helen Zille's position, the media seems conveniently to switch between the individual and the institution as it sees fit) was merely a "defence" against allegations of hypocrisy with regards to the New Age Business Briefings when, in truth, its position on this matter predated the New Age scandal by some 23 months and, agree with it or not, has always been entirely consistent.
It is an example of disgraceful journalism.
The first and most obvious question that pops into one's mind is what was the "source" to which the Weekend Argus refers? Was it two newspaper stories from two years ago, available online at the click of a button? If so, I can think of a great many other "sources" for the Weekend Argus to print front page banner leads on the basis of. Did you know we landed a man on the moon in 1969? Check out the newspapers - or "sources" in Weekend Argus jargon - from the time. "Man lands on moon!" - How about that for a front page banner headline next week?
The cause of the Weekend Argus's problem is likely one of two possibilities:
First, either the journalist is profoundly ignorant, unaware that this very issue has been discussed in great detail already (those two stories generated much debate at the time); or, second, the journalist was entirely aware that the ‘news' she was ostensibly ‘breaking' was redundant and deliberately chose to misrepresent old news as new in an attempt to sensationalise the front page and, presumably, sell more newspapers.
And one cannot excuse the editor either; for both those possibilities apply absolutely to person responsible for approving that story and for placing it in a position of such prominence; perhaps even more so, for an editor is supposed to be the wise hand that guides content, not the gullible recipient of dated information.
Both explanations are equally plausible.
If the first explanation holds true, the problem is no doubt symptomatic of what has been called the ‘juniorisation' of the newsroom: with a dearth of talent and a lack of adequate funding increasingly many newspapers are having to resort to inexperienced and under-qualified graduates who are no more in touch with current affairs, history and politics than an episode of the Kardashians. The most basic internet search would have turned up those two old stories and the most basic grasp of South African politics would have triggered an alarm on hearing such seemingly ‘new' information (the 2011 stories were carried in the run-up to an election and thus received far more attention than they might otherwise have generated).
If the second explanation holds true, the story is a consequence of the dire financial position the Independent Group finds itself in (the IG owns the Argus) and an uncertain future, where the desperate need to sell copy has usurped the requirements of good journalism. If this is the case, the Weekend Argus has a serious ethical case to answer.
One way or the other, such behaviour is a serious indictment of any newspaper.
The consequences of that story were significant. As a result of it, many other news outlets, journalists and political commentators (themselves often just as ignorant of the 2011 story) indulged in a new round of moral outrage. As the Argus successfully created the illusion it was breaking news, as opposed to merely rehashing it, that was enough for the Twittersphere and all the moral police that patrol it to break into yet another state of apoplexy (see Atul Gupta's Twitter account for numerous examples, he has helpfully retweeted - @atultna). Other newspapers soon jumped onto the bandwagon.
The New Age, which can hardly be called an objective media outlet from the get go, used the story to continue its feud with Zille. With a picture of the Weekend Argus headline, it ran a story titled "Zille caught out once again" on the following Monday (a headline, by the way, that the body of the story never explains - "caught out once again" - a slander never substantiated). The story stated:
"Political parties and analysts demanded she come clean over the funding of her party following a report in The Weekend Argus that Zille had visited the Gupta family at their home in Johannesburg where she was given money."
It then proceeded to quote ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman, about as unobjective a commentator as one can get (given how implicated his party is in the broader issue of the New Age Business Briefings and the accompanying national govenment funding), to slam Zille. The pot phoning the kettle to confirm the colour presented is black.
As the Weekend Argus had also framed its ‘news' against the backdrop of Zille's various protestations about that funding, it helped create the illusion too, that the DA's refusal to disclose constituted some kind of hypocritical connection with her criticism of the Guptas more generally, when the DA's position of funding predates and is entirely unrelated to the New Age Business Briefings, as the Sunday Times and Rapport story set out two years ago. Consider the caption accompanying the photo of Zille in the story:
"DA leader Helen Zille has been accused of a "serious case" of hypocrisy by gunning for the influential Gupta family this while she had gone cap in hand to the Guptas and had come away with "substantial" donations for her party."
So it didn't merely reanimate a debate two years dead, but one with a new, twisted moral impetus too.
Other news outlets also ran the story, online and in print, including The City Press (bizarre, given that it was actually responsible for breaking the original story). And, of course, the SABC, another unobjective player in this debate - it too took great pride in running the ‘breaking news'.
In short, South Africa engaged in the exact same debate it did two years ago and, no doubt, it will conclude in the exact same way. An exercise in Alzheimerist outrage.
I am sure there will be many who will argue, as a result of the Weekend Argus story, Helen Zille revealed more information about the matter and the public good was served. But that is to miss the point. If that was the objective of the newspaper story, it could easily have referenced the fact that its ‘news' was, actually, some two years old, instead of creating the impression it had only just discovered it yesterday, the product of clever reporting as opposed to sheer ignorance. I say could easily have, in truth it had an ethical obligation to do so.
Of course, if it had revealed it was merely rehashing old news in a new plea for transparency, there is no way the paper could or would have run the story on its front page, if at all. The news section, after all, is reserved for news; the opinion section for moral arguments. That would have meant less copy sold, as that was obviously a consideration in choosing such a weak story to lead with. No, it had to have it on the front page, so it had to over extend itself. One could perhaps make a case that the story, ‘it's been two years and we still don't know if the Guptas donated to the DA', might just qualify. But that would have set a precedent and the demands of fair and balanced journalism would have required the paper, likewise, to incorporate all the other funding questions, for the other parties, unanswered to date. Why is the ANC still silent on its funding from Muammar Gaddafi might be a good place to start.
Anyway you cut it, the Weekend Argus failed fundamentally in its duty to report the news accurately, when it ran that story.
Some further problems with the story
And that is before one turns their attention to the veracity of the story itself. Nevermind that it simply rehashes old news, it doesn't even do that properly. For starters, it relies on a single source. The golden rule of journalism being, always have a second source. That, however, was enough for it to run a headline that reads as though absolute truth, the devious use of inverted commas in order that the paper might argue it an opinion rather than a statement of fact. But, if it was merely the opinion of a single source, the paper had a duty to make that clear. Certainly to question its facts. At any rate, the source was wrong: the DA never received a donation from the Guptas, only an employee of theirs, in his or her personal capacity. So it was wrong on the facts too. Perhaps if the Weekend Argus journalist has been aware of 2011 stories, likewise wrong but at least with some circumstantial truth, it would have had a starting point from which to find out the full facts.
The story smuggles in other bits of deviousness. Aside from trying to suggest some moral equivalence between a private party donation and criticizing the gross public funding of the business briefings (quoting government sources as expressing "shock" at the hypocrisy), it suggests the Guptas are of the same ilk as Jurgen Harksen. Say what you want about their dubious ethics, they are not wanted felons in another country. This is the reporting of an unobjective or unprofessional journalist, take your pick. And the resultant story, a farce.
Old, wrong and profoundly unprofessional. The Weekend Argus story represents everything that is bad about South African journalism at the moment.
Some questions for the Weekend Argus
So, what of it?
Well this is the key question. The fourth estate is currently under intense scrutiny and, at every turn, its response (one I happen to agree with) is that self-regulation is best. So, what will its response be to the fact that it got this so completely wrong? Will other newspapers report on it critically? Will the Weekend Argus take action? Will the journalist or newspaper admit fault? Or will there just be silence, as is so often the case?
Self-regulation lives or dies by the extent to which it is practiced. Imagine for a moment that a political party had been caught out trying to rehash an old policy from another party. Do you think the media would keep quite about that? Not a chance, it would be all over it like a rash, demanding accountability and transparency. I wonder, will it apply the same standards here?
Will we see a front page apology? An admission that its story was no more than the rehashing of old news; that the DA's position on this donation precedes the New Age Business Briefings by some 23 months and has nothing to do with them; and that it got the facts wrong? Don't hold your breath.
South Africa lives, for all intents and purposes, in a vacuum, where nothing exists but the here and now. For all our talk of history, we seem to have little time for it. Pay a moments attention and you will surprised at how often ‘news' is little more than repetition. This problem is nothing new and not particular to the Weekend Argus. Here is a 2009 story I wrote about how the Sunday Times did the exact same thing.
As responsible citizens we each have a duty to understand and be involved in current affairs. That responsibility doubly applies to the media. With perspective comes great wisdom; with instant outrage, little more than ignorant moralising.
Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols) - Winner: Best Political Blog 2012 - where this article first appeared.
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