The sad decline of the Sunday Times I
by The Editor
FEATURE: Over the past decade or so, the Sunday Times has suffered sustained damage to its reputation, as number of internal problems manifested in a series of external crises, most of which revolved around stories that were simply not up to scratch. In 2009, I wrote about two such examples, the first of which follows below. Essentially the newspaper served up a seven week old story as if it were breaking news, ignoring everything that had been said about it up to that point in doing so.
The sad decline of the Sunday Times I
This past weekend (14 June 2009) the Sunday Times ran a front page story about the manipulation of government tenders for personal gain by some 2 000 members of the public service. It was written by Wisani Wa Ka Ngobeni and based on a relatively old report from the office of the auditor-general.
The opening two paragraphs of the story read:
“South Africa’s civil servants have scored more than half-a-billion rand in government tenders, which were irregularly awarded to their spouses and relatives. An investigation by auditor-general Terence Nombembe into government officials who moonlight as business executives, found that more than 2 000 were involved in tender-rigging and corruption worth more than R610-million.”
The newspaper gave it the rather sensational headline: “You dirty, rotten SCOUNDRELS!”
The content of the A-G’s report is unquestionably newsworthy – 2 000 public servants, half-a-billion Rand, that is no trifling matter – and yet, on reading it thoroughly, something about the story seems out place; one need only read a bit further on to identify exactly what it is. It is the following sentence:
“The report was presented to parliament in April this year but was never formally discussed because parliament was winding up its business ahead of the general election.”
In an accompanying editorial, the paper pontificated:
“It is against the background of the government’s commitment to fighting corruption with renewed vigour that the Sunday Times today publishes a disturbing report by the auditor-general which reveals how corruption is rampant in almost all national and provincial government departments.
“The auditor-general’s report has gone almost unnoticed, tabled as it was when the previous administration was winding up its business. It is the first clear indication of the extent of the looting of state resources and the abuse of power by government employees.”
How could it be that a report this explosive, despite being tabled (and thus available to the public) in April, had slipped past the entire parliamentary press gallery unnoticed? Not to mention the attention of the various political parties represented in the National Assembly?
More to the point, if the report was tabled in Parliament in April, why is the Sunday Times only reporting on it now?
There are two possible explanations: first, the entire media contingent (including the Sunday Times) did indeed ‘overlook’ the report in April and the newspaper, being diligent and thorough, worked this out and, recognising its importance, ran it as a front page story this past weekend; Or, second, the report wasn’t overlooked, was indeed reported on, and the Sunday Times – unable to produce anything new or interesting – simply rehashed the whole thing (couched in the appropriate sensationalism), giving the impression they had stumbled onto something fresh and dramatic.
One would hope the former rather than the latter explanation held true but, unfortunately, that’s not the case: the report certainly did not go ‘almost unnoticed’ and the Sunday Times quite clearly deliberately manufactured the impression that it was breaking news, no doubt because it had nothing better to report on.
It is yet another indictment of a newspaper that has fallen far from the lofty perch it once occupied.
How the story was originally covered
On 6 May 2009 (over a month before the Sunday Times would publish its version), The Star newspaper ran a story titled: ‘Report exposes extent of dodgy state tenders’. The opening paragraph of which read as follows:
“Companies with links to government officials pocketed business worth nearly R600 million from the state in the past four years, the auditor-general has reported. The report says government employees at national and provincial departments were either directors or had relatives with direct interests, in firms that secured state contracts.”
In its entirety the Star’s story constitutes a solid overview of the A-G’s report and that newspaper, not the Sunday Times, was first to break the story.
(It is interesting to compare the nature of the two headlines: The Star’s – factual, accurate and devoid of sensation – and the Sunday Times – dramatic, sensational and, in and of itself, of little help in determining anything about the content of the story to which it refers.)
The two stories are remarkably similar, although the Sunday Times does go into more detail by fleshing out some particular examples. I am not suggesting the Sunday Times cribbed, only that there can be little doubt the story had been accurately reported on prior to the Sunday Times saying anything about it.
The Sowetan also reacted to the A-G’s report. In a story titled ‘‘Shady deals’ implicate top officials’, on 19 May 2009, it stated:
“Mpumalanga has been listed as the second most corrupt province – implicated in shady government tenders – after Limpopo. But the provincial government says the report, tabled in Parliament by Auditor-General Terence Nombembe, is “good” because it shows “that corruption is reported and that this will afford the province an opportunity to fight it”. According to the report, companies with links to the Mpumalanga government pocketed R115 million in business deals in the period between 2005 and 2007. This allegedly involved 573 government officials.”
The DA too, was also well aware of the A-G’s report, and its significance.
On 13 May, DA Chief Whip Ian Davidson put out a media statement to all media (including a substantial number of journalists at the Sunday Times) which focused, in large part, on the report, titled ‘Sexwale resignation: action needs to be taken on conflict of interest’. Among other things, it stated:
“In a report tabled two weeks ago, the Auditor-General found that some government employees had made misrepresentations in tender documentation by not declaring their connections to companies making tender bids.
“A total of 49 state employees were found to be directors or members of companies that did business with national departments. Only 4% of these employees had permission to do this. For the period between August 2007 and July 2008, a total amount of R35 million was paid to these companies. Public servants did not have permission to be directors or members of these tendering companies.”
SAPA wrote that statement up (which meant it would have received some radio airplay, certainly it was reported on Good Hope FM and Umhlobo Wenene) and the DA’s comment about the report featured prominently in it. That story, in turn, was carried in The Star and the Business Day, on 14 May.
Provincial versions of the A-G’s report, specific to a particular region, were tabled in a number of legislatures, notably Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Gauteng. In most of these cases, the DA responded regionally to the report as well and, as with its national response, those media releases would have been sent to a full media list, including the Sunday Times. In most cases, those statements were also carried in the media.
Desiree van der Walt, for example, the DA’s leader in Limpopo, responded to the A-G’s report in a media statement on 21 May, which was subsequently carried as a news story in the Sowetan on 22 May. The story was titled ‘DA says Limpopo must fight corruption’ and stated:
“The DA in Limpopo has called on the new provincial government to fight corruption in the civil service with as much determination as it intends to deliver services. DA provincial leader Desiree van der Walt said this yesterday after the Auditor-General’s report painted a bleak financial picture of the province. The damning report indicated that close to 1000 public servants had conducted business with the provincial government amounting to R269million.”
And the DA’s spokesperson on corruption in Gauteng – and member of that provincial legislature – Jack Bloom also reacted to the A-G’s report in a media statement (on 27 May), this time on the findings with regard to Gauteng:
“According to a report by the Auditor-General recently tabled in the Gauteng Legislature, R26 million was paid to companies that were linked to 193 employees in Gauteng Provincial Departments. This was for the two-year period from 1 April 2005 to 31 March 2007. R12.4 million was paid to employees doing business with their own department, R1.3 million to companies linked to employee’s spouses, and R12.5 million to employee-related companies doing business with other departments.”
In its story the Sunday Times went into some detail setting out the various provincial findings of the A-G’s report; yet it made no reference to any of these reactions or comments. And those reactions weren’t limited to the DA either. The Star’s original story carried comment from Public Service Commissioner Stan Sangweni, the Sowetan from the Auditor-General himself and a Mpumalanga government spokesperson; other regional papers (The Limpopo Informant, for example) also carried government reactions.
Why ignore the obvious?
All of these the Sunday Times chose to ignore. Why? Because if it included them in its story, it would have given the game away. Certainly it would have prevented the paper from running the report as a front page banner headline.
Instead it sought out new commentary, from people who had not yet been approached, reinforcing the perception that it was breaking news and the reaction to it.
This implication was not limited to the story itself, or the Sunday Times’ decision to feature it so prominently, but also to the way in which it presented the story on its website. As it so often does, when it runs a story based on a leaked document or report, the newspaper often invites readers to log onto the website and read the exclusive report for themselves. In this case the paper makes no claim that the documents are exclusive to it, but accompanying the story are the various A-G’s reports, reinforcing the perception that the Sunday Times, and the Sunday Times alone, had uncovered this issue. Every one of those reports are, of course, readily available on the auditor-general’s website, and have been for some time.
The decline of the Sunday Times is well documented. Its gradual fall from grace, as it has rejected some of the key tenets of professional journalism (accuracy, originality, objectivity and the public interest) for the warm and far less onerous embrace of tabloid reporting, is as sad as is it detrimental to South Africa’s fourth estate, which has long since suffered from a lack of real depth or quality.
Things came to a head in December last year when, after a series of fundamentally problematic stories promoted an internal review of its procedures, the paper was forced to admit its approach to reporting was seriously compromised by weak systems and poor editorial control. One of the problems cited, to quote its own story on the matter, was that “rewriting by senior editors was raised as a problem, with many expressing unhappiness with the process of rewriting a lead story into a ‘splash'”. This story might not have been rewritten, but it certainly misrepresented old news as a “splash”. In that sense, it would appear not much has changed.
What the Sunday Times did was misleading and inaccurate and constitutes poor journalism. Clearly, with no alternative (an indictment in and of itself), the newspaper made a conscious decision to publish an old story, to which there had been a substantial reaction, as new and, as yet, unreported. In doing so, it effectively misled the public, did not disclose all the relevant information and allowed its insatiable desire for sensationalism to trump sound journalism.
The only possible defence is that of ignorance – that it genuinely did stumble across the A-G’s report and, blissfully unaware of the extent to which it had been covered, gave the story the prominence it did. If that is the case, it is a sorry excuse indeed. A basic internet search quickly reveals how well the report was covered. And besides, following the news is a newspaper’s core business.
A better explanation, the one which explains most of the problems at the Sunday Times, is that the drive to sell more copies has steadily eroded the newspaper’s ability to properly distinguish good journalism from bad.
This article was first published on 18 June 2009
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